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MOBILE, Ala. -- A superb season for the Kent State football team wound up a couple plays shy of stupendous.
The Golden Flashes, playing their first bowl game in 40 years, made a spirited bit to snatch the first bowl victory in program history but fell just short, bowing 17-13 to Sun Belt Conference champion Arkansas State in the 2013 GoDaddy.com Bowl Sunday at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
The loss comes on the heels of a difficult 44-37 double-overtime setback to Northern Illinois in the MAC Championship Game, giving the Flashes a pair of gut-wrenching losses to close an otherwise incredible 2012 campaign.
"It was a disappointing ending for us," said Darrell Hazell, who coached his final game for the Flashes and will now take over the program at Purdue. "We would have loved to get this win for our guys in that locker room. I have strong feelings for the guys. It's hard. I'm going to miss those guys."
Kent State's chance to secure the win was stuffed by Red Wolves junior linebacker Qushaun Lee, who tackled Flashes senior quarterback Spencer Keith three yards short of a first down on a fourth-and-eight play from the Arkansas State 25-yard line with under one minute remaining. Moments earlier a well-thrown 44-yard bomb from Keith to an open Chris Humphrey slipped through the freshman wide receiver's hands in the end zone.
The Flashes (11-3) were forced to play their final drive without star speedster Dri Archer, who finished the game with 77 yards rushing on nine attempts and scored Kent State's lone touchdown.
Archer injured his knee in the second quarter and later returned, but left for good after catching a short pass early in the fourth quarter.
"Dri banged his knee in the second quarter, and it started tightening up," said Hazell. "That's why he couldn't return."
A solid defensive effort headed by senior linebacker Luke Batton (11 tackles, 2 tackles for loss) and senior nose tackle Dana Brown (7 tackles, 1 sack, 3 tfl) gave Kent State a chance to win. The Flashes held an Arkansas State offense averaging over 36 points and 481 yards per game to just 285 yards, including just 107 in the second half. Star senior quarterback Ryan Aplin was held in check, completing 21-of-30 passes for 213 yards and a touchdown, and the Red Wolves managed just 72 rushing yards on 38 carries.
However, for the first time this season, Kent State's defense did not force a turnover.
After allowing a field goal on Arkansas State's first possession of the second half, increasing Arkansas State's lead to 17-10, the Flashes blanked the Red Wolves (10-3) for the final 23:35 of the game. But Kent State only managed three points of its own during that same stretch, and failed to cash in on three possessions in the fourth quarter -- two of which reached Arkansas State territory.
A booming 63-yard punt by freshman Anthony Melchiori bailed the Flashes out of a jam after a three-and-out to start the fourth quarter, pushing the Red Wolves back to their 21. Kent State forced a punt, and reached Arkansas State territory after a third-and-nine pass from Keith to tight end Tim Erjavec for 18 yards moved it to the 43.
The drive stalled, but Melchiori pinned Arkansas State back at its own 5 with a perfect 35-yard boot that was caught by teammate Malcolm Pannell.
The Red Wolves moved out to their own 43 but were then forced to punt, and Kent State took over at its own 23 with 4:50 to play.
As the drive started, Archer stood on the sideline with a towel over his head.
"I hurt it when I landed on the ground in the second quarter," said Archer. "I kept trying to go, but I was hopping around. I knew I was hurting the team when I was in there."
A series of short gains moved the ball into the Red Wolves end, then on first-and-10 from the 44 Humphrey broke into the clear down the middle of the field. Keith fired a bomb over Humphrey's shoulder and was actually jogging down the field preparing to celebrate when the pass went through Humphrey's arms.
Keith and company regrouped, converting a key fourth-and-eight. Keith took a shot in the pocket but hung in, giving senior wideout Matt Hurdle time to break open over the middle for a 15-yard gain to the Arkansas State 27.
A short run by sophomore running back Trayion Durham (20 carries, 68 yards) and a pair of incompletions set up a fourth-and-eight. Following a time out, Keith stepped back in the pocket, saw an opening and took off. He seemed to have room to run for the first down, but Lee closed quickly, forcing Keith to cut to his left. Lee then quickly gobbled up Keith, bringing Kent State's attempted rally to a disappointing close.
