Anything can happen in a rivalry game.
The table was set for Akron and Kent State to be an instant classic. Both teams entered with identical 1-7 records, equally starved for their first victory. The bad blood was evident. There were sideline scuffles, emotions ran high, and at the end of the road was the prized Wagon Wheel — the storied rivalry trophy which has been hoisted by the winning team since the 1940s.
The Wagon Wheel was a fixture in the Golden Flashes’ athletic facilities, decorated in Kent State hues for each of the past four seasons. All signs pointed to Kent State maintaining the giant wheel when holding a commanding 27-10 lead in the fourth quarter. But anything can happen in a rivalry game, and the unthinkable followed.
In the final 10 minutes, Akron rattled off three consecutive touchdowns and usurped the Golden Flashes’ advantage with 26 seconds remaining. The Zips generated consecutive to put the finishing touches on the inspiring comeback, and the entire team raced toward the Wagon Wheel in the aftermath of the 31-27 victory. The Wagon Wheel became property of Akron for the first time since 2018 as the Zips simultaneously completed their largest comeback since 2018.
“Heading into this game or any rivalry game, you know it’s gonna be a dogfight,” Akron head coach Joe Moorhead said. “Something I heard from Coach (Mario) Cristobal at Oregon was, ‘The best thing to bring into any fight is a reason.’ I remember hearing from my dad growing up, ‘If you want to win any fight, you’ve gotta swing first, you’ve gotta swing hard, and at the end of the day, you gotta keep swinging,’ and that’s what our kids did.”
The comeback effort initiated in the early stages of the fourth quarter. Quarterback Jeff Undercuffler Jr. strung together a 16-play, 87-yard clock-eating drive for the Zips, finishing in the end zone on a 22-yard completion to Jasaiah Gathings. With the deficit still at double-digits, Akron’s defense provided a nice assist and forced a punt four minutes later. Needing to move quick, the Zips wasted no time. Running back Lorenzo Lingard dashed for a 37-yard touchdown to shift the game into a one-score affair with 3:32 remaining, while Akron clung onto all three timeouts.
“I thought on defense in the fourth quarter it got away,” Kent State head coach Kenni Burns said. “They completed some balls. We didn’t tackle very well. And we didn’t do very good of a job. We misfit a couple things. We had some backups in there because of the injuries we had throughout the game, but that’s not an excuse. We gotta play better. They’re talented enough and they’ve had enough reps that you want them to be able to make a play.”
Those timeouts came in handy during Kent State’s 22-second three-and-out drive, and Akron was given substantial time to operate. The Zips methodically trickled down the field and upon facing a 2nd and goal at the 5-yard line, Undercuffler etched his name into the rivalry’s century-old lore. He faked a handoff on a zone read and waltzed comfortably into the end zone with 26 seconds remaining, fervently celebrating in front of the ESPNU broadcast cameras after officially unraveling Kent State’s 17-point lead.
“The last thing you would expect — because he runs like me and that ain’t a complement — was to run that damn ball in,” Moorhead said. “It was a triple option essentially. Give to Lorenzo, pull and throw to (tight end) TJ (Banks) in the flat and then they double-teamed TJ and no one covered Jeff. So he just ran the damn thing in.”
The Golden Flashes had one chance at the tie, but nothing came about. Kent State took a pair of sacks on its final two plays with Akron defensive end DJ Nunnally offering the takedown to send the Wagon Wheel back to Akron.
It was a game of many firsts for a Kent State team which struggled mightily against its first seven FBS opponents this season. The Golden Flashes never scored more than 17 against FBS competition or even held a lead greater than six in such games this year, but both items were accomplished in the first half. It was also Kent State’s first one-score game of the year, as the Wednesday night contest unfolded in an unfamiliar manner for this young Golden Flashes team, and they weren’t able to pull through triumphant.
