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2014 Virginia Football Preview: Kent State

After dealing with the death of their starting center just days before the season began, Kent State has started their season off terribly. They are 0-3 and have one of the lowest ranked offenses in the nation. Their defense isn't much better. The Hoos, on the other hand, are 2-2 and have played better than most fans expected. A win here would eclipse last year's win total, with 7 games remaining.

Joe Robbins

Following the Hoos close call in Provo, they return home for their final out of conference matchup of the season. Coming to Scott Stadium are the Kent State Golden Flashes. Kent State football arguably has a worse history than UVA football, but they've had success more recently. In 2012, they won 11 games, reached as high as 17th in the BCS Standings and played in MAC Championship game. Following that, head coach Darrell Hazell left for Purdue, and the Kent State went back to being a doormat.

As football is concerned, Kent State is most famous for two of its alumni: Lou Holtz and Jack Lambert. Holtz, I'm sure everybody is aware of.  For anybody who doesn't know, Lambert is one of the best LBs to ever play the game. He's a HOFer who won 4 rings with the Steelers in the 70s. San Diego Chargers TE Antonio Gates is also a Kent State alumnus, but he only played basketball in college.

This year they are 0-3, having lost at home to South Alabama and Ohio. They also fell 66-0 to The Ohio State University. The Hoos, as we know are 2-2. A win this week surpasses the Hoos' win total from last year, and gets them halfway to bowl eligibility with 7 games remaining. A loss here would be somewhat humiliating and would all but seal Mike London's fate in Charlottesville.

Fans may remember that Kent State starting center, Jason Bitsko, was found dead in his dorm room just prior to the season. After going through something like that, a losing season may not seem quite that bad.

Kent State Offense

Players to Watch

#10 QB Colin Reardon - Pocket QB who lacks ideal height and bulk for the job. Reasonably athletic, will run, but not really a threat to go the distance. Kind of a weird throwing motion, almost like he's pushing the ball out there. Has completed 56% of his passes for 533 yards and 4 TDs against 4 INTs. Completed 58% last year for 1957 yards, 12 TDs and 9 INTs. Also rushed for 336 yards and 3.8 yards per carry.

#4 RB Nick Holley - Undersized RB with solid receiving skills. More quick than fast, lacks speed to really get outside and turn the corner. Runs with purpose, despite being only 5'10" and 190 pounds. Can be tough to bring down. Leading rusher this year with 87 yards on 25 carries. Also has 11 receptions for 74 yards. Dangerous on screens and flares, but will also run more developed routes. Twin brother Nate is a starting safety.

#7 TE Casey Pierce - Preseason Mackey Award Nominee. Originaly a walk-on. Might be the only player on this offense with an NFL future. Runs well for a TE, although a bit undersized. Decent blocker in space, but not a guy who will take on a DE one-on-one. Very good hands, runs good routes. Led team with 5 TDs last year. Tied for team lead this year with 128 yards receiving on 11 receptions.

#6 WR Chris Humphrey - Tall, lanky WR with good speed and quickness. Led team with 51 receptions for 613 yards last year. Third so far this year with 10 catches for 109 yards and a TD. Almost by default the top threat on the offense.

#19 WR Josh Boyle - Small, quick slot receiver. Good,  not great speed. Very good open field runner. Start/stop and change-of-direction abilities are both well above average. Dangerous on WR screens and similar routes. Will run a lot of drag routes from the slot.

#25 WR Ernest Calhoun - Probably the fastest guy on the team. Also, probably the smallest, at 5'6" and 151 pounds. Leads team with 15 catches for 128 yards on the year. Caught 8 passes for 42 yards last year in limited playing time. Primary KR and PR last year. Only returning KOs this year, as he's now a starting WR. Another former walk-on.

Offense Breakdown

Kent State's offense is...well...offensive. Sorry, that was way too easy a joke. But they aren't exactly lighting the world on fire. The Golden Flashes rank 123rd in total offense, 122nd in passing offense, 120th in rushing offense and 118th in passing efficiency. They are 124th in scoring offense, having scored just 9 points per game.

