With a little over seven minutes left in the third quarter, the Kent State football team had the ball on the 22-yard line of Texas A&M. 1st & 10. Down 13-3 against the No. 6 team in the country, a touchdown would put the Flashes right back into the game.
Dustin Crum stepped up to throw, defensive back Leon O’Neal read the pass perfectly and jumped in front of the ball. Interception. He sprinted down the field, returning it 85-yards before diving into the endzone.
It was O’Neal’s second interception of the day.
Coach Sean Lewis credited O’Neal with making a great play on the interception.
“He took some steps down and went underneath the route,” Lewis said. “He one-handed tipped it to himself and made a tremendous play.”
Crum’s second interception while driving deep into Aggies’ territory, the first coming with 20 seconds left in the second quarter at the 22-yard line, proved to be the momentum swing for Texas A&M.
The Flashes would be forced to punt on their next three drives, while gaining only 18 yards.
The Aggies scored twice to take a commanding 34-3 lead early in the fourth quarter, and ultimately won the game 41-10.
“Obviously not the outcome we were looking for,” Lewis said. “[We had] quite the effort against a really good ballclub. They have tremendous players, and they got tremendous results.”
The Flashes had not played a Power Five team since 2019, only playing Mid-American Conference teams in 2020 due to COVID-19.
KSU kept the game close against a team many consider to be a playoff contender. After allowing Texas A&M to drive 75-yards and score on a 4-yard touchdown pass from freshman quarterback Haynes King, the Flashes responded with a long drive of their own.
KSU would go 68-yards before eventually settling for a 30-yard field goal after Crum would be sacked on 3rd & 6 from the 8-yard line.
On the Aggies next drive, the Flashes’ defense would hold them to a 49-yard field goal, the last points they would allow until the second half.
The Flashes’ defense would later stuff running back Devon Achane on 3rd & 1 on KSU’s 29-yard line, prompting the Aggies to go for it. Achane would be stuffed by the Flashes' defensive line once again, forcing a turnover on downs.
Lewis liked what he saw from his defense early on.
“They played together as a unit,” he said. “[I liked] the way they were able to turn the football over and play combat. They were attacking the ball and flying to the ball carrier. They were sending a message with their pads.”
Texas A&M drove deep into KSU territory on their next drive. King, facing pressure, fired a pass over the reach of Jalen Wydermyer, who tipped it. This sent the ball sailing to wide receiver Chase Lane, where the ball bounced off of his hands and floated right into the arms of fifth-year cornerback Elvis Hines.
Hines would intercept King again on the very next drive, the first multi-interception game of his career.
Hines credited his first interception with being at the right place at the right time.
“The second pick relied on my preparation,” he said. “I kind of knew what route was coming because of the linemen and how the receiver took his first three steps. I tried to take a chance on it, and it worked my way.”
KSU had four interceptions on the day, its most in one game since 2015. Safety Nico Bolden and senior linebacker Khalib Johns also had picks.
The Flashes’ offense, which was considered one of the best in the country in 2020, failed to produce any points off of the defensive plays.
KSU drove into Aggies’ territory in five of their first seven drives, but were unable to score more than three points.
“We were ahead of schedule early on in the drives,” Lewis said. “As we got down into the red zone and into their territory, we tightened up a little bit. We were off with our timing in the throw game and allowed some very good defensive lineman to make some plays.”
Crum threw for 89 yards, zero touchdowns and completed 12 of his 26 pass attempts. On the ground he ran for 60 yards. Fifth-year wide receiver Keshunn Abram was KSU’s most productive catcher, but only had 24 yards.
The Flashes running attack overcame Texas A&M’s run defense, which was ranked 2nd in college football last season with an average of 92.6 yards per game, by rushing for 226 yards.
Xavier Williams led the team with 73 yards on eight carries. Sophomore Marquez Cooper, who averaged a team high 70.5 yards per game last season, rushed for 42 yards on eight carries.
O’Neal was disappointed with how the Aggies performed in the run game.
“This is the best defense in the country, and it’s unacceptable how we handled that."
Lewis said that the team has a great group of running backs.
“That room is very strong,” he said. “And the offensive line is very strong with a lot of experience. That’s a real positive we can take against the second best rushing team in the country. That’s going to be consistently who we are, a team that’s able to rush the football.”
Despite the lopsided score, the Flashes hung with one of the best teams in the country for two quarters. A good sign for a team that has been billed as one of the best in the MAC.
The Flashes next play the Virginia Military Institute, which is 1-0, for their home opener at Dix Stadium on Saturday Sept. 11 at 11:30 a.m.
Jimmy Oswald is a sports editor. Contact him at email@example.com