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A day that started with hope and promise oozing from Dix Stadium ended with Kent State's football team narrowly avoiding disaster in its 2013 opener against Liberty.
The Golden Flashes needed a 42-yard touchdown pass from redshirt freshman quarterback Colin Reardon to junior wide receiver Chris Humphrey with 4:28 remaining, and a pair of huge plays by senior cornerback Darius Polk in the closing minutes to eke out a come-from-behind 17-10 victory over the FCS Flames before a large and vibrant crowd of 20,790 Thursday night in Kent.
But all's well that ends well according to head coach Paul Haynes, who was both thrilled and relieved after becoming the first Kent State head coach to win his opener since Dick Crum in 1988 -- when Haynes was a sophomore cornerback at Kent State.
"It wasn't pretty, but you know a win's a win," said a red-eyed Haynes afterward. "We knew we would have to face adversity, it wasn't gonna go perfect. It's always good to see a team fight through adversity and not give up when it's down. We had a lot guys out there playing their first college game and it was a tough game, we knew Liberty was going to be a good team. To see us fight through that and get the win ... we'll only get better."
Averting the upset was huge for a Golden Flashes team coming off the best season in school history, but it came with a price as senior speedster Dri Archer left the game in the first quarter after just three carries (10 yards) with an ankle injury and did not return.
Archer, who scored at least one touchdown in every Kent State game last season, appeared to be injured after he attempted to lunge over a pile of defenders during a 6-yard run on Kent State's opening possession. He returned to the game and carried the ball for four yards on the Flashes' next series, then left the game for good. He emerged for the second half without pads sporting a walking boot on his left foot.
Haynes had no details on Archer's injury afterward, but wasn't overly concerned.
"I do not know yet," said Haynes, when asked for an injury report on Archer, who also failed to complete his previous game in a Kent State uniform (last year's GoDaddy.com Bowl) due to injury. "They said he'll be fine."
After an impressive opening drive, Kent State's offense stalled without Archer until late in the third period.
Trailing 10-7, the Flashes took over at their own 4 having failed to produce points on six consecutive drives but proceeded to march 74 yards in 14 plays. A third-and-2 run by junior Trayion Durham was stuffed, but former Aurora High School star Anthony Melchiori lined his first collegiate field goal through the uprights from 39 yards out to knot the game 10-10 with 10:57 to play.
After Kent State's defense forced a punt, Humphrey made the play that sent his teammates home happy. He caught a short pass from Reardon near the sidelines, shook loose from a tackle attempt by Flames senior cornerback Walt Aikens at the 35 and sprinted into the end zone to give the Flashes a 17-10 lead with 4:28 to play.
"We realized that late in the game their corner that was on me was getting tired, so we just threw a simple three-step throw," said Humphrey. "It's been drilled into my head by all the coaches I've had in my career that you always make the first guy miss. That's what I did. Colin made a great read, threw it perfect, couldn't ask for a better ball, and I made the first guy miss and just got upfield. I knew we needed it bad."
Liberty threatened to tie the game on its following series, converting a third-and-5 with a 23-yard strike from sophomore quarterback Josh Woodrum to Darrin Peterson. Facing another third-and-5 at the KSU 40, the Flames twice attempted to attack Kent State senior cornerback Darius Polk, who earlier let a 58-yard bomb from Woodrum to Peterson (5 catches, 106 yards) get over his head to set up an 11-yard strike to Gabe Henderson that put Liberty on top 10-7.
Polk first pried Peterson's arms away on a slant on third down, then knocked the ball away from Peterson from behind on a similar fourth-down route to effectively seal the victory.
"I was sick to my stomach that I let that deep ball go over my head," said Polk. "I knew they were coming at me cause I gave up that deep ball, so I knew I had to keep my composure and have a short-term memory, let that play go. I knew my team needed me in the clutch."
Reardon was clutch in both the beginning and ending of his first game as a collegiate quarterback. He wound up completing 21-of-28 passes for 194 yards with no interceptions, but he did have the ball knocked loose while he was scrambling in the second quarter for a fumble that set up Liberty's first score, a 20-yard John Lunsford field goal that made it 7-3 late in the second quarter.
Reardon played like a poised veteran in the game's opening series, completing 5-of-5 passes for 35 yards. He saved his best throw for last, threading the needle to junior tight end Casey Pierce in the back of the end zone for a 6-yard score to complete an impressive 14-play 75-yard drive in the game's opening possession that lasted just over eight minutes.
"I haven't played since my senior year in high school, so I was really anxious," said Reardon. "I was really surprised I wasn't nervous really, I was just anxious to get the first snap. I knew since (Wednesday) that we were gonna pass the ball. Once I got that ball into (senior wideout Tyshon Goode) on the first play of the game, things were feeling good. We were doing everything in our gameplan in that (opening) drive, no penalties. It felt great. Everything worked."
That early momentum quickly stalled thanks in major part to penalties. Kent State was flagged eight times for 71 yards in the first half, and never seriously threatened to score again until late in the third quarter.
But Reardon, with the aid of bullish veteran back Durham (21 carries, 92 yards), was able to regroup and deliver late in the game when it mattered most. Reardon was 4-of-4 in the final stanza for 68 yards and a score in the final period.
"I think Colin played well," said Haynes. "The great thing about Colin is he'll be his worst critic. He'll look at the things he's gotta get better at. When you have your first start as a young kid and you go out there and drive the team down on the last drive, that's huge."
Thanks to the rally, and the incredible postgame fireworks display, the Flashes and their fans went home happy. Haynes hopes they all come together again when Kent State hosts Bowling Green (1-0) in a huge early-season Mid-American Conference matchup on Sept. 7.
"I thought (the atmosphere) was great," said Haynes. "Our student section was packed -- that's exactly what we've talked about, it all starts with our students. If we can get them to continue to buy into what we're doing and keep coming back, we'll have an awesome year. We'll get better for them to give them a better show."
GOODE RETURN: Senior wide receiver Tyshon Goode, who missed all of last year with a hamstring injury, caught three passes on Kent State's first series. He wound up catching a game-high eight passes for 75 yards and made some huge fourth-quarter catches despite battling cramps.
"It's huge having him back," said Haynes. "He got cramped up and kept going back in. There were a lot of times where I said get him out and he wouldn't go out."
STARTERS SIDELINED: Starting senior left guard Pat McShane and starting senior free safety Calvin Tiggle did not dress for the opener. McShane suffered a knee injury during practice on Aug. 8, and just this week began working some with trainers during practice but has not been full-go. Tiggle suffered a foot injury during Kent State's Jersey Scrimmage on Aug. 17, and has also dressed for practices since then but has not been able to make it the entire way.
Redshirt freshman Redo Reda started in place of McShane, while sophomore Keenan Stalls was in the lineup for Tiggle.
STREAKS IN TACT: Kent State earned its 11th straight regular season win and ninth in a row at home. The Flashes have also won 12 in a row against FCS teams.
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