Heading into Athens, GA on a Saturday afternoon is as daunting of a task as there is in the 2022 college football season. The reigning national champion Georgia Bulldogs have a stranglehold on the No. 1 spot in the AP Poll, and entering Week 4, they outscored their previous three opponents 130-10.
But Kent State became accustomed to challenges in a grueling non-conference schedule which featured road trips to Washington and Oklahoma in the first two weeks of September. The Golden Flashes tested Georgia in a manner that Oregon nor South Carolina could, falling in 39-22 fashion in Athens.
“I’m not happy with the result, but I’m very pleased in the process in the way our kids went about their business,” Kent State head coach Sean Lewis said. “They’re a really talented ballclub. We have a really talented club that has gone through tremendous adversity, tremendous conflict in the month of September and they embrace it. They get better because of it and our character grows stronger because of it.”
By posting 22 points, Kent State more than doubled the scoring output of any of Georgia’s prior opponents. Oregon posted a lone second quarter field goal on the Bulldogs, South Carolina managed a last-minute touchdown, while FCS squad Samford faced a shutout. Meanwhile, the Golden Flashes scored on five separate occasions — two touchdowns and three field goals — against a team which yielded just two scores entering Saturday.
“I believe that we can win every single game in every single arena that we go to,” Lewis said. “And it happened to be the Georgia Bulldogs today, but my belief is that we need to do what winning requires each and every single day. When we do that the way that we did today, we’re gonna have a chance to win.”
Georgia’s offense struck on the second play from scrimmage on a reverse to All-American tight end Brock Bowers, who displayed his NFL-caliber athleticism by scampering 75 yards for a touchdown. Just 19 seconds into the contest, the Golden Flashes trailed 7-0.
“They have a tight end that they can hand the ball to that goes 75 yards — that’s a little bit different than most teams have,” Lewis said. “So they stretch you out in a lot of different ways.”
But after the early fireworks, Kent State made things as challenging as possible for the No. 1 team in the nation. The Bulldogs muffed a punt which set up an early Kent State field goal. Then, the Golden Flashes stalled a Georgia drive as Montre Miller became the first player to intercept Bulldogs quarterback Stetson Bennett IV this season.
“It’s a long ball game. If you’re gonna let that second play of the game influence the rest of the game, then you’re in the wrong arena, Lewis said. “There’s gonna be some choppy waters and that’s gonna make a skilled sailor. Let’s settle in, let’s ride these waves out, and let’s get in the ballgame, and I thought we did that in all three phases.”
The interception set Kent State up with unfavorable field position, causing Georgia to block a punt out of the end zone for a safety. But the team showed impressive resiliency in a difficult environment and didn’t let that miscue hamper the early momentum. Moments later, Kent State capitalized on a Georgia fumble when Collin Schlee delivered a screen to the lightning-quick Devontez Walker, who out-ran several Georgia defenders en route to a 56-yard touchdown.
Many screenshots of Georgia’s 12-10 early second quarter lead floated around social media, as the nation took notice of Kent State’s early havoc-wreaking skills. While the Golden Flashes early scores were primarily the result of opportune turnovers, they eventually found a way to sustain offensive drives. Led by Schlee, the “Flash Fast” offense churned out two lengthy field goal drives, spanning nine and 13 plays to make it 29-16 right after halftime.
“To have some early success after working through some adversity — I think it was three or four possessions where we had straight three-and-outs — but then ultimately we did some really great things at a high level against a really good opponent,” Lewis said. “Our kids realized that’s what we need to do. That gives them some life and that gives them some confidence.”
Kent State received an opportunity to trim the lead to one possession in the early fourth quarter when running back Marquez Cooper capped off a 12-play scoring drive with a 1-yard run, but the Golden Flashes were unable to convert two points, thus keeping the margin at 32-22. Still, Cooper’s touchdown ensured Kent State scored in all four quarters against the nation’s top defensive juggernaut.
“To be able to be in this environment, to be in a fourth quarter fight — yeah, we’re gonna have some bumps and bruises — but that’s what happens in this beautiful game. Our kids kept coming back,” Lewis said. “We believe in our core belief of toughness and we define it as going harder, longer than anybody else is willing to, and our kids showed that today.”
Georgia out-gained Kent State 529-281 but a 3-1 margin in the turnover battle was the equalizer at Sanford Stadium. The Bulldog offense moved the ball exceedingly well as Bowers finished with 77 rushing yards and 60 receiving yards while Bennett fired for 272 through the air — experiencing his first fourth quarter action of the season.
On the other side, several members of the Kent State offense enjoyed noteworthy showings. Schlee completed 14-of-21 attempts and avoiding an interception until his final drive of the game, while Cooper bolted for a season-high 90 yards and Walker surpassed the century mark by racking up 106 yards as the team’s leading receiver.
“He’s been in our program for over three years and he wasn’t a very highly recruited kid. He was a guy our staff went out and identified and he’s been developing and grooming since he’s been within our program,” Lewis said of Schlee. “Every single day, he goes about the right business in our program and you saw that again today. He went out and handled his work the same way that he does each and every single day and he doesn’t let the environment or opponent that he’s going against influence him.”
The non-conference gauntlet featuring Washington, Oklahoma, and Georgia is officially in the past for Lewis’ team. At 1-3 Kent State hasn’t played an opponent within single-digits yet, but the Golden Flashes showed signs of promise as MAC play approaches. Kent State, looking the part of contenders in a wide-open MAC East, looks to expand on its 10-game home winning streak when it takes on Ohio next Saturday.
“A lot’s made about the schedule and all these outside factors and everything but at the end of the day, it’s not about who we’re playing,” Lewis said. “The only real opponent that we have is winning and doing things that winning requires... The way that we show up to work tells me we’re going to be fine.”