This is essentially a spread offense, with a lot of their offense coming out of the shotgun (they also use some Pistol). There will be some read-option, and Reardon will run, but he's not a great runner. Not like Brett Hundley or Taysom Hill were, anyway. He's more of a threat in the way Matt Johns is. If he gets out of the pocket, he's capable of picking up 8-10 yards, but he's not going to run 50 yards. Holley, similarly, isn't a threat to beat the Virginia defense for big chunks of yards, but he's capable of running between the tackles for 5 yards a pop. Kent State will also use their WRs in the running game from time to time, on end arounds and the like. This gets the ball into their speediest players hands without the danger of a pass play. The Hoos should be careful of overpusuit.

In the passing game, we're going to see a lot of short passes. The Richmond game plan is likely a good comparison for what the Hoos will see this week. A lot of short passes into the flats, WR screens, quick outs and hitches. I expect Pierce to be heavily involved, simply because he's the biggest threat on the team. The Hoos would be wise to find him on most plays. He could be dangerous on a seam pass if the Hoos give him a free release into the secondary. Along those lines, Holley is a very good receiver out of the backfield, and will be used on a variety of routes. They'll run screens, flares and similar routes. Knowing the Hoos propensity to send the LBs after the QB, Kent State may try to get Holley into the middle of the field, into space vacated by the LBs. This would use some sort of angle route or even a middle screen.

If Kent State is able to complete a lot of the short passes, they'll try to catch the Hoos napping with a deep ball here and there. Richmond was able to hit (or draw penalties) on a couple of deep balls. This would require keeping Reardon upright for at least a few seconds, which may be a tall order against this defense. Also, Reardon doesn't have the arm strength that Michael Strauss has.

Kent State's OL is young, with 3 sophomores and 2 freshmen (including one true freshman). Sadly, Bitsko was the only guy with any real playing experience, so his loss is painful on the field as well as emotionally. They are also on the small side, with only LG Wayne Scott topping 300 pounds. To put it mildly, the Golden Flashes will have trouble keeping the Hoos out of their backfield.

Their best weapon will be the quick passes I talked about above. The Hoos will likely give Kent State's WRs a bit of a cushion, allowing the quick passes, but then coming up to make the tackle. This will be a bit frustrating for fans to see, but Reardon will make mistakes and the Hoos will capitalize. That may be an interception on a poorly thrown ball, or it may be a big hit on the QB when he holds on to the ball too long.

Of course, I would prefer to see the Hoos play bump and run coverage, at least on the outside receivers. Kent State's WRs aren't good enough to really threaten the Hoos, and forcing Reardon to make more reads may lead to more mistakes. And if he can't get rid of the ball quickly, he'll have to sit in the pocket longer, which will give the pass rush more time to get to him.

Kent State's primary option is going to be that read option. The Hoos will likely use their nickel defense, which gets more speed on the field and allows for better backside pursuit. The Hoos will likely crash down on the RB, forcing Reardon to run the ball. He's a decent runner, but not the threat that they saw last week. Reardon also isn't as big as Hill is, and running the ball will force him to take some hits. I'm not suggesting the Hoos try to hurt anybody, but backup QB Nathan Strock is a redshirt freshman who has completed 1/7 passes in his career. Forcing him into the game will make the Golden Flashes' offense even weaker.

This may be the worst offense the Hoos see this year, including Richmond. Considering the Hoos forced 7 turnovers and held Richmond to just 13 points (7 of which came against second team defenders), it seems likely that the Hoos will have similar success this week.

Kent State Defense

Players To Watch

#69 DE Nate Terhune - Undersized for a 3-4 DE and can be pushed around. Quick, moves well in space. Not a great player at the point of attack, but quick enough to chase down a play from the backside. Will get upfield quickly, but isn't going to be able to turn the corner on a decent OT. Can get upfield too quickly and be beaten by a run play behind him. Finished 2nd on the team in TFLs last year despite missing 3 games.

#34 DE Richard Gray - Good strength, but undersized as a DE. Pretty good at the point of attack, but gives up far too much size to most OTs. Good against the run, as long as he doesn't get pushed back to far. Can get too close to bigger OTs and struggles to disengage. Good pass rusher, uses his quickness and burst to get by bigger OLs. Missed last season, but had 4.5 sacks and 8.5 TFLs as a sophomore in 2012, on a much better defense.

