The colored leaves below the blue sky at Dix Stadium painted a picture-perfect setting for a fall afternoon of football Saturday in Kent, Ohio.
The outcome for Kent State was perfect as well, a 45-43 come-from-behind Mid-American Conference victory over Ball State.
“When we drove in the buses from the hotel, it felt like a big-time college atmosphere,” Kent State coach Darrell Hazell said after seeing fans tailgating outside Dix Stadium and the large crowd inside.
The game itself had a similar feel, matching 2-1 Kent State against 3-1 Ball State, a team with victories over Indiana and South Florida from conferences that receive automatic BCS berths.
After a 10-play, 58-yard opening drive ended when Ball State QB Keith Wenning fumbled the center snap at the Kent 1-yard line, the Cardinals missed another scoring opportunity when kicker Steven Schott came up short on the 51-yard field goal, keeping intact the Golden Flashes' streak of keeping their opponents scoreless in the first quarter.
That was it, however, for the defenses dominating play. The 21,657 on hand, the 10th-largest crowd in Dix Stadium history, proceeded to witness an incredible offensive display. A total of 88 points were scored in the final three quarters, with each team reaching double digits in each period.
Kent State would score 21 second-quarter points. all from its combo of pint-sized Dri Archer (5’8", 175 pounds) and bruiser Trayion Durham (6’0", 250). Archer would score two of his three touchdowns in the second quarter and finish with 350 all-purpose yards.
“I was shocked,” said Archer when hearing his final totals, adding “it's execution and linemen opening up holes for the running game and [quarterback] Spencer [Keith] just finding the open receiver.”
Every time Kent State found the end zone, Ball State’s Wenning seemed to answer, passing for a career-high 445 yards (the second most in school history) and five touchdowns, with no interceptions.
“He’s a great player,” Hazell said after the game. "You have to remember he is the same guy who beat Indiana and South Florida.”
Prior to Saturday's game, Ball State was first in the MAC in rushing yards. averaging 239 yards per game. Saturday, the Cardinals finished with 112.
Late in the fourth quarter, a pass that was tipped twice landed in the unlikely hands of Ball State nose tackle Brandon Newman for the game's only interception. The Cardinals took possession at the Kent State 13-yard line after the pick and took only three plays to score, taking their first lead at 43-42 with 5:38 remaining.
Those two plays temporarily deflated Kent State and its fans.
But the Golden Flashed responded, despite starting from their 6-yard line with 2:05 to play, driving 86 yards in 15 plays to set up the game-winning 25-yard field goal by Freddy Cortez with six second remaining.
“This is a huge win for a lot of reasons for our program,'’ said Hazell, who lost some of his voice during the course of this emotional roller-coaster of a game.
It marks the first time since 2006 that Kent State is 2-0 in MAC play. And the last time the Golden Flashes won three of their first four games was all the way back in 1987.
After finishing 5-7 last season, it is easy to overlook Kent State. But over their last nine games, the Golden Flashes are 7-2 and a remarkable 6-1 in their last seven conference games.
Also take into consideration that Kent State has already scored more points (123) in four games than it scored in eight games (112) last season.
Rome was not built in a day and neither will Kent State’s football program. But serious progress is being made.
Saturday was a major step in the right direction.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
Follow on Twitter @BoMarchionte of College2Pro.com.