It looked like we were in for a new era of Kent State football when the teams entered the locker room at the midway point in Champaign.
The Golden Flashes stormed out of the gate to open 2018 with a 17-3 lead over Illinois. Kent State had never beaten a Big Toe opponent in its 57-year history, but Saturday looked like an opportune time to strike.
However, a four-touchdown outburst in the second half put an end to those dreams. The Fighting Illini rushed for four touchdowns in the final 30 minutes of action — the Illini’s first 14-point comeback since 2014. When the first-time starting quarterback A.J. Bush Jr. took the final kneel at Memorial Stadium, the scoreboard read 31-24, in favor of the home team.
Illinois got on board first, drilling a field goal from 50 yards out during the opening minutes. But the first half concluded in three consecutive Kent State scores, with impressive possessions guided by quarterback Woody Barrett. Barrett, an Auburn transfer, rejuvenated a typically dormant Kent State offense with 270 passing yards, 117 rushing yards, and three total touchdowns.
Barrett’s first touchdown pass was a connection from 24 yards out to wide receiver Antwan Dixon to put the Golden Flashes ahead of the Illini. A Matthew Trickett field goal in the second quarter added to the lead, and then Kent State’s offense got rolling toward the end of the opening half with another score.
Barrett launched a beautiful deep ball toward the end zone and junior receiver Mike Carrigan cradled it in his arms and dove for six. The 28-yard score provided Kent State a 14-point lead — something the Flashes haven’t achieved much in the last several seasons.
A strong second half running game would serve as Kent State’s kryptonite.
The Golden Flashes started the second half by stopping an upstart Illinois offense, but the Illini responded by intercepting one of Barrett’s passes off of a tip on the ensuing possession. Four plays later, Ra’Von Bonner dashed into the end zone from eight yards out to reel Illinois within one score.
Kent State’s offense continued its rhythm from the first half by driving into enemy territory. But on 4th-and-1, running back Justin Rankin was stifled behind the line of scrimmage. It was one of two key fourth down stops by the Illini, and the Golden Flashes finished 4-of-6 on such plays.
Illinois responded with a three-play drive, where Reggie Corbin’s number was called each time. Corbin finished the drive with a breathtaking 39-yard run, where he played the role of a tightrope walker down the left sideline before crossing the pylon.
With the score knotted at 17, Kent State crafted an 8-play drive that resulted in a touchdown on a Woody Barrett quarterback keeper to regain the lead. Barrett completed a perfect 5-of-5 passes on the drive, which would be the Golden Flashes last successful offensive go-around all day.
Illinois’ rushing offense then exposed the Golden Flashes’ defense to end the half. Power back Mike Epstein scored on a 5-yard run for the tie, and Corbin earned his second touchdown of the day in the early fourth quarter. Illinois would not relinquish the 31-24 lead, but Kent State provided a major challenge near the goal line.
Kent State strung together a 13-play drive, peaking at 1st-and-goal from the Illinois 5. A 2-yard loss by Barrett on second down was critical in backing the Flashes away from the end zone, and they could not recover. On fourth down, Barrett scrambled around and launched the ball last-minute to avoid a sack, but Illinois intercepted it and claimed a tough victory.
Kent State would not earn its first-ever win over a Big Ten opponent, but the Golden Flashes looked to play a different, more-improved brand of football than we saw in previous seasons. The offense increased its versatility, and the passing game was incredible in the first half. The Golden Flashes (0-1) retake the field in Week 2 against the Howard Bison of the FCS — one of their two victories in the 2017 season.