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Misc The MAC The MAC Archive The Week That Was: Kent-Centric
Written by Jesse Lamovsky

Jesse Lamovsky

There is plenty to cover in the world of college football after a weekend of deafening explosions atop the national polls. The two top-ranked teams in the BCS, Kansas State and Oregon, both went down. Notre Dame, which hasn’t won anything of note in two decades, suddenly has only a beat-up, fading USC team standing between it and a shot at the crystal football. And after one whole week of doubt and dismay, God’s Conference is right back in play.

It was a weekend in which Ohio State moved to 11-0 with a gritty overtime win at Wisconsin. The Buckeyes have been a fairly amazing story- a probation-shacked team coming off its worst season in nearly a quarter-century with glaring weaknesses all over the roster, now standing just one win away from a perfect season. They’ve struggled to put away Cal, UAB and Indiana, they’ve looked horrendous  defensively at times, but they’ve got one of the nation’s best coaches and one of its most dynamic players and the air of a team on a crusade.

Champions were made and unmade all over America last weekend. No fewer than five teams (including Ohio State) clinched division titles. Three teams- K-State, Oregon and Central Florida- flubbed similar chances. Others- Rutgers, Utah State, Georgia Tech- took massive strides toward title hardware with clutch victories.

And last but not least- the latest edition of conference musical chairs, as Rutgers and Maryland joined the Big Ten. I could talk about that if I cared- which frankly I don’t, because I’m bored with the subject. Only annoying thing is that BTN will pretend those schools have been members of the conference for a century, which means we’ll see Joe Smith, Ray Rice and Lefty Dreisell touted as “Big Ten Legends,” like how Tom Osborne and Tommy Frazier are now.

All of this- even the Buckeyes- is background noise right now. I’m currently Kent State-obsessed. The Golden Flashes are having their greatest season ever, they’re MAC East Champions after their thrilling 31-24 win at Bowling Green State last Saturday and they’re back in the land of the bowl-bound after a forty-year hiatus. This is the only thing I want to talk about right now. So please excuse my small-minded obsession, at least for one week.

Excuse My Fair-Weather Tendencies, Too: When you start winning for the first time in the better part of two generations, it tends to bring the bandwagon-jumpers out of the woodwork. I’m unabashedly one of them. I have trashed Kent’s program relentlessly and constantly for years prior to this one. For a long time I’ve advocated a drop to FCS status (a practical impossibility, I’m aware) and an emphasis on basketball as the athletic program’s signature sport. (I still advocate the latter.)

And frankly, this program deserved trashing. This wasn’t Texas under David McWilliams or USC under Paul Hackett, a good program in a temporary rut. This was ineptitude on a grand, colossal scale. Kent was one of the worst programs in America and the only light at the end of the tunnel was an oncoming train- year after year, decade after decade.

You have to earn support. And to me, Kent State didn’t earn support on the football field. Sometimes being a fair-weather fan is simple prudence and common sense. I’m not going to the barricades for teams that can’t get out of their own way. I don’t pack up and root for another team. But I have no problem with putting my fandom on layaway for a while, to be dusted off and donned anew at the right time. I make no apologies. This has always been my hometown team.

A Two-Decade Horror Show: Prior to 2012 I’ve witnessed exactly one good season of Kent State football- 1987, when the Glen Mason-coached Golden Flashes went 7-4 and finished tied for second in the MAC behind Eastern Michigan. I attended the EMU game at Dix Stadium that year; Kent lost 23-21 when Larry Steinberg’s game-winning field-goal attempt clanked off the upright. It was an early-season game, so we didn’t know that the fatal blow had been delivered to Kent’s hopes of winning the league and heading to the California Bowl.

