Flashes football looks to use defense to rebound from loss

Nick Shook

Kent State gave up the eighth-most total yards in the history of the Mid-American Conference in a loss to Northern Illinois Saturday.

But head coach Paul Haynes is proud of his defense, and for good reason.

Despite allowing 698 total yards, the Flashes’ defense fulfilled most of its goals set for the game. Kent State limited Northern Illinois, a team that scored many of its points this season on big plays, to shorter gains.

The Huskies’ multiple playmakers make it difficult for any opponent to stop their offense entirely, and although the Flashes allowed NIU running back Cameron Stingily to rush for a career-high 267 yards and two touchdowns, none of them came on long runs.

“We did go into this game as a coaching staff, and I learned this a long time ago: when you play against teams that are high-powered offenses like Northern is, you don’t worry about the yardage,” Haynes said. “I know you look at the stats and you say ‘Man, they had a bunch of yards’ and this and that — it’s the one thing that you don’t focus on. The thing that you focus on is don’t give up big plays and keep them out of the end zone.”

Haynes said he will be watching for his defense to make key plays when needed most. The Flashes forced two turnovers on interceptions by NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch, which kept the Huskies out of the end zone while deep in Kent State territory.

He’ll be looking for the same this weekend when Kent State travels to Muncie, Ind., to take on proficient passer Keith Wenning and Ball State.

Wenning is averaging 332.7 passing yards per game and leads another high-powered offense on the field against the Flashes. It’s the second straight tall task the Kent State defense will have to take on, but the goal remains the same: limit the opponent to small gains and make the necessary plays on third down to regain possession.

“To me, they’re the same type of team,” Haynes said. “The number one thing is to keep them out of the end zone and not look at the scoreboard to see how many yards they have because they can put yards on the field.”

Wenning has an assortment of teammates who can make important plays, and he is protected by an offensive line that has given up an average of just one sack per game. Ball State thrives on the deep pass, running longer routes with hopes of making big gains. As the Flashes prepare to keep the Cardinals’ completions to a minimum, Haynes says his team is close to making the turn toward a winning streak.

“We know that we’re a better football team,” Haynes said. “We know that we can play better, and we know that we can compete. We’ve just got to make sure we eliminate a couple of mistakes that we’re making, and we’re four or five plays away from being undefeated or 5-1.”

To transform a 2-4 team into a Mid-American Conference contender, it comes down to discipline on the defensive side of the football, Haynes said. He is well aware of the impressive offense that his defense will face on Saturday but made sure to emphasize that he does not want to get into a high-scoring game.

Quarterback Colin Reardon, who is nursing an injured shoulder, should be ready to play Saturday, Haynes said. Reardon is the engineer of an offense that will not only keep up with Wenning and Ball State but also help keep the Kent State defense off the field.

“There’s a lot of points that we left out there that we could have got,” Haynes said. “But it’s not about outscoring (Ball State). We’ve got to play good defense. And playing good defense involves the offense. You can’t have three-and-outs; you’ve got to keep the ball moving. When you get in the red zone, you’ve got to put points on the board. That’s all playing good defense also, so it kind of complements each other.”

Tight end Casey Pierce, who has three touchdowns this year, is encouraged by the offense’s continued improvement. The return of running back Dri Archer, who scored one touchdown on offense and returned a kick 100 yards for another score, has helped the offense, but Pierce believes the best is yet to come.

“I’d say the most exciting thing about us is we haven’t played our best game yet,” Pierce said. “We still have little mistakes here and there, and if we make those better, we’re going to be a really explosive offense.”

It will take great contributions from both sides of the ball for Kent State to come away with a much-needed road victory at Ball State, and Haynes is encouraged by what the remaining six games hold for the Flashes.

“Right now, our goal is to make sure we finish this thing the best that we can,” Haynes said. “That’s why we’re not down in the dumps. We’re disappointed, but we’re not down in the dumps because there’s so much more that we can accomplish. There’s a lot of ways to be champions. One of them is to be MAC champions, which we’re still in. Another way is to be bowl champions, which we’re still in. We can still accomplish a lot as a football team, and our No. 1 goal is to send these seniors out as winners.”

Contact Nick Shook at [email protected] .