Kent State led the country in scoring in 2020 by amassing 49.8 points per game in a 4-game schedule, exclusively against MAC competition. But when traveling to College Station in 2021 to challenge the No. 6 team in the land, the results from last fall couldn’t feel more distant.
Texas A&M clamped up Kent State’s typical scoring output in a 41-10, wire-to-wire victory Saturday night in College Station. Housed in a raucous environment of over 97,000 fans, the Golden Flashes’ electrifying offense from 2020 was severely out-gained 595-336 to open the new 2021 campaign.
Despite the lack of scoring output, the Golden Flashes’ offense strung together solid drive after solid drive to open the night. However, upon routine trips to Aggie territory, disaster repeatedly struck. Kent State crossed midfield in five of its first seven possessions and registered a first down on six of its first seven drives, but all of that progress was exchanged for only three points.
“We were ahead of schedule early on in the drives,” head coach Sean Lewis said. “As we got into the red zone and A&M territory, it tightened up a little bit. We knew the margin of error was going to be very, very tight. We were a little bit off with our timing in the throw game, so we weren’t as efficient as we needed to be.”
While the game was still within striking distance, inopportune turnovers plagued the Golden Flashes. Quarterback Dustin Crum only threw two interceptions in each of his last two seasons, but he tossed a pair of picks to Texas A&M safety Leon O’Neal deep into Aggie territory. The first one was a miscommunication with his receiver in the end zone at the end of the first half — a touchdown would have tied it at 10 apiece. The second interception proved even more costly as O’Neal returned the misfire 85 yards to hand the Aggies a 3-score lead.
“We had a little bit of miscommunication there at the end of the first half and coming out to start the second half,” Lewis said. “We needed to put our kids in better positions there to start the second half. That starts with me. To grow and get better, we know Dustin is going to make great decisions in the future. He’ll lead and we’ll follow with him.”
While the scoreboard didn’t reflect Kent State’s offensive firepower, some of that was still felt in College Station. The Flashes ranked second in rushing offense in 2020, and they churned out considerable yardage on an Aggies defense which finished No. 2 in stopping the run a year ago. Running back Xavier Williams burst for 73 yards on eight attempts while Crum shuffled for 60 yards — an impressive rushing output for the quarterback considering the numerous sacks he endured from the Texas A&M front seven. Overall, Kent State accumulated 226 yards on the ground, and the Aggies did not mince words about this result.
“This is the best defense in the country, and it’s unacceptable how we handled that,” O’Neal said concerning Kent State’s rushing production.
Kent State’s defense wasn’t spectacular at stifling the run, as the Aggies featured two 100-yard running backs Saturday night. But the secondary challenged Texas A&M freshman quarterback Haynes King throughout the first half. Cornerback Elvis Hines picked off two passes in Kent State territory, snagging one off a ricochet and jumping a route to secure the other. High caliber play in the Flashes’ secondary caused the halftime score to be 10-3 in the Aggies’ favor — allowing Kent State to lurk around until the middle stages of the third quarter.
“The way they were able to play together as a unit, the way they were able to turn the football over — they were playing confident, they were attacking the ball, flying to the ball carrier,” Lewis said regarding the early defensive success. “I really like the way they were sending the message with their pads.”
Third down defense was one aspect of the Kent State defense which struggled. The inability to get off the field on critical downs extended numerous Texas A&M drives. Overall, the Aggies converted on 9 of 13 third downs, often targeting wide receiver Ainias Smith on such plays. Smith accrued 100 receiving yards and a pair of third down touchdowns, but what looked like a spectacular performance to viewers didn’t resonate well with the junior wideout.
“It may have looked good, but personally, I’m my own biggest critic so I feel like I played like butt today,” Smith said.
The Aggies’ offense struggled to generate points in the first half, but everything opened up in the third quarter following Crum’s pick six. Running back Devon Achane subsequently exploded for a 63-yard touchdown carry which ultimately moved the game into blowout status. King also closed the quarter with a 53-yard pass to Caleb Chapman — one of the rare home run plays yielded by the secondary. Texas A&M scored four second half touchdowns compared to one in the opening frame, sealing any doubt before crunch time struck.
After Texas A&M’s second half fireworks settled, Kent State inserted backup quarterback Collin Schlee into the game. He anchored a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive and was responsible for the team’s lone journey to the end zone. The Golden Flashes had several opportunities at chip shot field goals in the fourth quarter but missed from 25 and 24 yards out, resulting in a 31-point annihilation — Kent State’s largest loss since 2019. Still, the team leaves the Lone Star State with positive takeaways after an excellent half of defense.
“I felt like we flew to the ball,” Hines said, citing Kent State winning the turnover battle 5-2. “I feel like we did good. There are some things we can improve on and we’ll work on that starting tomorrow.”
Already situated at 0-1, Kent State’s non-conference schedule is no breeze. The Golden Flashes, winners of seven of their last nine, return to Ohio to host VMI of the FCS next week. Then, they wind up in Big Ten country to face Iowa and Maryland to put a cap on the month of September.
“We’re looking for strides, tremendous improvement from Week 1 to Week 2 as we open up at Dix Stadium at home against a very good VMI team,” Lewis said.