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Going out with a whimper: Football season ends in familiar fashion

Cadie Pierce
Kent State sophomore quarterback Devin Kargman attempts a pass under pressure from Northern Illinois defensive end Ray Thomas during the Nov. 25, 2023 game.

The first season under coach Kenni Burns and the Kent GRIT mantra has ended mercifully Saturday after Kent State lost to Northern Illinois 37-27, sending the seniors off in the last game of the season.

The Flashes took a lead into halftime but were outscored 27-10 in the final half to seal their fate.

The team has scored 20 points or more three times this season but has only won one of those contests.

KSU dropped its ninth game in a row, ending the season with a 1-11 record. The last time a Kent State team had 11 losses was in 1998 when the team had a winless 0-11 season.

“Another tough loss, but I am really proud of our guys,” Burns said. “They fought till the end. We got close, but again, we didn’t do enough to win the game in the end. There were a lot of positive moments in that game that we can build off of moving into next year.”

Kent State’s 0-8 record against Mid-American conference competition and its 1-11 overall record keep the team in last place in the MAC.

Head Coach Kenni Burns leads the team to the tunnel before the Northern Illinois game on Nov. 25, 2023. (Cadie Pierce)

With back-to-back wins, Northern Illinois became bowl-eligible. The Huskies will make the postseason with a 6-6 overall record and a 5-3 conference record – good enough for second in the MAC West.

A common collapse

The Flashes stumbled out of the gate, as the first quarter was all NIU.

A 36-yard field goal by redshirt sophomore Kanon Woodill and a 24-yard touchdown run by junior Antario Brown put the Huskies up 10-0 before the second quarter began.

In the second frame, KSU not only cut the lead but also took it before the half ended.

Senior wide receiver Luke Floriea scored two touchdowns in the quarter.

The first was a nine-yard reception from sophomore quarterback Devin Kargman, and the other was a 13-yard rushing touchdown less than five minutes later.

Junior kicker Andrew Glass finished off the scoring with a 21-yard field goal with less than a minute to go in the quarter.

The Flashes went into the half with a 17-10 lead – the team had only scored 17 points or more five times, which is less than half of the games played this season.

NIU would go on to tie the game less than one minute into the second half.

Redshirt senior quarterback Rocky Lombardi threw his only touchdown of the day to junior wide receiver Grayson Barnes on a 16-yard strike, knotting the game at 17-17.

Glass knocked in another field goal, this one from 25 yards out, to give the Flashes the lead once again.

Lombardi capped off a 10-play, 73-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown rush to put the Huskies on top 24-20.

Kent State sophomore wide receiver Jameel Gardner Jr dances his way into the end zone during the Northern Illinois game on Nov. 25, 2023.

In the fourth quarter, KSU answered with a 50-yard touchdown pass from Kargman to sophomore wide receiver Jameel Gardner, Jr. 

Lombardi gave NIU the lead once again with his second one-yard touchdown run of the night, making the score 31-27.

In a fitting end to the season, Gardner Jr fumbled on the last play of the game, which was recovered by NIU redshirt freshman cornerback Jacob Finley and taken back for a touchdown, finalizing the 37-27 score.

Burns said that the game plan was for the offense and defense to play aggressively in its last game of the season.

“I just wanted to play aggressive all night – I said, ‘let’s go try to win the game. Don’t sit back and hope it comes to us,’” he said. “I want to be an attacking offense, special teams, and defense – everything. We wanted to really start to implement that this game, and I thought the guys did a pretty good job with it.”

Kargman started his first game for the Flashes this season.

The quarterback finished the contest going 16-28 for 245 passing yards, with two touchdowns and zero interceptions.

“Devin definitely did some really positive things, and today he definitely helped himself,” Burns said. “Hopefully, he can watch this tape and build off of what he did today and come into the spring ready to compete. But today, I am not worried about the quarterback competition. We’ll get to work on Monday and start building for next year.”

