Kent State wins Wagon Wheel game for third straight year

Tim Dorst

Fans packed into Dix Stadium Saturday to witness the 42nd annual Wagon Wheel Challenge, a rivalry that began in 1946. The feud between Kent State and Akron has been a back-and-forth affair for many seasons, with neither team gaining advantage of the prized wheel for more than two years at a time.

Before Saturday, Kent State had not defeated Akron three years in a row since the beginning of the rivalry, when the Flashes defeated the Zips nine straight times from 1946 to 1954. But after the Flashes’ 35-24 comeback victory over the Zips, the wagon wheel remains in Kent for yet another year.

Head coach Darrell Hazell said he knew it wouldn’t be an easy game, but he is proud of the way the players responded to adversity and pulled out the win.

“It’s never going to be easy, especially when you’re playing in a rivalry,” Hazell said. “You just have to find a way to win them at the end of the day.”

When the day began, it appeared the 7-1 Flashes may have been outmatched against the 1-8 Zips’ fast-paced, no-huddle offense. On Akron’s first drive of the game, quarterback Dalton Williams led his team 89 yards on 14 plays and eventually found wide receiver Jerrod Dillard for a 13-yard touchdown pass to take the early lead.

The Flashes’ subsequent drive ended when senior kicker Freddy Cortez’s 47-yard field goal attempt ricocheted off the right goal post, turning over possession to Akron. The Zips took advantage of the good field position, and Williams found Dillard again for a 21-yard score. Suddenly, Akron held a 14-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.

Kent State began to respond early in the second quarter, as junior running back Dri Archer swept left and sprinted 44 yards down to the Akron one-yard line. Two plays later, sophomore running back Trayion Durham took a toss from senior quarterback Spencer Keith and jumped into the end zone for the touchdown, cutting the Zips lead in half.

Akron negated the score on the following drive, when running back Jawon Chisholm found a hole in the Flashes’ defense and broke a couple tackles 50-yards en route to a touchdown. The crowd of 18,265 in Dix Stadium fell eerily silent.

Stats by half

First Half

Kent State


Points 14 24
Total Yards 169 292
Passing Yards 71 184
Rushing Yards 98 108
First Downs 8 17

Second Half

Kent State


Points 21 0
Total Yards 195 150
Passing Yards 32 128
Rushing Downs 8 17
First Downs 10 6

Keith helped the Flashes cut into the lead again later in the quarter when he faked the handoff to Durham and ran the ball himself into the end zone from four yards out. Akron added a field goal in the waning seconds of the first half and took a 24-14 lead into the locker room.

Hazell said the coordinators addressed the team about strategy at halftime. Then he addressed the team himself.

“What I said to the team was: ‘This is what championship runs are all about,’” Hazell said. “I told them that the mark of this team will be determined in the next 30 minutes.”

The Flashes took Hazell’s words to heart — the second half was almost entirely different than the first. Kent State’s first drive of the half began with two solid runs by Durham and Archer.

Facing a fourth down and one on the Zips’ six-yard line, Durham took another toss from Keith and rumbled for a touchdown to cut the deficit to three points. The crowd began to come alive again as Durham trotted into the end zone.

The Flashes defense, unable to contain Akron in the first half, began to figure out the Zips’ offense. Junior defensive lineman Roosevelt Nix stripped the ball away from Chisholm, and senior linebacker Luke Batton recovered the fumble for the Flashes. The momentum shift was palpable on the play.

On the next drive, Archer got the ball on a reverse handoff and took it 30 yards for a touchdown, giving the Flashes their first lead of the game. Archer finished with another big game for Kent State, compiling 126 yards on 11 carries.

Kent State rushing attack

Dri Archer: 11 carries, 126 yards, 1 TD

Trayion Durham: 24 carries, 107 yards, 3 TDs

Spencer Keith: 5 carries, 28 yards, 1 TD

The defense continued to hold Akron in check for most of the half, forcing four straight punts. It was a major change from the beginning of the game, and senior defensive end Jake Dooley said the team knew it had to make adjustment at halftime.

“Fixing a problem like that is all on us,” Dooley said. “It was something we had to address and make a turnaround.”

Akron attempted to make one final push late in the fourth quarter and faced a fourth down and one deep in their own territory. Williams handed off to Chisholm on a run play, but Dooley tackled him right at the line and forced the turnover on downs.

The Flashes faced a fourth down and one situation of their own on the next drive, but Durham converted in a big way. Durham took another toss and ran left, untouched for a 15-yard touchdown to seal the victory for Kent State. The sophomore recorded 107 yards rushing in the game. It was his fourth 100-plus yard performance in the last five games.

The victory improved the Flashes’ record to 8-1, moving them one step closer to what could be their first bowl game appearance since 1972. Kent State also won its seventh straight game overall and its ninth straight game against teams currently in the Mid-American Conference.

Retaining the Wagon Wheel for a third straight year might be more special for the Flashes, as Dooley said a rivalry win does a lot for the tradition of the team.

“It was something the seniors really pushed for last year,” Dooley said. “We made sure we were going to keep it going and continue the tradition this year.”

Contact Tim Dorst at [email protected].