Since losing four of its final five games last season, Kent State has focused on finishing every play of every game this year. Saturday in a 27-20 loss to Akron in front of 21,867 at the Rubber Bowl, the Golden Flashes learned they still have plenty of work to do in that department.
Leading 17-7 late in the third quarter, the Golden Flashes (2-2 overall, 0-1 in the Mid-American Conference) were outscored 20-3 the rest of the way, largely because of three second half turnovers, as the Zips took back possession of the Wagon Wheel—the trophy presented to the winner in this annual showdown.
"I thought we were absolutely our own worst enemy again," said Kent State head coach Doug Martin. "The only thing that can beat us right now are turnovers and that's what beat us today."
The struggles protecting the football began on Kent State's first offensive play of the game. Junior quarterback Julian Edelman was on his way to a big gain near the Kent State 30-yard line when the ball was knocked out of his hands and bounced all the way back to the 16. The Golden Flashes recovered, but the fumble resulted in a loss eight yards. A hold on the next play put the Flashes into a deeper hole and eventually they punted the ball away.
Fortunately, the Zips' offense had problems of its own. Each of Akron's four first-quarter drives resulted in a three-and-out. That slow start allowed the Golden Flashes to get the running game going which allowed Edelman to make a big play in the passing game when he found freshman Aaron Robinson for a 44-yard gain to the Akron five. Two plays later sophomore Eugene Jarvis dashed into the end zone and Kent State led 7-0 with just 40 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
That lead held up until an Edelman fumble gave the Zips (2-2, 1-0 in the MAC) possession at the Kent State 33-yard line with 1:18 left in the half. Five plays later quarterback Carlton Jackson scored on a two-yard run to tie the score.
"Offensively, the fumbles really were the difference in the game," Martin said. "We drove up and down the field on Akron's defense; they had absolutely no answers for us. When you're going to stop yourself like that, and we have all season—that's been our Achilles heel--we've got to find a way to get that stopped and then we can be a very productive football team."
Akron started the second half with its best impression of the Golden Flashes. Faced with a third-and six from his own 24-yard line, Jackson dropped back to pass but was sacked by freshman defensive lineman Monte Simmons, who also jarred the ball loose from the Akron quarterback. Aaron Hull recovered the fumble for the Golden Flashes and carried several Zips players with him to the Akron five. A face mask set the Golden Flashes up at the Akron two and two plays later Jarvis scored his second touchdown of the game and gave Kent State a 14-7 lead with 13:02 remaining in the third quarter.
Jarvis led all ball carriers with 159 yards on 28 carries—his fourth consecutive game reaching the century mark.
The Zips weren't done helping the Golden Flashes. Five plays after Jarvis' 1-yard touchdown run, redshirt freshman safety Brian Lainhart picked off a Jackson pass and returned it to the Kent State 48-yard line.
Sophomore kicker Nate Reed booted a 22-yard field goal that increased Kent State's lead to 17-7 with 9:21 left in the third.
That's when Akron made its move.
The Zips used a 22-yard field goal to cut into Kent State's lead and after forcing the Golden Flashes to punt they drove 58 yards in nine plays, capped by a 26-yard touchdown pass from Jackson to Jabari Arthur. Igor Iveljic's extra point tied the score at 17 with 14:54 left to play.
On the next play from scrimmage Akron cornerback Reggie Corner picked off an Edelman pass and returned it 53 yards to the Kent State two. Alex Allen scored on a two-yard run to give the Zips a 24-17 lead, their first lead of the game, with 13:51 left.
The Golden Flashes quickly responded by rushing five times for 42 yards and added another 15 yards on a late hit penalty on the Zips to move to the Akron 23-yard line. Two incomplete passes and a sack forced Kent State to kick a 42-yard field goal, but the Akron lead was just 24-20 with 10:55 remaining.
The Zips used some trickery on the ensuing kickoff when Arthur fielded the ball near the Akron 20-yard line and lateraled the ball across the field to Bryan Williams, who returned the ball all the way to the Kent State 26-yard line.
The play didn't catch the Golden Flashes by surprise, but a lack of execution allowed the Zips to turn a sky kick into a 54-yard return.
"We had a guy right there to make a play he just missed the tackle," Martin said.
The Kent State defense held, but Akron added a 43-yard field goal to extend its lead to 27-20 with 8:29 left.
The Golden Flashes began their next drive at the 20-yard line and moved into Akron territory where Edelman connected with Jarvis on a screen pass that covered 14 yards to the Zips' 31. But a big hit by Andre Jones jarred the ball loose and Wayne Cobham recovered for Akron at the Zips' 29.
"(That was) really uncharacteristic of Eugene ever to fumble," Martin said. "He went all through last year and hardly had any fumbles. He had a couple today that hurt us, but that's the offense as a whole; we just have to take care of the football better."
Kent State got the ball back with 1:36 left to play and drove to the Akron 24-yard line but Akron defensive back Davanzo Tate picked off Edelman's pass in the end zone as the clock expired.
"If you come out and somebody just handles you—like Kentucky handled us in the second half; obviously they were the better team," said Martin about his team's mistakes. "But when you beat yourself, that's hard to handle, that's hard to accept."
Even harder to accept was the fact that Kent State had over 100 more yards of offense than the Zips—375 to 245—but four fumbles, including the two they lost, and two interceptions were too much for the Golden Flashes to overcome.
"Our defense played well enough to win the game," Martin said. " We gave them the ball on the one-yard line for one of their touchdowns and they got the lateral on the kickoff deal where they started on the 20 or something-yard line. If we don't put our defense in those positions then they probably only give up 10 or 17 points today."
Now, the Golden Flashes have to regroup before they travel to Athens next week to play Ohio University. Again, they'll focus on responding to a loss.
"You just have to come back and go to work," Martin said. "It's like I told the guys all along, what matters now is the character—how you are going to respond. Are you going to come back and go down to Ohio U., and find a way to win or you can feel sorry for yourself for a week. Kent State's history has been up until this team that they'd feel sorry for themselves.
"This team has responded twice and come up with big wins after losses, so we'll see how they do this Saturday."