Two touchdown runs by freshman Kesean Gamble in the fourth quarter helped the Kent State Golden Flashes secure a 38-31 win over Howard Saturday in the first game at Dix Stadium for 2017.
Gamble lifted the Golden Flashes into the lead for good with a 1-yard plunge with 12:35 on the clock, then added some security on a 4-yard run to the end zone with 5:56 remaining. After pulling back to within seven points on a short touchdown run by Caylin Newton, Howard's desperate bid to continue its Cinderella start to the season ended in an interception by KSU's Demetrius Monday with no time remaining on the clock.
It was a satisfyingly different script for Kent State when compared to 2016 – a season that saw so many close games slip through the Flashes' hands in the closing moments.
"That's the sign of our head coach (Paul Haynes) and how he has prepared us for these kinds of moments," said interim head coach Don Treadwell. "In our conference in particular … it often comes down to the last minute and sometimes even the last play."
Howard won its own tight battle last week, making national news with a 43-40 win at UNLV – the FCS school's first win against an FBS opponent. A 1-yard touchdown run by Newton, the brother of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, put the Bison ahead 24-23 with 2:09 on the third-quarter clock, bolstering Howard's hope for a second consecutive FBS win.
"(Howard) is capable of doing a lot of things. They already demonstrated that the week before," said Treadwell. "Our men took that as a challenge."
The Flashes held the lead for all but the 4:34 that separated Newton's late third-quarter score and the first of Gamble's touchdowns. Kent State started fast, reaching the end zone on the offense's first play from scrimmage – a 38-yard run by Holley that gave KSU a 7-0 lead just 2:26 after the opening kickoff.
Kent State's players and coaches credited the fast start to a visit from Haynes. The Flashes' head coach is in the second week of a medical leave.
"The most exciting part of the game was that our head coach was able to address the team in pregame," said Treadwell. "Our men were juiced up. When it comes from the head coach, it makes a big difference. It was exciting that he could be here and enjoy the win."
Holley, who rushed for 119 yards on 21 carries and threw for another 105, added a 25-yard touchdown pass to Justin Rankin midway through the first quarter and a 25-yard scoring throw to Raekwon James early in the second as the Flashes took a 21-14 lead into the half.
The KSU defense also played a big part in the victory. A third-down sack by junior linebacker Jim Jones at the Bison three led to a third-quarter safety when a snapped punt sailed through the end zone. Sophomore defensive end Nick Faulknerset the stage for Gamble's final touchdown when he forced a Newton fumble that teammate Theo Eboigbe fell on at the Howard 30.
"We needed some sort of a spark, some sort of momentum to turn the game in our favor," said Faulkner. "I just went after the ball and I was happy my teammates were able to get it."
Kent State goes back on the road for games at Marshall and Louisville in the next two weeks before returning home to face Buffalo on Sept. 30.