KENT: The early scene Thursday night at Dix Stadium lined up perfectly for a successful evening for Kent State in its season-opening game against Liberty.
More than 7,000 students had already packed into the student section behind the Golden Flashes’ bench before kickoff. Loads of other fans were still filing through the gates during introductions.
Outside, local police were busy directing long lines of waiting cars into overflow parking behind the stadium in the fieldhouse lot, with the main parking lot filled to capacity.
With all the excitement, the Golden Flashes responded instantly to the rare show of student and community support.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Colin Reardon led a 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on KSU’s opening series and then later pieced together an eight-play, 88-yard drive in the fourth quarter to send the Flashes’ faithful home happy with a 17-10 victory.
“I was surprised when I came out how many fans there were,” Flashes receiver Chris Humphrey said of the crowd of 20,790. “It was a really good turnout for our first game. I hope they keep coming back.”
The end result was positive, but the Flashes had to endure their share of setbacks before the comeback was secured.
Senior running back Dri Archer suffered an ankle injury in the first quarter that left him a bystander in the second half. The extent of Archer’s injury remains unknown but KSU coach Paul Haynes doesn’t think it is serious.
The Flashes also committed nine penalties for 70 yards and the offense was stagnant for two quarters. As a result, the Flashes trailed the Flames, a Football Championship Series member, by three points in the fourth quarter.
“It wasn’t pretty, but a win’s a win,” said Haynes, a former Kent State defensive back and assistant coach who was given the game ball to commemorate his first head-coaching victory. “It was a lot of getting first-game mistakes out of the way. We killed ourselves with penalties. Those are things we’ve got to get cleaned up, but the guys stepped up when they had to and we got the win.”
The Flashes’ impressive first series was capped by Reardon’s 6-yard pass to receiver Casey Pierce, which survived a review by officials. Kicker Anthony Melchiori tacked on the extra point to give the Flashes a 7-0 lead.
But all the energy spurred by last season’s record 11-win season and GoDaddy.com Bowl game appearance that halted a 40-year bowl drought came close to being deflated when Archer came up limping on the opening drive.
Archer was denied the opportunity to return Liberty’s first kick because of a touchback so the first time he touched the ball came on the second play of the first drive — a rush for no gain.
Six plays later, Archer injured his left ankle on second-and-four, after gaining six yards out of a surprise Wildcat formation. Archer carried the ball one more time, for four yards, on the Flashes’ first play of the second quarter.
“Of course when you don’t have Dri out there for a lot of different reasons, you have to change up [the game plan] a little bit,” Haynes said.
Archer, the Flashes’ 5-foot-8, 175-pound speed demon spent the rest of the first half on the sideline being attended to by trainers, with a white towel wrapped around his neck. When Kent State’s players and coaches ran from the sideline across the field with a 7-3 halftime lead, Archer followed with an excruciatingly slow stroll.
When the second half started, Archer was again on the sideline — this time without pads and with a walking boot on his left foot.
“I do not know yet,” Haynes said of the severity of Archer’s injury. “From what [the medical staff] just sat there and said, he’ll be fine.”
With Archer sidelined, the Flashes settled into a mode of conservative play-calling, coupled with little use of running back Trayion Durham and fifth-year senior receiver Tyshon Goode, the team’s other playmakers.
With the Flashes stalled, Liberty took a 10-7 lead midway through the third quarter, converting an 11-yard touchdown on a pass from quarterback Josh Woodrum to receiver Gabe Henderson.
The Flashes’ offense jolted back to life midway through the fourth quarter with a 74-yard drive capped by kicker Anthony Melchiori’s 39-yard field goal that tied the score with 10:57 to go.
Six and a half minutes later, KSU capped an 88-yard drive with a 42-yard touchdown pass down the sideline from Reardon to Humphrey.
“We realized that late in the game, the corner that was on me was getting a little tired,” Humphrey said. “So [Reardon] threw a simple, three-step throw and it’s been drilled into my head from all the coaches I’ve had in my career that you always make the first guy miss. So that’s what I did. It was a great read and I couldn’t have asked for a better ball. I knew we needed [the score] bad.”
The most impressive showing of the night came from Reardon, who finished with a veteran-like stat line that belied his inexperience: 21-for-28 for 194 yards and two touchdowns. The former Poland Seminary standout also rushed 10 times for 38 yards.
“For his first start as a young kid out there, to drive the team down [field] on the last drive, that’s huge,” Haynes said.
Stephanie Storm can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Kent State blog at http://www.ohio.com/flashes. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/sports.abj.