Kargman will be competing for the starting job in the spring with sophomore Thomas Ulatowski and redshirt junior Mike Alaimo, who are both slated to return to the team next season, barring a transfer.

Sophomore running back Gavin Garcia had most of the touches in the run game, something he has not done since the team played Miami University (OH) on Sept. 30.

Kent State senior wide receiver Luke Floreia goes up for the ball against Northern Illinois safety Jashon Prophete in the game on Nov. 25, 2023. (Cadie Pierce)

Garcia netted 84 total yards on 21 attempts, while redshirt senior Jaylen Thomas carried the football 10 times for 22 yards. The team finished with 121 rushing yards and one touchdown on the ground.

Burns gave props to the offensive line for the productive run game, who are one game removed from a 29-yard performance.

“I thought they played well,” he said. “Until the end, I thought they played a really solid game. They kept Devin upright, for the most part. They ran block really well – that’s what they do well. Three true freshmen were playing – the future looks really bright. That is the least of my concerns moving forward.”

The passing game was effective for the Flashes, with Gardner Jr, Floriea, and sophomore wide receiver Trell Harris giving hefty contributions.

Gardner Jr ended the day with 111 receiving yards and one touchdown on three catches, while Floriea caught nine balls for 83 yards and one touchdown, with 52 additional yards on three catches coming from Harris.

Defensively, graduate student safety Bryce Sheppert was the unit’s leader and ended the day with 10 total tackles and one pass breakup.

Although the Flashes bounced back in the run game, the Huskies doubled up the team in rushing yards, tallying 243 on the day, with Brown and redshirt junior Gavin Williams erupting for 192 rushing yards and a touchdown between the two.

This game marks the fifth time the defense has allowed 35 or more points this season.

Despite the defensive struggles, Burns is optimistic about the future because of the fresh faces that took the field.

“On defense, we had a lot of new faces playing,” he said. “Some guys went down again today, and we have to overcome it. They played hard, and they played sound, for the most part, but we let a couple of plays get out of hand. We have to play better on defense, for sure.”

Seniors Khali Saunders (right) and Luke Floreia reflect on the team’s loss in the final 2023 football game versus Northern Illinois on Nov. 25, 2023. (Cadie Pierce)

Burns also “saw a lot of guys grow up tonight, which was really good,” and highlighted Gardner Jr, Garcia, and the three true freshmen that played on the offensive line.

Gardner Jr and Garcia led the team in rushing and receiving yards, respectively.

“We had a lot of guys step up today,” he said. “Those guys are coming back – if they keep working hard and changing their best, they have a shot to be pretty special players someday.”

Looking ahead

A 1-11 record is not good enough for a MAC Championship berth, nor a bowl game, at that, so the 2023 Kent State football season has come to an end.

Burns will look to complete the rebuild next season, and the team will look to get back on track.

The team has had one winning season since 2013, not including the four-game COVID season, and has won one bowl game in that span despite appearing in three.

Offensive Coordinator Matt Johnson hugs senior running back Jalen Thomas following the loss to Northern Illinois on Nov. 25, 2023. (Cadie Pierce)

The Flashes have also had three seasons of 10 or more losses in that span, as well.

The program’s next step, according to Burns, is to “recruit, recruit, recruit.”

“That is going to be at the forefront of this program,” he said. “We’ve got to first recruit our roster, and make sure we get the right guys back and then build this team the right way. I am really proud of this team; I know the record is what it is, but I said a long time ago that I am throwing that out this year. I want to build the men, and then the rest will take care of itself. I truly believe that, and we are moving in the right direction.”

John Hilber is a reporter. Contact him at [email protected].

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About the Contributors
John Hilber, Reporter
John is a sophomore majoring in journalism with a minor in psychology. This is his second year with the KentWired team as a sports reporter. Contact him at [email protected].
Cadie Pierce, Photographer
Cadie Pierce (she/they) is a Senior Integrative Studies major and Photojournalism minor and staff photographer for KentWired/Kent Stater. Cadie can be reached at [email protected].

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