Kent State falls to Akron in final minutes

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Junior quarterback Nick Holley is tackled by Akron linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III during the second half of the Battle of Wagon Wheel on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016 at Dix Stadium. Kent State lost to Akron, 31-27.

Henry Palattella

Akron @ Kent State Highlights from KentWired.com on Vimeo. Video produced by TV2’s Dylan Gonzalez and Tyler Carey.

Highlight read by Tyler Carey.

There’s never a dull moment when Kent State (1-4, 0-1 Mid-American Conference) and The University of Akron (3-2, 1-0 MAC) get together.

The Zips ended a back-and-forth game when redshirt junior wide receiver Mykel Traylor-Bennett dived into the end zone from three yards out to give Akron a 31-27 lead with 20 seconds left. The play was set up when Akron quarterback Tra’Von Chapman beat double coverage to find JoJo Natson for 43 yards.

The Flashes took a 27-24 lead with 1:02 to play when redshirt junior quarterback Nick Holley found true freshman Justin Rankin from nine yards out.

“(The loss was) very disappointing,” said head coach Paul Haynes. “Especially losing like that. But (I’m) very proud of these guys and the way they fought.”

Holley had an excellent all-around game for the Flashes, throwing for 285 yards and a touchdown that went along with 117 yards rushing and a touchdown. Holley — who threw for 1,087 yards and 19 touchdowns during his senior season in high school — had never played quarterback during his three years at Kent State. He came into Saturday’s game leading Kent State in receiving.

Haynes said that he will go on the rest of the season with Holley as his starting quarterback.

“I think that (Holley) played unbelievable,” Haynes said. “And going into that decision, that’s what we got. We feel your best player (should be) touching the ball as much as possible, and that’s what we did.”

Holley starting at quarterback was a surprise, as many assumed that sophomore George Bollas would start at quarterback, while fifth-year senior Colin Reardon would serve as the backup. But Haynes said that he made his mind up early that Holley would start behind center.

“We made the decision (that he would start) when we landed after (last week’s) Alabama game,” he said.

Holley found his favorite receiver early and often, as Rankin complied 181 yards receiving and a touchdown on 10 catches — none of which were bigger than the one that gave the Flashes a short-lived lead. Rankin and Holley also hooked up for a big 54-yard gain that set up their second touchdown.

“I just scrambled but there was nothing there,” Holley said of the play. “Justin made something happen and I was able to get him the ball.”

Rankin looked like he was in a video game when he was running after the catch, as he alluded eight Zips defenders.

“I knew that play would work,” Rankin said. “We did a fake run, (where) I faked the block and got out, (and Holley) threw a good ball. After that I did what I could do. I should have scored. I (cut) in when I should have (cut) out. I should have scored.”

Akron was led by their backup quarterback as well, with Chapman making the start after starter Thomas Woodson was sidelined due to a shoulder injury he suffered during Akron’s 45-38 loss to Appalachian State University.

Chapman, who threw for 5,736 yards and 62 touchdowns during his junior and senior seasons at Kent Roosevelt High School, went 11-of-28 with two touchdowns and two interceptions — all of which are career-highs.

Both of Chapman’s interceptions ended up in the hands of Kent State junior defensive back Jarrell Foster, the first interceptions of his career.

One of the main reasons that Akron was able to score the clinching touchdown was special team miscues, as Haynes elected to squib kick after scoring — a move that resulted in Akron getting the ball at their own 48.

“We didn’t do a very good job in coverage,” Haynes said. “We didn’t want to kick to them deep so they could run it all the way back. We tried to hard squib it, and their guy did a good job of fielding it.”

Akron running back Van Edwards touched the Flashes on a 75-yard kick return earlier in the game. Sophomore Shane Hynes also missed a crucial 30-yard field goal at the end of the half that would have given the Flashes a two-possession lead at halftime.

“It’s been tough,” Haynes said. “We’ve had two tough losses, especially like that. The one in overtime (against North Carolina A&T) and this one. It’s tough and difficult, but our guys will stick together and we’ll win a lot of games here. I promise you that.”

Henry Palattella is a sports reporter, contact him at [email protected]