#32 Matt Dellinger - Runs well for an ILB. Can go to both sidelines. Plays well against both the run and the pass. Small for a 3-4 ILB, can be blocked. Good tackler, but gives up size to many RBs and can be run over. Second on the team in tackles last year with 77. Third this year with 21.

#18 Nick Holley - Twin brother of RB Nate Holley. Former walk-on, only received offer because his brother was being recruited. Leads team with 41 tackles this year (18 higher than anybody else). Similar to his brother (obviously), only bigger. Runs decently, but isn't truly "fast". Plays downhill, goes hard after the ball. Not a man-to-man cover guy, but solid in a cover-2. Will deliver a big hit on a WR if he gets the chance, but not generally known as a big hitter.

#23 Jordan Italiano - Solid, ball-hawking safety. Runs very well, but is a big undersized. Finished third on team in tackles last year, with 76. Second this year, with 23.

#2 Malcolm Pannell -

Defense Breakdown

The Golden Flashes defense is better than their offense. I can say that with confidence. I wouldn't say they were good, however. After all, through 3 games, they are 109th in the nation in total defense, 104th in rushing defense, 122nd in passing efficiency defense and 104th in scoring defense. They are also 107th in 3rd down defense and 95th in red zone defense. On the other hand, they've recovered 6 fumbles already this season. This is a concern for a Wahoo offense that turns the ball over far too much.

The playmakers on this defense are all in the secondary. Both Holley and Italiano will come up aggressively against the run, especially anything run on the edges. The Hoos have such a big size advantage along the line that they should have success running up the middle. And, of course, pulling the two safeties closer to the line should open up some deep passing options.

Kent St also has smaller DBs, and could be susceptible to the jump balls that the Hoos have used this season. These types of passes would pair well with some WR screens as well as double moves. Kent State's pass rush hasn't looked very dangerous this year (just 2 sacks), so the Hoos QBs should have ample time in the pocket. Kent State's defense is designed to keep things in front of them. They aren't going to give up a lot of long passes, but 12-15 yard routes may be there all game. And, of course, if the running game is as successful as I think it'll be, that may open up a chance for a deep completion over the Cover-4. A deep post or something may work, because Italiano and Holley be coming up to help against the run. The speed that Darius Jennings only needs the safeties to take a step in the wrong direction before he's past them and off to the races.

This is the week for the Hoos to go directly at this defense. There doesn't need to be a lot of trickery or misdirection. The Hoos are bigger, faster, and more talented all over the place. They should be able to line up and do what they want more often than not. This doesn't mean they can't use some misdirection plays, it just means they may not be necessary.

If Greyson Lambert isn't 100%, then Matt Johns may get the start, but I expect to see both QBs. (Ed note: It sounds like Lambert won't play if he's not 100%, which probably means he won't play.) I expect both QBs to run the same game plan, mixing up power runs with play action passes and WR screens. Those WR screens may be successful because Wahoo WRs have big size advantages on their counterparts and should be able to hold blocks pretty well. Also, a guy like Darius Jennings has a quickness advantage on most of Kent State's defense. Smoke could also be used on similar plays.

I expect the Hoos to use a fairly vanilla game plan. The goal here is to score points, keep the defense fresh and get out of the game with a win and no major injuries. Running the ball with Kevin Parks, Khalek Shepherd and TiQuan Mizzell should be the focus, and each will likely get a good number of carries. We may even see Daniel Hamm get some touches later in the game if it gets out of hand.

Game Breakdown

This Kent State is not good. They weren't expected to be good, and they've been worse than expected. They are very young, so they may not be quite as bad as the numbers show, as they will likely get better as the season goes on. That said, they aren't talented enough to beat the Hoos, not at Scott Stadium. Ohio State beat them 66-0 and Ohio State hasn't been great this year (as evidenced by their loss to the Hokies).

I don't think the Hoos will win 66-0, partially because the Hoos will take their foot off the gas long before it gets to that point. I do think the Wahoo defense may pitch a shutout, however.

Prediction: Hoos 44, Golden Flashes 0