MOBILE, ALABAMA: The third time did not prove to be a charm for Kent State.
Playing in their first bowl game in 40 years, the Golden Flashes failed to snap the school’s winless bowl streak despite coming close in a much-anticipated third try - a 17-13 defeat by Arkansas State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl late Sunday.
Not with All-American Dri Archer standing on the sideline on the Flashes final drive, watching dejectedly with a white towel draped over his head and helmet in hand after suffering an early knee injury that began to tighten up as the game went on.
“I hurt it when I landed on the ground in the second quarter,” Archer said. “I kept trying to go, but I was hopping around. I knew I was hurting the team when I was in there…(The final drive) was tough. I had my head down the majority of the time. I wanted to be out there with my guys.”
Before being hobbled, Archer scored Kent State’s lone touchdown via a 16-yard reverse with 12:10 to go in the second quarter.
But the Flashes never found the endzone again, settling for a pair of Freddy Cortez field goals before being shut out in the all-important fourth quarter. The Flashes had their chances, but failed to make a clutch play on either side of the ball when they needed it the most.
Defensively, the game marked the first of the season that the aggressive and usually-opportunistic unit didn’t force a turnover. On offense, receiver Chris Humphry dropped a long, late fourth-quarter pass right near the endzone. A later in the drive, quarterback Spencer Keith fell three yards short on a desperation scramble for a first down.
“It was a disappointing ending for us,” Darrell Hazell said in his final game as KSU’s head coach. “Obviously we didn’t do enough in the red zone and we had to settle for some field goals.”
In the first half, both offenses needed a quarter to feel each other out a bit. On Kent State’s first possession of game, the offense quickly drove down to the 1-yard line but came away without points after back-to-back handoffs to fullback Trayion Durham went nowhere and Keith was intercepted in the endzone when a pass bounced off the arm of tight end Tim Erjavec.
But on the Flashes first possession of the second quarter, Archer made sure they found pay dirt. On the first play he spun and ducked away from a handful of would-be tacklers en route to a 44-yard gain. Three plays later, a reverse gave Archer some space on the outside for the 16-yard score that put Kent State on the board first.
The touchdown was Archer’s 23rd of the year and his 16th on the ground. However, on the play receiver Matt Hurdle was flagged for two personal fouls that resulted in a 30-yard penatly and forced Cortez to have kickoff from the 10-yard line.
Arkansas State couldn’t get anything despite good field position, but on the next possession, running back David Oku’s 10-yard rushing touchdown tied the score 7-7 with 5:40 left in the half.
The drive would spark ASU’s offense. Before it, the Flashes defense had held the Red Wolves to just 37 yards of offense before the scoring drive covered 60 yards in just nine plays.
As the clock wound down during the final few minutes of the second quarter, ASU began to employ KSU’s Achilles Heel – a hurry-up offense. Soon, the Flashes pass rushers were gassed and the defense was called for an illegal substitution when a player was slow to get off the field between plays.
“I thought Arkansas State did an excellent job keeping us off balance with their hurry-up,” Hazell said.
With the KSU defenders on their heels, quarterback Ryan Aplin led the Red Wolves on a nine-play, 88-yard drive capped by a 31-yard touchdown pass to receiver J.D. Mc
Kissic with 1:13 left before halftime.
Aplin, the defending, two-time Sun Belt Conference MVP, garnered game MVP honors by completing 21-for-30 passes for 213 yards a touchdown. Keith finished 17-for-33 with an interception. I thought I probably should have changed the snap count a little more just to catch them off guard.”
Still, the Flashes responded with a scoring drive of their own – albeit one for only three points - as Keith scrambled to avoid back-to-back sacks on second and third downs. That gave Cortez a chance at a 42-yard field goal with 24 seconds before the half, the boot cutting the Red Wolves lead to 14-10.
The Red Wolves switch to a hurry up offense in the second quarter paid huge dividends, as they accumulated 148 of its 178 first-half yards on their last two drives.
But even with a little time at halftime to catch their breath and regaroup, Kent State stumbled out of the gate in the third quarter. Keith was sacked on the first play of the second half as the Red Wolves continued to blitz.
“They didn’t really do anything different than what we saw in film,” Keith said. “They blitzed a little bit more than expected, but that’s part of it.”
Soon, the breaks weren’t going the Flashes way either. First, Arkansas State recoverd its own muffed punt and retiurned the ball to miudfield. Then on its next possession, a controversial pass interference call on defensive back Darius Polk helped the Red Wolves push their lead back to seven points following a 25-yard field goal with 8:35 left in the quarter.
A heavy does of Durham late in the third quarter had the Flashes knocking on the door of a score while sitting on the 6-yard line on second down.
But a Keith pass fell short and even a backwards diving attempt by Archer to save couldn’t keep it from hitting the ground and forcing the Flashes to settle for another Cortez field goal. The 22-yarder pulled KSU to within four points, but they couldn’t make the clutch plays in the fourth quarter to bridge the gap.
“It’s a huge difference when you don’t have the fastest player on the field,” Keith said of not having Archer on the final drive. “It makes it a little bit tougher without him, but our guys fought through it. We put a good drive down at the end, but we just couldn’t finish it off. We executed plays well until the last fourth down.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Kent State blog at http://www.ohio.com/flashes. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.