It was all downhill from there. For more than a decade afterward, Kent State was the Program from Hell. From 1989 through 2000, Kent’s record was 16-115-1. That’s a .121 winning percentage. That’s sixteen wins in twelve years. Here are the yearly records in that span: 0-11, 2-9, 1-10, 2-9, 0-11, 2-9, 1-9-1, 2-9, 3-8, 0-11, 2-9, 1-10. (The 3-8 came in 1997, when the lethal passing attack of Jose Davis, Eugene Baker and O.J. Santiago was paired with a defense that couldn’t have held St. Ignatius under 40 points.)

All it takes is a couple of bad hires to send a program right into the toilet. After Mason left for Kansas following the ’87 season, Kent passed on a bright young Michigan State assistant and former Golden Flash safety named Nick Saban and hired the shopworn Dick Crum, who went 7-26 in three seasons. The school then passed on Saban’s fellow alum Gary Pinkel and hired Notre Dame assistant Pete Cordelli on the advice of his boss and Kent alum Lou Holtz. Cordelli’s tenure, with its 3-30 record, might have been the lowest point for a program that has gone from Death Valley to the Dead Sea Valley and back in terms of low points.      

Things did improve somewhat in the new millennium. Kent State even went 6-5 in 2001 with Josh Cribbs and James Harrison anchoring both sides of the ball. But that marginal success was bittersweet, as the Flashes started out 1-4 and were never seriously considered for a bowl berth. From there the frustration took a different form as the program flirted with respectability in a number of years, only to fold like a cheap tent once the weather got brisk. The Flashes weren’t losing every game anymore- just the ones that really mattered.

Until this year.

dri archer bgsuThe Turning Point: I’m not a coach, nor a player, and I’m not on the field or in the locker room, but it seems to me that the only way to instill a winning culture is by actually winning football games- especially for place like Kent, which for eons made an art form out of finding ways to lose and where people are always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Talk is cheap, especially when it’s been nothing but talk for forty years. You can’t talk about getting better. You have to show you’re better.

The turning point of Kent’s 2012 season came in Week Four against Ball State. Playing at home in front of a big crowd (21,657), the Flashes blew a 13-point fourth-quarter lead and fell behind 43-42 to a good Cardinals team. This was exactly the kind of game Kent has been losing for years. A loss would have dropped them to 2-2 overall, 1-1 in the MAC; scant early improvement over the 5-7, 4-4 mark of a year ago. You never know how things could have gone from there.

But the Flashes didn’t lose. They defeated the Cardinals 45-43, marching 86 yards in the last two minutes and winning it on Freddy Cortez’s field goal with four seconds left. In winning they went against every bad tendency they've displayed over the past two generations. They took advantage of opportunities, made plays in the clutch, let their opponent make the killer mistakes and, last but certainly not least, won the damned game. The Golden Flashes have been a juggernaut ever since Ball State- and I don’t believe that’s coincidental.

Before Ball State: In Week Two the Golden Flashes were routed 47-14 by the Kentucky Wildcats. Kentucky is currently 2-9 and fired its head coach a couple of weeks ago. The rout of Kent remains its only win over an FBS opponent.

After Ball State: A month-and-a-half after getting squashed by dismal Kentucky the Flashes dominated 15th-ranked Rutgers in Piscataway, 35-23. The loss remains the only one of the season for the Scarlet Knights, who are currently 9-1 and undefeated in the Big East.  

Concise Resume: Kent’s East-clinching victory at Doyt Perry Stadium played out as a microcosm of its dream season. Dri Archer was once again spectacular, with 241 yards on only 17 carries and two marathon touchdown runs as he sliced through the MAC’s stingiest defense with stunning ease. The Flashes responded when challenged, immediately tying the score after BGSU had taken a 17-10 lead and threatened to take over in the third quarter. The defense forced three turnovers- including the deflected interception that set up Spencer Keith’s game-winning touchdown run with 8:06 to play- and twice stoned the Falcons in the red zone in the final moments.

