All’s well that ends well

The Flashes celebrate after winning the Wagon Wheel game against Akron on Friday, Nov. 28, 2014 at Dix Stadium. The final score was 27-24.

Richie Mulhall

Box Score













Kent State






Despite an overall bitter 2014 season, the Kent State football team ended the year not with a whimper, but a bang.

If the Kent State football team was going to win one more game before the 2014 season ended, it sure picked the right one to do it in the ultimate battle for bragging rights on Friday.

Trailing Akron by four points with one minute remaining, Kent State sophomore quarterback Colin Reardon found senior wide receiver Chris Humphrey in the back of the end zone for the go-ahead, game-winning touchdown.

“I had a feeling I was going to get the ball, and once I saw that ball in the air, I knew I had to make a play,” Humphrey said. “I couldn’t have written it any better.”

After Kent State took command with the go-ahead score, the defense held off the Zips with the aid of a game-closing interception by junior Jordan Italiano to lift the Flashes to a 27-24 Wagon Wheel Challenge victory.

Once the final whistle blew, players rushed to the corner of Dix Stadium to regain the coveted Wagon Wheel they lost last year.

“Just an unbelievable team victory on both sides of the ball,” Kent State coach Paul Haynes said. “We had our ups and downs, but we did a great job of just continuing to believe. Last night we said ‘By any means necessary’ — that’s what we had on the back of our shirts — and we talked about everyone becoming a playmaker, and we had a lot of guys step up and make plays.”

When the Flashes (2-9, 1-6 MAC) were down, 24-20, they desperately needed a score to reclaim the Wagon Wheel Trophy.

As the clock ticked down and the Cinderella story hung in the balance, Reardon took the reigns and drove the ball clear down the field with 4:25 remaining.

With a 1st and goal at the 5-yard line, Reardon tried to squeeze a pair of passes in the back right-hand corner of the end zone in an attempt to score, but the Zips (5-7, 3-5 MAC) batted them down.

On third down, Reardon thought he’d try something a little different — and it worked.

He lobbed the ball to the left-hand corner of the end zone for Humphrey to lunge at and pull in for the touchdown.

“The ball was high, and I was just looking up, and being a wideout, you practice getting your foot in, so I knew I was getting close, so I just had to grab the ball and try to get my foot in as best as I can and hope for the best,” Humphrey said. 

Kent State completed its season at 2-9 overall and 1-6 in the Mid-American Conference. Akron closed out the season at 5-7 overall and 3-5 in MAC competition.

Ending the season on a positive note

The 2014 football season has truly been a trying one for the Kent State football team.

In a season stricken by heartache, disappointment and loss — with some losses more bitter than others — a victory over Akron meant the world to Kent State.

The death of the team’s starting center Jason Bitsko mere days before the season opener, multiple injuries, an abysmal record – all of these gut-wrenching trials and tribulations tested the Flashes all season long, but they never wavered and overcame all the ups and downs, as evidenced by Friday’s win.

“We played the game, and we showed up, and that’s not easy to do at 1-2, 1-4, 1-5, 1-6, but it’s because of these guys and their attitude and effort that made us continue to do it, so they get all the credit for it,” Haynes said.

Friday’s season-ending victory over Akron eased some the team’s pain, ended the season on a good note and sent the senior class off with something to be proud of.

Seasoned veterans like Humphrey, who fueled Kent State’s offense, capped their senior season with a vindicating win and one the team’s best overall performances of season.

When the smoke cleared and the dust settled, it was the Kent State players – the team with only two wins to its name – that walked tall and hoisted the Wagon Wheel Trophy high above their heads in victory.

“Missing a couple plays here and there, that’s been the definition of our season,” said senior Casey Pierce. “When Akron’s running back took it for that big run, that was the definition of our season, but this time we said no. We said we’re not going to end it like this, we’re going to go out and be confident and go down the field. It was our turn, time to turn everything around.”

It was a storybook ending to an otherwise nightmare of a season. Game Notes

  • The Flashes held a halftime lead for only the second time this season and improved to 15-0 since 2012 when leading at halftime.

  • Sophomore Nick Holley scored his third and fourth touchdowns of the season (second and third rushing) in the first quarter. Holley matched his career-high of 95 rushing yards on 14 carries.

  • Senior Casey Pierce moved into sole possession of eighth place in career touchdown catches at Kent State with 11. Pierce made three or more catches in 12 straight games and has made two or more catches in 18 straight games.

    In his last five games, Pierce made 37 catches for 382 yards and five touchdowns. Pierce holds Kent State’s record for catches in a season by a tight end with 60. He caught his team-leading sixth touchdown of the season and fifth in his last five games.

  • In Humphrey’s last two games, he made 17 catches for 255 yards and three touchdowns.

    Humphrey finished in fifth place in career receptions with 128. His touchdown catch with one minute to play was his fourth of the season.

  • Midway through the second quarter, Kent State held an advantage 191-50 in total yards.

  • Sophomore Nate Holley led the Flashes in tackles in 10-of-14 career starts. He hit the 10-tackle mark for the eighth time this season.

Strong first half

Kent State’s close win could be most attributed to the way the team worked to get ahead early in the first half.

The Flashes came storming out of the gates scoring a touchdown right off the bat. Colin Reardon led the Flashes to a touchdown on an eight-play, 73-yard drive in just 4:10 that all began with a 38-yard catch and run by Humphrey.

Reardon connected with Humphrey on a long route down the Akron sideline. A few plays later, Nick Holley finished the job and trotted the ball 1 yard into the end zone to give the Flashes an early 7-0 edge.

