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Eastern Michigan outlasts Kent State, 28-14, as teams combine for 14 three-and-outs

Eagles return Kent State’s opening onside kickoff for six and cruise to victory in an ugly punt fest.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 01 Howard at Eastern Michigan Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This one went off-the-rails before a center even snapped the ball.

Saturday’s contest at The Factory in Ypsilanti, MI commenced in unique and bizarre fashion. Kent State went for the surprise element, opting for an onside kick out of the gate. But a fully alert Eastern Michigan wasn’t blindsided by the Golden Flashes’ bag of tricks.

The ball bounced on the turf and was scooped up by Kendrick Nowling for the Eagles. When he took off, not a single player stood between him and the end zone. Nowling raced 44 yards to the house as a pack of Golden Flashes trailed behind him, vaulting Eastern Michigan ahead 7-0 with just six seconds of clock exhausted.

That bizarre onside kick was the tone-setter in this one. Eastern Michigan utilized that initial momentum to cruise to a 28-14 victory over Kent State on its signature grey turf, in a non-aesthetic, defensive-oriented rock fight of a football game.

Although several offensive touchdowns were scored throughout the afternoon, they were merely interruptions to what was an all-out punt fest in Ypsilanti. Prior to the first offensive touchdown — a 19-yard scamper by Eastern Michigan running back Samson Evans in the late second quarter — the intradivision MAC opponents combined for eight three-and-outs, and each of the Eagles’ first five offensive possessions concluded in that fashion.

In total, there were 14 three-and-outs. Six belonged to Kent State. Eight belonged to Eastern Michigan. It was an extremely busy three-and-a-half hours for punters Josh Smith and Mitchell Tomasek. Even Kent State quarterback Mike Alaimo joined in on the punting fun with one pooch punt. Those three players combined to boot it away 18 times with Tomasek punting on a game-high 10 occasions.

The second half also featured a sequence where neither team held onto the ball for substantial amount of time. The early portion of the fourth quarter saw a span of eight consecutive drives that lasted three plays or fewer. Yet, scoring was prevalent during that sequence. Evans punched in his second rushing touchdown of the game on a 2-play, 37-yard drive to amplify Eastern Michigan’s lead to 28-7. Then the teams traded three-and-outs, and immediately afterward, they traded fumbles. Kent State capitalized on the Eagles’ fumble, stringing together a 2-play, 43-yard drive with a long touchdown strike from Tommy Ulatowski to Luke Floriea.

Ulatowski replaced the year-long starter Alaimo in the first quarter in response to a slow offensive start. The backup completed 12-of-28 passes, but facilitated two touchdowns without an interception in the defeat. He became the first Kent State quarterback this season to record multiple touchdown strikes in a single game.

Kent State completed 38.9 percent of passes as a team, and the aerial game saw similar results for Eastern Michigan. Austin Smith connected on just 9-of-25 attempts, but he completed several downfield deliveries to wide receiver Tanner Knue, who finished with five receptions for 85 yards and a touchdown in the victory. Neither run game averaged four yards per carry, so the immense passing struggles faced by both offenses strongly contributed to the three-and-out laden affair. Collectively, just 23-of-61 passes landed in receivers’ hands, amounting to an aggregate 37.7 completion percentage.

Four fumbles were coughed up throughout the contest, and this recurring inability to hold onto the pigskin more so benefited Eastern Michigan. The Eagles won the fumble recovery battle, 3-1, although the Eagles were unable to capitalize offensively after all three takeaways.

In the end, Eastern Michigan (4-3, 2-1 MAC) emerged in wire-to-wire fashion to reclaim a winning record on the season. Kent State (1-6, 0-3 MAC) remains winless against FBS opponents in year one of the Kenni Burns era, and one more loss eliminates the Golden Flashes from bowl contention.