Wagon Wheel battle: Football goes for fourth-straight Akron victory

Jacob Hansen, Reporter

Kent State’s football team will have held the Wagon Wheel trophy for 1,106 days going into Saturday’s Dix Stadium battle with the school down the road.

“This one is important for all of northeast Ohio,” coach Sean Lewis said. “It is important for Kent, and we have to earn the right yet again to hang that wheel back in our locker room when this game is over.”

Kent State has won the past three matchups against Akron and is on a 11-game home winning streak.

The Flashes are 2-5 on the season and tied for fourth place in the Mid-American Conference at 1-2. KSU has lost its two most recent games.

The team fell to Toledo 52-31 last Saturday after leading 21-0 in the first quarter. The Rockets outscored Kent State 45-3 starting at 2:15 into the second quarter and on.

“I don’t let the situation and the record dictate who I am and who our club is,” Lewis said. “With the character of who we are and the way that we are going to lead, we’re going to change the energy and the environment. I’m not about being a thermometer, I want to be a thermostat.”

Akron is 1-6 on the year and 0-3 in MAC play. The team is coming off a 28-21 loss to Central Michigan.

The Zips are on a six-game losing streak – their only win was to a non-conference team in overtime.

Saturday, the two programs will compete for the annual Wagon Wheel trophy, which is a painted wagon wheel awarded to the winner of the rivalry game.

The trophy-sharing started in 1946 and became a tradition in 1992 when the two teams started to compete in the same conference. Akron joined the MAC in 1992.

When Kent State has seen success this year, it has come from its offense. The Flashes are the MAC’s second-best offense in total yards this year, averaging 430.9 yards per game.

Junior running back Marquez Cooper leads the run game. He is ranked 12th nationally with 708 rushing yards. He is averaging 101.1 rushing yards a game and rushed for 166 yards, and two touchdowns last game.

Cooper will face the MAC’s worst rushing defense Saturday. The Zips have been giving up 193.1 yards per game. Akron has surrendered a MAC-worst 20 rushing touchdowns.

Kent State leads the MAC in rushing with 205 yards per game. Redshirt junior quarterback Collin Schlee sits 14th in the MAC in rushing yards with 339.

“The standard and the expectation is that our guys are going to play relentlessly hard every single snap,” Lewis said. “The good players are the ones that consistently show up and consistently play at a high level.”

Redshirt junior wide receiver Dante Cephas is the star of the Flashes’ passing game. He is 10th in the nation in receiving yards and first in the MAC, totaling 687 yards and three touchdowns.

Fellow wide receiver redshirt sophomore Devontez Walker is the MAC’s fourth-leading receiver with 544 receiving yards and five touchdowns.

“Guys have to go make contested catches,” Lewis said. “You have to be consistent with your timing, and the location of the throws has to be on point.”

New-starter Schlee ranks sixth in the MAC in passing yards with 1,548 yards and has thrown eight touchdowns.

“He is a first year starter, so there is going to be some growing pains with it,” Lewis said. “He grows and gets better week in and week out. There are things that he continues to build upon, and there are things that he has to continue getting more and more pictures with so he knows exactly where the answers are.”

Akron’s defense sits just above Kent State in the MAC in passing defense. The Zips are eighth in the MAC, surrendering 271.7 passing yards a game on average.

Lewis sees this scheme as a threat.

“You’re going to see structure from them,” Lewis said. “Lots of different coverages, they want to come up and press you and challenge you on the edge.”

The Zips are second in the MAC in passing offense, averaging 272.6 yards per game.

Redshirt junior quarterback DJ Irons is the MAC’s second-best passer with 1,816 yards and seven touchdowns on the season. This is his first year starting.

Last year, Irons started in three games and saw action in eight. He transferred from Iowa Central Community College.

“They are playing it through their quarterback, who is doing a good job,” Lewis said. “You can tell that level of comfort with how they have thrown and how they have adapted to him and his skillset offensively. They are throwing it around the yard, and when that doesn’t work and things break down, he is able to extend it with his feet.”

Like Kent State, Akron has two efficient receivers.

Redshirt senior wide receiver Shocky Jacques-Louis is the MAC’s second-best receiver and is ranked 23rd in the nation with 579 receiving yards. Redshirt junior Daniel George is 12th in the MAC in receiving yards with 441.

Kent State’s passing defense sits just below Akron’s in the MAC as the ninth best. KSU gives up an average of 274.3 passing yards per game.

Akron is the worst in the MAC, averaging just 67.3 rushing yards a game. Ohio and Bowling Green are the next best with 112.9 yards per game.

The team is the third-worst rushing defense in the MAC, surrendering 175.1 rushing yards a game.

“They are throwing it a little bit more than they are running it,” Lewis said. “We have to be ready and willing to stop both because I know there is going to be some new things that come out this week that we haven’t seen because of the rivalry.”

Kickoff against the school down the road is noon at Dix Stadium.

Lewis said everyone should be excited.

“Anytime you get a chance to play in this ballgame and you can’t get up and get excited regardless of what the heck is going on, you need to check your pulse,” Lewis said. “I welcome this week, and we do something for this week every single day that we are in our organization.”

Jacob Hansen is a reporter. Contact him at [email protected]