Just when it looked as though things were looking up for Kent State, bad luck struck again, which has often been the story of this two-win season.

After the Flashes went three and out on just a 12-yard drive, the Zips blocked Kent State’s punt, as the Flashes were penalized for illegal kicking. The penalty moved the ball 12 yards to Kent State’s 2-yard line, which allowed Akron to capitalize and knot up the game at seven.

On the next drive, Kent State settled the score with a touchdown of its own. In just 6:37, Kent State marched 64 yards down the field and seized the lead back when sophomore running back Nick Holley rushed for 24 yards into the end zone.

After Kent State put up the go-ahead touchdown at the end of the first half, a scoring slugfest slowly turned into a series of defensive stands – a methodical battle of punts and field position.

Kent State squandered two opportunities to notch three on the scoreboard when kicker Anthony Melichiori missed one field-goal attempt from 31 yards out and another attempt from 46 yards out that didn’t even come close.

After Melichiori’s second miss, Akron got the ball back with great field position and a good chance to score, but the Flashes spoiled the Zips’ fortune with an interception by Demetrius Monday at the Kent State 8-yard line.

Unfortunately for the Flashes, Kent State gave the ball right back just before time expired, as Colin Reardon threw a passed that sailed over Humphrey’s head, got tipped by an Akron player and landed into the hands of Akron senior safety Martel Durant.

After the brief exchange of turnovers, Akron kneed the ball to end the half, and Kent State took its secure 13-7 lead into the break.

Staggering second half

In the second half, Akron kicked a 41-yard field goal to chisel away at the Flashes’ six-point lead, but the Kent State offensive attack stayed persistent and answered the field goal with a four-play, 74-yard touchdown drive reminiscent of the Flashes’ first charge of the game.

A 39-yard run by Holley carried the Flashes down the field, and then Reardon found Casey Pierce in the back-right corner of the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown pass, allowing the Flashes to extend the lead to 10.

Later in the third quarter, Akron got the ball back and redeemed itself from missing the 25-yard field goal attempt by scoring a touchdown. Akon senior Jawon Chisholm hammered the ball down the middle and tore through the secondary for a 41-yard touchdown, his longest of the season.

Chisholm’s touchdown cut the Flashes’ advantage to 20-17, as the Flashes clung to a three-point advantage.

Kent State’s offense grew stagnant after that. Then Colin Reardon, who threw for 142 yards in the first half, looked awfully sluggish after the intermission.

Kent State was 4 for 8 on third-down conversions in the first half, but the offense struggled to find the same conversion success in the second half, as the Flashes only converted on 2-of-6 third-down plays.

If it wasn’t for Kent State’s final charge with a minute to go, the Flashes might have let yet another lead slip away in the second half, the telltale mistake of their 2-9 season.

“These guys like they have so many times saved me,” Haynes said.

Breakout performances

The Flashes played their hearts out in Friday afternoon’s rivalry game against Akron as if it were its last, and many different players contributed in some way.

Reardon finished the game 28-of-45 passing with two touchdowns and one interception. His 298 yards passing was also second most this season. Humphrey played one of the best games of his career, matching his career high of nine catches for 123 yards. Nick Holley registered 101 yards on the ground, notching two touchdowns and averaging 6.8 yards per carry.

“The offensive line did great, and it’s really easy to run the ball when nobody’s touching you and there’s a hole,” Holley said. “You make one cut and you’re gone.”

On the defensive side of the ball, sophomore Nate Holley led the defensive stand with 10 total tackles, and redshirt freshman Demetrius Monday nabbed the key interception at the end of the first half that helped the Flashes go into the break with a firm grip on the lead.

“Coach Haynes told me these guys really don’t like hands on them, they’re a more finesse receiver, and he just said keep your hands on them and go at their weakness, and that’s what we did today,” Monday said.

Akron’s dominant running performance

Although Kent State kept the Zips in check through the air, Akron won the battle on the ground thanks to the efforts of senior Jawon Chisholm.

Chisholm, who only recorded 44 rushing yards in the first half with one touchdown run, racked up 144 rushing yards rushing and scored two touchdowns in the second half. His longest run on the day came toward the end of the second half when he broke through the secondary with an 80-yard run – a career-long run – up the middle to give Akron the go-ahead score and the Zips their first lead of the game.

Chisholm finished with a career-high 184 yards on 19 carries. The Zips passing game struggled, though, as Pohl threw for 191 yards while completing 17-of-42 pass attempts.

In memoriam of Jason Bitsko

In the postgame press conference, Haynes and Humphrey struggled to fight back tears at the mention of Jason Bitsko.

Friday afternoon’s win over Akron was big because Kent State ended the season with a W and won back the Wagon Wheel, but the victory meant so much more to these players and coaches than a rivalry, win or trophy could ever mean.

To Haynes and players like Humphrey, this win was for Jason.

Haynes said even though Bitsko couldn’t physically be on the field, his spirit was with the team, Friday, celebrating a hard-fought win with all his teammates.

“(Jason’s) always here – I can tell you that,” Haynes said. “That’s why we went around that 54 (on the field) at the end because I can see that smile on his face right now,” Haynes said.

The win gave the Flashes closure in knowing that their efforts – their season – was not in vain. A 2-9 record doesn’t mean much in terms of records, standings or bowl games, but to Kent State, those two shining wins finally outweighed those eight glaring losses. 

Contact Richie Mulhall at [email protected].