"It's a huge difference when you don't have the fastest player on the field (for the final drive)," said Keith, referring to Archer's absence. "We fought through it though and put together a good drive, but we just couldn't finish it out."
Keith finished 17-of-33 for 157 yards with one interception, the only turnover of the game, which came early on as the Flashes wasted an opportunity to score first.
After reserve tailback Julian Durden popped an inside handoff for 32 yards to the Red Wolves 1-yard line, Durham was stuffed on consecutive run plays. Then Keith tried to force a pass over the middle to Humphrey, but it was knocked away then picked off in the end zone by Arkansas State star linebacker Nathan Herrold.
After the Red Wolves offense was stopped for the fourth straight time to start the game, Archer took over. First he broke loose on an inside handoff, shaking away three tacklers on a 44-yard run to the Arkansas State 22. Later with Kent State facing a third-and-19, Archer drew a pass interference call in the end zone, giving the Flashes a first down at the 16.
On the next play, Archer took a reverse and exploded through a huge hole into the end zone, cutting off blocks by Hurdle and Keith for a 16-yard touchdown that gave Kent State a 7-0 lead with 12:10 remaining in the first half.
Hurdle was penalized 30 yards after the play, first for unsportsmanlike conduct, then for taking his helmet off, and Arkansas State returned the ensuing kickoff 33 yards to the Kent State 39. But a 9-yard sack on first down, and another sack on third down by Brown forced the Red Wolves to go three-and-out.
After the Flashes returned the favor with a three-and-out of their own, the Arkansas State offense suddenly came to life.
Snapping the football repeatedly just after it was spotted, the Red Wolves marched 60 yards in nine plays to tie the game. Arkansas State quarterback Ryan Aplin completed a key 21-yard toss to tight end Darion Griswold, then junior running back David Oku broke loose up the middle for a 10-yard touchdown run after Aplin faked an end-around to knot the contest at 7-7 with 5:40 left in the second quarter.
"I thought Arkansas State did an excellent job keeping us off balance with their hurry-up," said Hazell.
Kent State's offense stalled quickly for the second straight possession, and the Red Wolves scored again. Aplin completed a nine-play, 88-yard drive with a 31-yard touchdown pass to Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the year J.D. McKissic (11 catches, 113 yards), who beat Flashes senior free safety Leon Green on a corner route to give Arkansas State a 14-7 lead with 1:13 left in the half.
Kent State answered with a field goal just before the end of the half. Passes of 14 yards to Hurdle and 18 yards to Archer set up a 42-yard field goal by senior kicker Freddy Cortez that made it 14-10 Arkansas State at halftime.
After stymying the Red Wolves in the first quarter, Kent State's defense coughed up 132 yards in the second quarter as Aplin completed 10-of-12 tosses for 111 yards and a score in the stanza.
The Flashes were able to run the ball effectively in the first half, churning out 141 yards on 17 carries led by Archer's 75 yards on six attempts. Durham added 32 yards on nine carries.
The second half started precariously for the Flashes, with a three-and-out. A short punt by Melchiori was fumbled, but fair catch interference was called. The Red Wolves actually picked up the muffed punt and returned it 24 yards to the 45.
Arkansas State then marched to the Kent State 7, but Batton stuffed a third-and-two run by Oku for a one-yard loss to force a 25-yard field-goal attempt that Brian Davis nailed to increase the Red Wolves lead to 17-10 with 8:35 left in the third quarter.
Kent State answered with a field goal of its own behind Durham, who rushed five times for 24 yards and took a screen pass 15 yards to the Arkansas State 12. A third-down pass to Archer was dropped, but Cortez tacked on 26-yard field goal to bring his Flashes within 17-13 at the 1:44 mark of the third period.
"We didn't do enough in the red zone, and we had to settle for some field goals," said Hazell.
Kent State outgained Arkansas State 350-285.
Kent State closes the most successful season in school history with a school-record 11 wins, including a 10-game winning streak, but fell to 0-3 in bowl games.