Kent State nearly pulled off another fourth-quarter comeback victory against Ball State, but came up short on a goal-line stand and lost 27-24 Saturday at Scheumann Stadium in Muncie, Ind.
The Golden Flashes (2-5, 1-3 Mid-American Conference) held a 21-20 lead with seven-plus minutes remaining in the game and had a golden opportunity to put more distance between themselves and the Cardinals (6-1, 3-0 MAC) after cornerback Darius Polk returned an interception to Ball State’s 1-yard line.
But the Cardinals’ defense kept the Flashes out of the end zone on three consecutive rushing attempts. Kent State had to settle for a 21-yard field goal by Brad Miller, a redshirt freshman pressed into service after sophomore kicker and punter Anthony Melchiori suffered a hamstring injury in the second quarter while making a potential touchdown-saving tackle following a punt.
Facing only a four-point deficit, Cardinals senior quarterback Keith Wenning maneuvered Ball State down the field, capping the drive with a 7-yard scoring pass to receiver Willie Snead with 1:29 to go that proved to be payback for the Flashes’ similar game-winning drive last year in Kent.
“It’s a tough loss because you are right there against a very good football team on the road,” Kent State first-year coach Paul Haynes said. “A couple of plays here and there and it is a different outcome.”
While the Flashes still had time to rally for a win via a touchdown or at least force overtime with a game-tying field goal, the task became all the more daunting when freshman quarterback Colin Reardon also left the game, with an apparent left ankle injury following a handoff.
That left the burden on the shoulders of senior David Fisher, who went just 1-for-6 for an 18-yard gain before time expired.
“It’s never good to lose your starting quarterback,” said receiver Chris Humphrey, who caught a career-high nine passes for 106 yards. “You build a chemistry, and [Reardon] has been adapting really well as a freshman. … He knows the offense really well and that really hurt.”
Before leaving the game, Reardon completed 19-of-24 passes for 166 yards and two touchdown passes — a 14-yarder to senior Dri Archer in the third quarter followed by a 28-yarder to Humphrey in the fourth quarter.
It was Reardon’s improbable across-the-body touchdown toss to Humphrey with 9:22 left in the game that handed KSU its late one-point advantage. Reardon also ran for a career-high 71 yards on nine rushes.
But as good as the Reardon-led offense was in amassing the Flashes’ second-highest offensive output of the season by gaining 407 total yards, it was the play of Kent State’s defense that kept the high-powered Ball State offense grounded early.
With the aid of a season-high three turnovers, the Flashes’ defense held a Cardinals offense that had converted 94 percent of its red zone chances before the game to a 2-for-5 effort in the red zone Saturday. The unit also held the MAC’s second-best offense to 17 points below its season average.
“We knew Ball State had a great offense, so we tried to rise to the challenge in practice,” said Mark Fackler, the Flashes senior defensive end who tipped three passes at the line — including the one that led Polk’s late interception. “The coaches pushed us like crazy this week and we were prepared.”
Kent State got on the board first on running back Anthony Meray’s 10-yard touchdown run with 5:19 left in the first quarter.
In the meantime, the Flashes’ defense held the Cardinals scoreless in the first half until just less than two minutes before halftime.
That’s when Wenning hit his favorite target Snead for a 39-yard score that tied the game 7-7.
The teams battled back and forth down to the wire, with Wenning completing 23-of-46 passes for 305 yards and four scores. But he also doubled his interception total with the three picks on the day, after having thrown just three over the first six games of the season.
“Our defense played tough,” Haynes said. “They played physical, which is what we expect. That’s a high-powered offense and we made plays when we had to. We just didn’t at the end on fourth down. That’s the tough part of it. You play so well for so long and one play takes the wind out of the sail.”