Kent State unable to win back Wagon Wheel in 24-14 loss to rival Akron

Kent State freshman quarterback Dustin Crum breaks a tackle among Akron’s defenders Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017.

Scott Lendak

The Kent State football team has had a disappointing year. There’s no denying that.

But when it comes to rivalries, you can’t throw records out the door.

And when it comes to rivalries, there may not be a better one in the Mid-American Conference than Akron and Kent State, who battled for the Wagon Wheel trophy Tuesday.

The Zips took advantage of soft pass coverage by the Flashes’ defense early, as  Akron quarterback Kato Nelson connected with tight end Kobie Booker for an early touchdown. The Zips went up, 10-0, after a 45-yard field goal. 

It looked like the rivalry game was going to be an uncompetitive blowout.

The Zips received the ball again, and on the first play Nelson threw an interception to Kent State senior cornerback Demetrius Monday. Monday — who has dealt with injuries all season — came up big once again for the Flashes, recording his 12th career interception.  

The Flashes managed to capitalize off the turnover and converted it into a touchdown. Sophomore running back Justin Rankin finished the drive off with an eight-yard touchdown run. The Flashes trailed, 10-7.

“I’m proud of the team the way they fought,” coach Paul Haynes said. “We just had to make a few more plays. But I’m proud of this team and this senior class for how they played.”

After Kent State forced the Zips to punt and took complete momentum, junior quarterback George Bollas threw an interception to give the ball back.

On second down, Nelson threw a deep pass down the right side of the field into the end zone. The referee reached in his pocket and threw a flag.

A laminated play sheet flew across the field, which drew another penalty on the Flashes. It was Haynes who lost the play sheet that soared about 30 yards into the end zone. He was screaming at the officials, as he didn’t agree with the pass interference call.

“It was one of those games that we weren’t getting the breaks or calls,” Haynes said. “Shoot, I freakin’ sit there and pound my fist and my damn play call sheet … it was a bad time to throw it down. It was so damn windy. That thing went flying and I got a penalty called on me.”

The Flashes had nine penalties on the game for a total of 84 yards, while the Zips had just five penalties for 20 yards.

Akron running back Manny Morgan ran the ball in for a touchdown from the 1-yard line a play later.

It appeared as though the half was going to end when the Flashes hustled to the line of scrimmage to get one more play off before the time expired. Bollas handed it off to freshman linebacker Kesean Gamble, and Akron stripped the ball away. It was recovered and returned for a touchdown by linebacker Ulysses Gilbert.

“Coach Bowden and I talked before the game,” Haynes said. “It always comes down to a couple plays. They made a couple good plays. Takeaways always kill you, and they got one right before the half that was huge for them.”

The Flashes trailed at halftime, 24-7.

In the second half, as Haynes has done most of the year, he turned to freshman quarterback Dustin Crum. On his second drive, he led Kent State 86 yards for a touchdown. 

“He does a good job of running the football,” Haynes said. “There are times when we have to get the ball out of his hands, but again he’s courage and a good young kid that’s going to get better.”

The Flashes outgained the Zips, 246-191.

The touchdown came off a trick play in which Rankin took a direct snap, faked a run to the right and tossed a touchdown pass to sophomore tight end Chalfonte Butler.

“We had a lot of self-inflicted wounds,” Haynes said. “We knew if we cut those down we’d have a chance to win. When we cut it to 24-14 we got a bunch of stops and had chances to capitalize.” 

Kent State played good defense in the second half, holding Akron scoreless. They limited Nelson to just 69 passing yards even with senior defensive tackle Jon Cunningham getting ejected earlier in the game.

“Our defensive line played great,” Haynes said. “When Jon (Cunningham) got thrown out of the game we were thin already. They did a good job of creating pass rush lanes. All of that goes hand in hand when you talk about the back end having good coverage.” 

The Flashes put up a good fight, but couldn’t erase the deficit in the second half. The Zips went on to win, 24-14. 

Kent State finished the season with just a 2-10 (1-7 MAC) record. Haynes reflected on the season.

“Not where you want to be win-wise,” Haynes said. “A lot of things go into that that we have to make sure to correct and fix and try to fix. You’re talking about Kent State, not Ohio State. It’s a program that will need some time to get back to being a good program.”

Scott Lendak is a sports reporter. Contact him at [email protected]