“I thought we came out ready to play and we had pride in defending the Wheel and holding on to it. As the game got closer, I could feel us getting a little bit uncomfortable,” Burns said. “We did some stuff uncharacteristic late in the game — getting the penalty and giving them a 15-yard personal foul. That’s not who we are and what we do.”
Kent State built the lead primarily due to the lethal connection between quarterback Tommy Ulatowski and wide receiver Chrishon McCray. Ulatowski garnered plenty of in-game experience before, but the Wagon Wheel was his first career start. An overwhelming amount of his attempts were deep shots to McCray, who logged a career-high 161 yards on six receptions, finishing with two touchdowns in a memorable performance. Four of his six receptions traveled more than 25 yards, and he fended off coverage with ease all night — even working through pass interference for one of his two touchdown grabs.
However, McCray’s night was short-lived. At the 5:20 mark in the third quarter, he exited the contest on the cart with an apparent ankle injury. Kent State also lost starting left tackle Jimto Obidegwu — one of the veteran members of an offensive line which starts three freshmen — and leading tackler Devin Nicholson from the outside linebacker position. Those three players, all among Kent State’s best, never returned and missed the entirety of the all-important fourth quarter.
“They’re obviously big losses for our team, but we gotta respond,” Burns said. “Devin Nicholson, that’s as huge as it comes for us on defense. He’s the leader. He’s the voice. He plays really hard. Putting someone in for him was a little bit of a drop-off to be quite honest, with just experience not talent. But Chrishon and Jimto going down — those are big voices. It definitely took a toll on us.”
Unlike Kent State, Joe Moorhead’s Zips were beyond acquainted with tight ballgames. The Zips were on the losing end of four one-score games this year, including two in overtime fashion. But this time, they prevailed with their strongest offensive performance of the year. Undercuffler finished with 298 yards and two touchdowns without an interception to keep Akron afloat. Gathings and Daniel George thrived from the wide receiver positions, each surpassing the century mark on nine receptions apiece. And Lingard exceeded 100 rushing yards for the second time in his college career. Akron punted on five of its first seven possessions, but all of those skill position players remained resilient and claimed the Wagon Wheel thanks to impeccable play in the fourth quarter.
“I think the key thing is we didn’t turn the ball over and give them a bunch of short fields,” Moorhead said. “Jeff had a good week of practice and he executed well within the system. We went on first and second down primarily to 12 personnel, which I don’t know if I’ve ever done, just because I wanted to set some edges and try to get the run game going... I thought Jeff made good decisions in the run game in terms of RPO and getting the ball out, was fairly accurate, and threw the ball with confidence.”
Kent State (1-8, 0-5 MAC) is one of four teams without an FBS victory this season. The Golden Flashes are eliminated from bowl contention, but the team aims to seek progress in the first year of the Burns era. Bowling Green looms on the schedule, and while some key injuries suffered Wednesday may persist, Kent State hopes to use the competitiveness from this game to springboard the team into its first MAC win of 2023.
“We’re disappointed. It’s not what we expected at all, but we didn’t play four quarters. We talked about starting fast, but we didn’t finish strong. It was as clear as day,” Burns said. “You saw signs today we’re closer than we were, but we gotta put it together, and we didn’t put it together in the fourth quarter.”
Akron (2-7, 1-4 MAC) claims the Wagon Wheel for the first time in five seasons after losing by an aggregate score of 166-65 in the prior four meetings. The Zips tied their win total from year one of the Moorhead era and finally emerged in a one-score game against FBS competition after losing 13 consecutive. The thrilling Wagon Wheel comeback was their first such win since 2018. Akron pays a visit to MAC East frontrunner Miami (OH) next Wednesday to try to build upon the momentum from a memorable night for the program.
“So many damn close calls over the past two years — nine one-score losses, two of them in overtime,” Moorhead said. “You’re looking for that breakthrough moment. You keeping swinging at the boulder. You don’t know if it’s gonna be the first swing or the 10th or the 100th, but eventually it’s gonna split.”