The Other Side: Kent State

Kent State comes to Ohio Stadium for the third time on Saturday, so what can the Buckeyes expect from the team led by former OSU assistant Paul Haynes? We talked to a Kent State writer to find out.

Kent State enters Ohio Stadium at 0-2 both this season and in its history against Ohio State, but what is going on with the Golden Flashes and head coach Paul Haynes, a former OSU assistant? We asked Marla Ridenour of the Akron Beacon Journal to find out.

1. What were some of the issues that haunted Kent State in its early losses, including the home loss to South Alabama last week?
Kent State's biggest issue is it can't run the ball. In two games against Ohio and South Alabama, it has averaged 47.5 rushing yards per game, 120th out of 124 Division I schools. Senior tailback Trayion Durham, who led the team last season with 766 rushing yards and tied for the lead with six rushing touchdowns, remains sidelined after two offseason foot surgeries. Haynes attributes much of the problem to the offensive line. On Monday, sophomore left tackle Reno Reda said he believes the run blocking is improving. "It's more now a confidence thing now with some of the first-time starters," he said. "We're starting to get a little groove to us."

It may seem minor, but junior punter/kicker Anthony Melchiori is 0 for 2 in field-goal attempts and both have come at crucial times. In the 17-14 loss to Ohio, he missed a 20-yarder on fourth-and-goal from the Ohio 3 in the third quarter. Against South Alabama, he was wide left on a potential game-tying 32-yarder with eight minutes remaining after the Jaguars appeared to jump offside but were not penalized.

"He's as hard on himself as anyone," Haynes said. "You've got to calm him down just to sit there and focus on doing the things you've got to do. It's back to the fundamentals of kicking and not worried about what else is around you. He'll be fine. Like a guy in baseball going through a slump, you've got to keep swinging."

2. It looks like a pass-based offense starring QB Colin Reardon. What does the sophomore bring to the table?
Haynes believes the sophomore is trying to do too much. His passing efficiency of 121.32 ranks 79th in the nation. He's completed 47 of 81 for 477 yards with four touchdowns and one interception, that with 1:02 left against South Alabama.

"A lot of times it's mechanics, a lot of times it's trying to do too much," Haynes said Saturday. "When Colin is good, Colin is just running the offense, instead of sitting there thinking 'I've got to make plays.' Any time you get a player who thinks he has to make plays, nine times out of 10 he's going to screw it up."

3. Kent State's defense has allowed an average of 15.0 points per game in the last five games. What stands out about that group?
Haynes wants takeaways to be the defense's -- and the team's signature -- and the Golden Flashes came through against Ohio with four in the second half. Last week they got none.

The other part of the identity Haynes seeks is stopping the run and at that they've failed thus far. Kent State's foes are averaging 180.5 yards on the ground. Defensively, that ranks 92nd in the nation. "Under 100 yards is probably unrealistic in this day and age," Haynes said Monday. "We moved our mark up to 150 and the first two weeks we haven't accomplished that goal. It was 175 and 186."

KSU ranks fifth of 13 teams in the MAC in pass defense and held South Alabama to 30 yards in the second half.

Sophomore free safety Nate Holley is tied for the MAC lead with 27 tackles. Sophomore cornerback Najee Murray began his career at Ohio State, playing six games as a true freshman in 2012 before suffering a season-ending injury.

4. Paul Haynes hasn't been able to duplicate Darrell Hazell's success so far in Kent, but does it seem like there's still support for the Flashes alum?
Absolutely. Kent State has been forced to remake its offense and that will take time. Center Jason Bitsko died unexpectedly on Aug. 20. Another projected starter on the offensive line -- Anthony Pruitt -- is out with academic issues. Players had to be moved around up front and the line has yet to jell. Two talented tailbacks -- Julian Durden and Roman Clay -- were dismissed in the offseason. The absence of Durham has been key because he has the power to run over defenders.

5. The team had the unfortunate circumstance of having to deal with the preseason death of Bitsko. How has the Kent State community handled the loss?
Every week, Bitsko's name is mentioned. He seemed to be a teammate that others relied on in times of personal adversity. He was remembered as one who always had a smile on his face and had a knack for cracking a joke when times were tough. Senior wide receiver Chris Humphrey said when he goes onto the field for every game, he talks to Bitsko after he speaks to God.

Holley said on Sept. 1, "?For me personally, I don?t know if the words ?'move on'? are proper for it. You never really move on from something like that. It?s something you can?t let affect you. But Jason will always be with us, in our thoughts, our prayers. Every time we strap on the helmet we?'re going to think of 54."?

Haynes turned to family members, along with Jim Tressel and Tony Dungy, for instruction on how to cope. Team leaders insist it has brought them closer.

The tangible memory remains as well. The rock at the entrance to campus was painted with a yellow state of Ohio and a blue number 54 inside. In front is "Jason Bitsko, 1993-2014." On Twitter, he is remembered with #KSUJason54. The Golden Flashes wear Bitsko's number on their helmets. South Alabama players also had a '54' helmet decal last week.


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