And once again the Golden Flashes found a way to win even though in this case they made enough mistakes to lose. They lost three turnovers and on two separate occasions- each just one play after a long Dri Archer touchdown run- committed defensive screw-ups that led to long-distance scores for BGSU receiver Chris Gallon. They had an opportunity to possibly put the Falcons away early and botched it with fumbles and defensive breakdowns that allowed the home team -and the crowd- to get back into it.

On the road, against a good opponent, those mistakes can easily be fatal. But for this Kent team, winning has become an ingrained habit. The Flashes expected to beat BGSU and kept right on expecting to even through the most sickening turns in this roller-coaster of a game. It isn’t just talent. It’s a mindset. Strange- in the summer I think it’s all about the Jimmy’s and the Joe’s, but in November I think there’s more to it than that. Of course, having Jimmy’s and Joe’s doesn’t hurt, and this Kent team certainly has those. Which leads us to…

Dri Archer Has a Heisman Case: Last time I was jesting, if only a little bit. This time I’m serious as a heart attack. Dri Archer should be in the front row in New York on December 8th. Look, nobody has an airtight case for the Heisman. This isn’t a year where a Barry Sanders or a Robert Griffin III makes a mockery of the race by October. This is a year where guys like A.J. McCarron have been top-five candidates. Look at Dri Archer’s resume- and tell me if this isn’t Heisman finalist-worthy in 2012:

-          1,284 rushing yards (13th in the nation)

-          10.27 yards per carry (1st and it isn’t even close.)

-          37.33 yards-per-kick return (1st)

-          3 kick-return touchdowns (tied for 1st and he’d likely have more if teams hadn’t stopped kicking to him six weeks ago.)

-          203.6 all-purpose yards per game (4th)

-          21 touchdowns (tied for 2nd)

-          126 points (2nd, albeit a distant second behind Louisiana Tech freshman tailback Kenneth Dixon’s 162.)

Every Heisman candidate has to have his “Heisman moment.” How’s this for one? I mentioned Barry Sanders- this was a run Barry Sanders would have been proud to make. And it came in the fourth quarter of a tie game in which a division championship was on the line. It was a big play in a big game, as Heisman moments should be.

Team success matters and Archer certainly has that going for him. He’s the one indispensable man on a team that is currently 10-1 and undefeated in its conference. He’s the best player on one of college football’s great stories of 2012. To me that counts for something.

Sure, Kent State isn’t one of the game’s big powers, but does that lessen what Archer has done this season? I don’t think so. Randy Moss and Chad Pennington were Heisman candidates out of the MAC; Jerry Rice and Steve McNair were candidates from schools far smaller than Kent.

As we know, the Heisman is primarily an offensive award. Dri Archer might be the most dangerous offensive player in the country, and if he isn’t it certainly doesn’t take long to call the roll. I think he ought to be a serious candidate, and I think the facts back me up.

And While We’re at It: Darrell Hazell deserves consideration for National Coach of the Year. There flat-out hasn’t been a bigger comeback story in the nation this season- not Notre Dame, not Ohio State, not Kansas State; no one. Kent has been one of the five worst programs in college football for the last quarter-century. Since 1978 they’ve had twice as many winless seasons (four) as winning seasons (two.)

And it isn’t just that Hazell has the Golden Flashes winning- he has them winning big. They aren’t 7-4 and respectable- they’re 10-1 and dominating a MAC that has been stronger than normal. Regardless of what happens from here on out, this is the best season in the history of the program. (Yes, the ’72 team won the outright MAC title, but that team only went 6-5-1.)

I mean, it’s late November and Kent State- Kent State- has been ranked in the national polls for the last two weeks. This is a quantum leap Sam and Ziggy couldn’t take. Darrell Hazell has completely changed the culture at one of the biggest losers in college football and has done so in almost unimaginable fashion. I don’t think you can quibble about, say, Brian Kelly getting Coach-of-the-Year honors. But no coach in college football has done a better job this year than Darrell Hazell.

Next: Ohio State and Michigan, Saturday at noon. Happy Thanksgiving, and thanks for reading.

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