KENT: Early in Saturday’s game at Dix Stadium, it was hard to tell which was the rebuilding one-win team and which one was seeking its seventh consecutive win in order to pad its resume and earn its first bowl game since 1973.
Visiting Akron (1-9, 0-6 Mid-American Conference) set the tone early and went ahead of rival Kent State (8-1, 5-0) by two touchdowns in the first quarter.
But a series of things happened to allow the Golden Flashes to rebound for a 35-24 victory that keeps the coveted Wagon Wheel in Kent for a third consecutive season.
KSU’s offense shook off an early missed field goal and a slow start by its offense and finally got its running game on track in the second quarter. And after playing sluggishly and tentatively in the first half, the Flashes’ defense got more aggressive in the second half and completely shifted the momentum.
“Our defense couldn’t get off the field in the first half,” KSU coach Darrell Hazell said. “But at halftime we did a great job of changing some things up, challenging the receivers and changing the scheme to hold them [scoreless] in the second half. That was all huge for our momentum offensively, as well.”
Before the Flashes’ defense found its footing, quarterback Dalton Williams and running back Jawon Chisholm made play after play in the Zips’ spread offense that often utilized a hurry-up attack.
Receiver Jerrod Dillard capped the Zips’ opening drive with a 13-yard pass from Williams for a touchdown. Dillard added a 21-yard touchdown reception on a pass from Williams a little more than six minutes later to make it 14-0.
After trying to catch Akron off guard by throwing early in the game, the Flashes went back to their strength and ran the ball in the second quarter.
Four minutes into the second quarter, Trayion Durham scored the first of his three touchdowns on a 1-yard plunge to make it 14-7. Durham finished with 107 yards on 24 carries.
But Akron answered with a 50-yard touchdown run by Chisholm, who finished the game with 16 carries for 117 yards.
The Flashes cut the deficit to 21-14 when quarterback Spencer Keith scored on a 4-yard run with 3:19 to go in the first half.
The Zips extended their lead to 24-14 on a 32-yard field goal by Robert Stein as time expired in the first half.
For all its problems in the first half, the KSU defense came out fired up in the second half, and soon created the first turnover of the game. That completely flipped the game’s momentum. After forcing the Zips to punt, KSU drove and cut the lead to 24-21 on a 6-yard touchdown run by Durham.
On UA’s next possession, tackle Roosevelt Nix forced a Chisholm fumble that linebacker Luke Batton recovered.
“What I said to the team [at halftime] was this is what championship runs are all about,” Hazell said. “The mark of this team will be determined in the next 30 minutes.”
It was. It took the Flashes just three plays to go 41 yards after the turnover. Dri Archer scored on 30-yard run on a reverse. Left guard Brian Winters delivered a key block after Archer took a pitch from Durham.
“We didn’t turn it over in the first half and we had a chance to win,” Akron coach Terry Bowden said. “But as soon as the second half came, boom, we turn it over at midfield and they score off it.”
Archer’s touchdown, his 16th of the season and the most by a Kent State player since Eugene Baker’s 18 in 1997, put the Flashes ahead 28-24 with 6:13 left in the third quarter. Archer finished with 126 yards on 11 carries.
“[Archer] is who kept them in the game until [Durham] got outside on some big gains and their defense started to adjust to some of our routes and shut us down,” Bowden said. “[Archer] was the difference. We didn’t have an answer for him.”
Akron had a final chance to claim a come-from-behind win, trailing by four and starting a drive at the 26 with 4:21 left while holding three timeouts. But Batton batted down a Williams pass on third-and-2. And when the Zips went for it on fourth down, a run was stuffed by defensive end Jake Dooley.
“We stepped back [at halftime] and took a breather,” Dooley said. “We took it on ourselves and said they can’t score on us in the second half.”
With the Flashes needing only to run out the final minutes on the clock, Durham did that and more with a 15-yard touchdown run that sealed the victory for KSU.
“We asked them to give everything they’ve got to be mentally and physically prepared to play the best ball game of their life — and they did just that,” Bowden said of the Zips. “And like so many times this year, it gave out at some point. We just didn’t have enough guns.
“When Kent State got behind, they still kept their composure. They made great adjustments at halftime and hung on through the way we were playing so well early and then took control in the second half. They deserved the Wagon Wheel.”
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://www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.