In a season full of almosts and what-ifs, the Kent State Golden Flashes football team took one more body blow on Saturday night and dropped to the brink of postseason elimination. KSU returned to Mobile, Ala. for the first time since playing in last January's GoDaddy.com Bowl, but despite some spectacular play from Dri Archer, the Flashes lost 38-21 to the South Alabama Jaguars.
The loss drops KSU's overall record to 2-6. Although it means nothing in terms of the race for the Mid-American Conference championship, it does mean that the Flashes cannot afford another loss. To be bowl eligible, they must win their remaining four games.
KSU's defense on Saturday was obviously an issue; it simply could not stop the South Alabama offense, which rang up 481 yards of total offense. Outside of the possessions that ended each half, USA had only one drive that did not end in Kent State territory. Six of those drives ended in scores.
However, Kent State had an even bigger problem -- in general, it could not complete what it started on offense. Eight of their eleven possessions ended in Jaguar territory, but the Golden Flashes could muster points on only three of those. They turned the ball over on downs twice, missed one field goal, and had another blocked. With a struggling defense, that many points cannot be left on the field.
In fact, missed opportunities are how Kent State started the game. Dri Archer rumbled for 17 yards on the opening play from scrimmage, and backup quarterback David Fisher (subbing for an injured Colin Reardon) led the team 51 yards to the South Alabama 24. On 4th-and-3, Brad Miller came in for a 41-yard field goal attempt, but it was blocked. South Alabama recovered at their own 25 and took immediate advantage. On their first play, Ross Matheny hooked up with Jay Jones for a 38-yard completion. Five plays later, Jones took the ball five yards into the end zone for the game's first touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
Kent State tried to answer right back and managed to move the ball 36 yards to the USA 34, where they faced 3rd-and-1. The Flashes' resident bulldozer, Trayion Durham, was called on, but he lost a yard on the third down play. Head coach Paul Haynes gambled early and tried to convert on 4th-and-2. Unfortunately, another Durham run earned just one yard, and KSU turned the ball over on downs. A short time later, the gambling mentality extended to the Jaguars. USA went for the first down on 4th-and-1 from the KSU 44 on their second possession, but Cris Dinham lost a yard and failed to convert.
The Flashes had great field position at their own 45 but did nothing on three plays that included two incompletions and an Anthony Meray run that netted zero yards. The 37-yard punt by Andrew Horning pinned the Jaguars at their own 18. However, USA revved up their offense again and traversed 54 yards before stalling out at the KSU 28. Aleem Sunanon's 45-yard field goal made the score 10-0 with 10:39 left in the first half.
If you're a Golden Flashes fan, who do you want to have the ball when you're down 10-0 on the road? Dri Archer. Well, that's who got it. Archer ran once for one yard but then popped off his best run from scrimmage of the season. The 74-yard jaunt brought KSU to within 10-7, but it also handed the keys right back to the team's defense. That did not end well. South Alabama was flagged for an illegal block on their first play after the Archer touchdown and was pushed back to their own 12. Despite that, the Jaguars faced relatively little resistance in answering the touchdown in just nine plays. From their own 40, Matheny converted a 3rd-and-12 with a 29-yard pass to Shavarez Smith. He then connected with Danny Woodson three plays later on a 16-yard touchdown strike.
Down 17-7, Kent State would not get close again.
The two teams traded punts until USA took over at their own 40 with 9:44 left in the third quarter. The Jaguars drove 60 yards without facing a third down and scored another touchdown when Kndall Houston rumbled for three yards into the end zone. Kent State tried to get off the mat and get back into the game with a 57-yard drive of their own. But, from the USA 14, Fisher missed on two straight passes. Miller came onto the field to try to salvage some points, but he missed a 31-yard field goal wide right. The score remained 24-7.
South Alabama put the game away on the next drive. The Jaguars moved 80 yards in 11 plays and took 4:44 off the game clock thanks to a drive that ended in a touchdown and a 31-7 lead. Twice, they converted on third downs. This included a 14-yard run by Dinham on 3rd-and-13 from the KSU 30. On the next play, Matheny scrambled for 16 yards and the USA touchdown.
Kent State would not quit fighting and again turned to Dri Archer on their next possession. After Ernest Calhoun returned the kickoff to the KSU 27, Fisher slipped a pass to Archer, who weaved his way 73 yards for another long touchdown. With 14:01 still on the clock, KSU could have had time to overcome a 17-point deficit. Unfortunately, their special teams let them down. On the ensuing kickoff, South Alabama's T.J. Glover returned the ball 67 yards to the KSU 30. From there, Houston toted the rock four straight times. The final carry went for 14 yards and another touchdown, which gave USA their final points and a 38-14 lead.
Kent State scored their final touchdown with just a few seconds left in the game when Fisher completed a four-yard pass to Casey Pierce.
South Alabama outgained Kent State 481-428. USA's yards were split nearly evenly, as they rushed for 257 and passed for 224. KSU accumulated 247 yards on the ground but only 181 through the air. Neither team turned the ball over, and penalties were roughly even. As noted above, the difference in this game was KSU's inability to convert in South Alabama's side of the field.
Fisher was steady, if unspectacular, filling in for Reardon. He completed 14 of 26 passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed 12 times for 106 yards. He connected with five different receivers, but his favorite target was Tyshon Goode, who caught seven balls for 45 yards. Fisher's rushing total was accompanied by Archer's 114 yards. Meray had 19 yards, while Durham posted eight yards on five carries.
Archer led all players with 227 all-purpose yards on just 13 touches. On defense, Matt Dellinger and DeVante Strickland led the Flashes with 12 tackles each, while Marcus Wright contributed two sacks.
For South Alabama, Matheny posted 224 yards passing and completed 16 of his 23 passes. He also ran eight times for 21 yards and ended the game with two touchdowns (one passing, one running). His 16 completions went to eight different targets, and that group was led by Wes Saxton (four catches, 38 yards). Jay Jones led USA rushers with 99 yards on 13 carries, while Dinham posted 67 and Houston 43. Jones (1) and Houston (2) also had touchdowns for the Jaguars. Maleki Harris led their defense with 10 tackles, and Alex Page sacked Fisher twice.
Kent State now returns home to resume their Mid-American Conference schedule. They host the Buffalo Bulls next Saturday at 3:30 p.m., and the game will be televised on the Time Warner Cable Sports Channel. It will also be available online at ESPN3.