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Kent State’s defense improves, but not enough to push past Arkansas in 28-6 loss

Golden Flashes hang within one score of Razorbacks through halftime, but remain in search for first TD of 2023.

NCAA Football: Kent State at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The Kent State Golden Flashes kicked off their 2023 season on a Thursday night in Orlando, signifying a completely brand new era for the program.

Coaching changes are beyond commonplace in college football. Losing star talent to the transfer portal is an increasing phenomenon. But Kent State was struck with a tremendous combination of both this offseason. Head coach Kenni Burns inherited a team returning the fewest starters in the FBS at three, and that vast inexperience showed in a 56-6 thrashing at UCF in Week 1.

But 22 players accrued a valuable start in that UCF game, and the overall experience of the program cranked up exponentially after a 50-point defeat. Kent State was eager to channel the lessons learned from that night into a difficult Week 2 matchup with Arkansas. While the Golden Flashes fell in 28-6 fashion, marginal improvements were witnessed in almost every facet of the game.

Defense was Kent State’s most grave concern after the opener. No team surrendered more yards in Week 1 than the 723 allowed by the Golden Flashes. Kent State utilized turnovers as a crutch that night, forcing three turnovers without forcing routine punts or fourth down stops. But that changed Saturday in SEC country. Kent State’s defense swarmed out of the gate to force punts on each of Arkansas’ first three possessions. Two of those drives were 3-and-outs — the latter which was manufactured by Kent State’s only sack of the afternoon.

The Golden Flashes utilized their defensive improvement to secure a 3-0 advantage, but that short-lived lead lasted roughly two minutes of game clock. One play after forcing the second of those three consecutive punts, Kent State tossed a gut-wrenching pick-six. In his Razorback debut, South Florida transfer linebacker Antonio Grier intercepted Mike Alaimo and raced untouched for a 25-yard touchdown. All of that defensive progress required to manufacture a lead was suddenly mitigated by an offensive miscue.

Kent State narrowed the deficit to 7-6 in the middle of the second quarter when kicker Andrew Glass connected on his second of two field goal attempts. Bereft of a touchdown through two matchups, Glass remains responsible for all 12 Golden Flashes points this season — and three of his four makes are 43 yards and beyond. Although the team often relies on the long kicking game for points, Kent State still managed two red zone appearances Saturday, which was only one fewer than Arkansas.

Alaimo saw a significant spike in efficiency from his first career start, completing 11-of-17 passes for 174 yards. The run game proved also more effective this week as Gavin Garcia for 68 yards on 18 attempts. Kent State’s overall rushing numbers were less than stellar, however, due to the relatively inexperienced offensive line yielding seven sacks to the Razorbacks. Arkansas’ defensive line pressure was the most overwhelming discrepancy between the teams, and Trajan Jeffcoat and Jaheim Thomas led the forceful backfield invasion against Kent State.

Starting with a touchdown right before halftime, the Razorbacks eventually pulled ahead with 21 unanswered points to claim a 22-point victory. Two of those scores were short connections from quarterback KJ Jefferson to JUCO transfer receiver Andrew Armstrong. Splitting in between was a third quarter rushing touchdown by Rashod Dubinon, who operated in an expanded role in the absence of First Team All-SEC running back Raheim Sanders.

The second half game clock flew by due to the Razorbacks’ clock-eating tendencies. After turning it over on downs coming out of the break, Arkansas entered a rhythm and hogged the ball for the remainder of the game. Sam Pittman’s team concluded the event with a 12-play, 91-yard drive, followed by a 15-play, 73-yard drive, and capped with an 11-play, 61-yard drive straight into victory formation.

Although the closer margin of defeat was somewhat the result of fewer possessions, it was undeniable Kent State played a stronger all-around game than it did in the opener. Going forward, the Golden Flashes look to shore up the offensive line and improve third down defense as primary areas for improvement.

Week 3’s matchup is Burns’ first home game since taking the head coaching gig last December. Kent State’s visiting opponent is Central Connecticut of the FCS, but the Golden Flashes cannot afford to overlook the level of competition, as a pair of MAC teams fell to FCS squads in Week 2.