One pass changed the course of Saturday afternoon for Kent State.
Trailing 13-7 with fewer than one minute left in the first half, the Flashes were threatening to regain the lead. A defensive pass interference call gave Kent State a first and 10 at the Buffalo 14.
Flashes quarterback Colin Reardon dropped back, pump faked in the direction of wide receiver Chris Humphrey and fired a pass over the middle — directly into the hands Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack, who took the ball 35 yards in the opposite direction.
Reardon and running back Trayion Durham stopped Mack well short of a touchdown, but his interception ended Kent State’s drive, and all momentum the Flashes had going for them.
“It was a play we put in this week, I was running it good all week and I just stared it down a bit,” Reardon said. “He did make a great play. I thought there was no way he was going to be able to pick that … He just stuck his hand out, stopped it and caught it. He made a great play, but that’s on me. I need to go through my reads and hit another receiver.”
Four plays later, Buffalo running back Branden Oliver was in the end zone for the second time in the quarter, and Kent State headed to the locker room trailing by two touchdowns after a deflating turn of events.
“You turn it over and you’ve got a chance to stop them, and they get a big play,” Haynes said. “You’ve still got to hold them out of the end zone, which didn’t happen. Their guys did a good job of getting on us in a lot of different ways.”
Kent State (2-7, 1-4 Mid-American Conference) never recovered from the interception, and Oliver scored twice more in the second half as Buffalo (6-2, 4-0 MAC) rolled to a 41-21 victory against the Flashes in front of 14,197 at Dix Stadium.
Oliver rushed for 185 yards and a career-high four touchdowns on 31 carries to lead the Bulls to their sixth straight victory, their longest winning streak since 1959.
Meanwhile, Kent State struggled again at times on both sides of the ball.
The Flashes’ defense allowed 491 total yards and six touchdowns, including 285 yards and two passing touchdowns from sophomore quarterback Joe Licata. Thanks mostly to the play of Oliver, Buffalo also doubled Kent State in rushing yards, 206 to 103.
“He’s a good tailback,” Flashes defensive lineman Roosevelt Nix said. “He’s not the hardest to bring down, but they run their offense. He’s the gear that turns their offense. That’s why their offense is so potent.”
Kent State’s offense wasn’t nearly as effective, especially at the start of the second half. The Flashes’ first three possessions totaled a combined 10 plays from scrimmage, two punts and an interception. Meanwhile, Buffalo added onto its lead with two more Oliver touchdowns.
“There was no panic, there was no nothing at halftime,” Haynes said. “We were in it. You’re only down two scores. But again, we make a play, they make two plays, and they pulled away from it.”
The Flashes’ offense broke through their scoreless streak with 3:12 left in the third when running back Dri Archer scored a 17-yard touchdown run to bring Kent State within 20 points. Reardon’s 18-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Tyshon Goode early in the fourth gave Flashes fans a little bit of hope and a reason to stick around until Licata’s 30-yard touchdown pass to Devon Hughes virtually secured the victory for Buffalo 39 seconds later.
It’s been a recurring sequence of events for the Flashes in 2013: The offense struggles early then finds its groove when down by double-digits later in the second half. Haynes attributed the short third-quarter possessions to self-inflicted wounds.
“When you start with first and 15, it’s tough to convert,” Haynes said. “Now you’re in third and long again, and those are hard to convert instead of third and 2 and third and 3. It still comes down to execution. I’m sure when we look at the tape tomorrow, there’s going to be some type of breakdown in execution.”
Kent State showed its offense can flourish when all parts work together and will need to get its offense going much earlier next week, when the Flashes travel 8 miles west to face rival Akron at InfoCision Stadium. The unit’s biggest issue is rooted in pre-snap activities and needs to be addressed in the coming week, Reardon said.
“I think it’s more focus, with practice a little bit and listening more in the huddle,” said Reardon, who threw for a career-high 260 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. “We listen in the huddle, but just (need to) pay attention more instead of worrying about the last play. It’s the little things, it’s nothing major. Once we get it there, it’s going to click and it’s going to be how it was in the second half. We were moving the ball. We scored two touchdowns in four and a half, five minutes. It’s just so close.”
With bowl eligibility now out of the realm of possibility for Kent State, their final three games will be a test of resolve for a team that has only pride and a rivalry trophy for which to play. Following film evaluation, all focus shifts to Akron for Haynes, who knows that the annual battle for the Wagon Wheel is not just another game on the schedule.
“It’s life or death,” Haynes said. “You don’t lose to Akron, bottom line. We said in the locker room, every ounce of energy, every mind, body and soul goes into this game, and that’s it. Whatever we have to do, we’re going to do to win this game.”
Contact Nick Shook at [email protected]