Flashes football grinds out season opening win

Nick Shook

It wasn’t easy, and it surely didn’t look great, but Kent State survived its season opener.

The Flashes (1-0) scored 10 points in the fourth quarter to erase a three-point deficit and defeat Liberty (0-1) 17-10 in front of 20,790 at Dix Stadium Thursday evening. The final score shows a one-touchdown advantage, but for much of the night, it seemed far from possible.

“It wasn’t pretty, but a win is a win,” Flashes head coach Paul Haynes said after the game.

Kent State broke through offensive struggles to score a game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter, a 42-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Colin Reardon to receiver Chris Humphrey.

“I’ve been drilled into my head from all the other coaches I’ve had in my career that you always make the first guy miss,” Humphrey said. “…[Reardon] made a great read, threw it perfect, [and I] couldn’t ask for a better ball.”

Humphrey danced past the nearest defender and broke into a sprint down the far sideline, outrunning a defender to the endzone for a touchdown that gave Kent State the decisive advantage.

The score was a relief to both the Flashes and their faithful, which set a new Dix Stadium record for student attendance, with more than 7,000 in attendance to see the late victory.

Kent State’s offense started off strong, opening the game with a 14-play, 75-yard drive that lasted more than eight minutes. Tight end Casey Pierce capped off the marathon trip down the field by making a diving catch in the back of the endzone for a six-yard touchdown completion from Reardon.

For the next two quarters, the Flashes couldn’t get back in gear.

“It’s a lot of getting those first game mistakes out of the way,” Haynes said. “We killed ourselves with penalties, and those are the things that we’ve got to clean up.”

The Flashes committed nine penalties for 79 yards, with more than a few extra being declined by Liberty. Following their opening score, the Flashes punted on four of their next five possessions, and a fumble between pairs of punts gave Liberty its first scoring opportunity of the night. The Flames soon cut the Flashes’ lead to 7-3 on a 20-yard field goal by kicker John Lunsford.

An injury to Dri Archer didn’t help the Flashes’ offensive cause either. The senior running back was hurt during the first possession of the game after hurdling into a throng of defenders on Liberty’s 26-yard line. He hobbled off the field and returned for just one more carry before halftime, and came out of the locker room in a walking boot for the second half.

“In certain situations we had plays for [Archer],” Haynes said. “…When you don’t have a guy like Dri out there for a lot of different reasons, you’ve got to change up a little bit.”

With Archer ruled out, Liberty stacked the box with eight or nine defenders per play in anticipation of handoffs to back Trayion Durham. The scheme held Durham to small gains with occasional bursts of 10 to 15 yards. As Haynes has emphasized since day one, he and his staff did not back down in his run-first attack.

“I told [Durham] going into the season, ‘you’ve got to be a 30-carry guy for us and we’ve got to put this team on your back at times and you’ve gotta roll with it,” Haynes said.

Durham indeed rolled with it, carrying the ball 21 times for 92 yards.

Meanwhile, Reardon impressed at times during his first collegiate start. The redshirt freshman completed 21 of 28 passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns, and also ran the ball 10 times for 44 yards.

“I think he played well,” Haynes said. “When we sit there and talk about managing, that’s all we asked him to do.”

Kent State’s offensive struggles continued in the second half, allowing Liberty to take a 10-7 lead midway through the third quarter on an 11-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Josh Woodrum to receiver Gabe Henderson. It capped Liberty’s longest drive of the night, a six-play, 88-yard trek that lasted just 2:08.

Fifth-year senior defensive back Darius Polk allowed a 58-yard completion during the drive and committed two pass interference penalties in the game, but he didn’t allow that to affect him late in the game, with Liberty threatening in Kent State territory.

“The whole time in my head I was like ‘I know he’s coming at me, I know he’s coming at me’ because I gave up that deep ball,” Polk said. “I had to keep my composure and let that play go. I had to make plays. I know my team needed me in the clutch.”

Woodrum’s passes on third and fourth down were targeted at Polk’s man, and twice he batted away passes, forcing incompletions and a turnover on downs that secured the victory for Kent State. It was a great example of the mindset Haynes desires in his players.

“It’s always good to see a team fight through adversity and don’t give up when it’s down,” Haynes said. “You’ve got a lot of new guys out there playing their first college game… to see us fight through that, to see us get the win, we’ll only get better and improve.”

Contact Nick Shook at [email protected].