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Misc The MAC The MAC Archive Kent State Facing the Biggest Game in School History
Written by Thomas Moore

Thomas Moore

2012 12 kent fordWhen the Kent State Golden Flashes take the field tonight against Northern Illinois in the MAC Championship Game at Ford Field in Detroit, it will be the most important athletic event not only in the football program’s history but in school history.

Kent State, which is ranked No. 17 in the BCS Standings, No. 18 in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll and No. 19 in the USA Today Coaches Poll, has the opportunity to do what was once considered the unthinkable – win a conference championship and, in the process, earn what is most likely to be a spot in either the Sugar Bowl or the Orange Bowl come January.

“I won’t talk about that at all,” Kent State coach Darrell Hazell said. “I'll talk about Northern Illinois, that’s the most important thing. If our guys don’t focus on this game Friday then we have no opportunity to play in some of those big games.

“This is a huge, huge game for this university. There’s going to be two good football teams on the field and it’s going to be one of those games that comes down to the last few minutes.”

This game is bigger than the baseball team making the College World Series last spring and the men’s basketball team making the regional final of the NCAA tournament in 2002, and to understand why you have to know where the football program has been and where it is going.

This is a football program that has spent the last 40 years plunging to the depths of the college football world, playing home games in front of an increasingly small gathering of family and friends. It is a program that, before this year, had more winless seasons (four) than winning seasons (two) in the past 40 years.

It is also a program that won 16 games – total – from 1989 to 2000. We were there for three of those years as a beat reporter covering the team for the Daily Kent Stater. In that time, the team won three games, all at home, as we spent numerous Saturdays sitting in press boxes in places like Muncie, Ind., and Kalamazoo, Mich., listening to the local writers for the weekly rags cackle as the teams they covered rolled over the Golden Flashes (apparently they don’t teach the no cheering in the press box rule in the sticks).

Now, 20 years later, to think that we may be able to watch Kent State play a game on one of college football’s biggest stages is almost unfathomable. The other night we were having a Twitter discussion with Jacob Rosen from WFNY over which bowl – Sugar or Orange – would be more likely to select the Golden Flashes with an at-large bid. About halfway through it hit us that we were debating the pros and cons of Kent State – Kent State! – playing in one of the premiere bowl games in college football.

It was equally cool as an alumna of school and odd to be part of that discussion, almost as if we were in an alternate universe. How did we reach this point?

The answer, of course, is Hazell, who was named this week as the MAC Coach of the Year. He is the third coach in school history to earn the honor, behind Don James and Glen Mason (not surprisingly the last coaches worth a damn to work the sidelines at Dix Stadium).

“It certainly is an honor,” Hazell said. “But everybody knows it takes a lot of people to accomplish what we’ve done in the last 14 months. I’m so proud of our staff and players, President Lefton, Joel Nielson, Tom Kleinlein and all the people that have made this possible. I’m really excited for the entire Kent State family.”

The fact that Hazell has been able to turn this team around in less than two years is one of the greatest stories in college sports.

“I didn’t have a timeline in mind about how long it might take to get the program where it needs to be,” Hazell told The Beacon Journal. “But the one thing I always say is that in my second year, wherever I’ve been, I’ve been a better coach.”

The downside to this, of course, is that Friday’s game brings us one step closer to Hazell’s inevitable departure. It has always been a matter of when, not if, Hazell will take the call from a bigger university and, with each win the Golden Flashes put up this year, the when kept getting closer.

That’s why Friday night’s game is so important. Right here, right now, the Golden Flashes have a chance to do something that will echo through time. The team may never find itself in this situation again, which makes the title game against Northern Illinois in some ways bigger than any bowl game on the horizon.

Win and it elevates the team to the next level and validates all the hard work the team and the coaches put in the past two years. Lose and it’s, “you had a nice season, see you in a few weeks at the Bowl (or something similar).”

As for the game against the Huskies, it’s not going to be easy as Kent State is a six-point underdog.

Northern Illinois (11-1, 8-0 in the MAC) is the defending MAC champion and is making its third consecutive trip to the conference title game. The Huskies have won 11 consecutive games, including eight of their last nine by double digits. They have also beaten Kent State (11-1, 8-0 in the MAC) five consecutive times and nine-of-10 overall.

The last time the two teams met, Northern Illinois won 40-10, holding the Golden Flashes to just 64 yards of offense. Since that game, Kent has only lost one conference game sand has won 15 of 18 games overall.

Northern Illinois is led by quarterback Jordon Lynch, the MAC’s Offensive Player of the Year. Lynch leads the country in total yards (4,086), has accounted for 39 touchdowns and is third in the nation with 134.2 rushing yards. He has rushed for at least 100 yards in 10 consecutive games.

“When you play a guy like that who pulls it down and scrambles around, you have to stay in coverage,” Hazell said. “If you’re in man coverage, you have to stay in coverage and have tremendous eye discipline when you’re playing against a guy who can create so much. So we have to be extremely disciplined in the back end with our eyes.

“He’s different than every guy we’ve played this year. He’s so quick and he wants to run the ball. He absolutely wants to run it. Whereas a lot of quarterbacks don’t want to run, he wants to run the ball. And he’s tough. He hits between the A and B gap hard.”

Kent State will counter with a defense that is second in the MAC, giving up 129.3 rushing yards per game. The defense is led by defensive tackle Roosevelt Nix, who was All-MAC first team for the third consecutive year; All-MAC second team selections Luke Batton and Luke Wollet; and All-MAC third team selections C.J. Malauulu and Jake Dooley.

The Golden also rank second in the nation with a +20 turnover margin

On offense, everything starts with the ground game and revolves around running back Dri Archer, the conference’s Special Teams Player of the Year and an All-MAC First Team selection as a running back and a kick returner.

Archer returned three kickoffs for touchdowns and leads the nation with a 38.2 average. As a running back, he is 9.7 yards per carry with 1,337 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns. His 21 total touchdowns broke the school’s single-season record.

“I don’t even know what or how I do things sometimes,” Archer said. “It’s just natural. It’s just the way my body reacts.”

“I’d seen Dri do some good things before, but there was one moment in practice this fall when we were inside that really opened my eyes as to what he could do,” Hazell said. “During this one play when he got into the hole, there were three guys standing there waiting for him. But none of them touched him; they didn’t even put a glove on him. That was a ‘Wow!’ moment for me.”

The run game also features Trayion Durham, who has rushed for 1,176 yards and 14 touchdowns, the second-most rushing touchdowns in a single season in program history.

No matter what happens against Northern Illinois, this is a season that Kent State fans have been waiting 40 years for and one they will remember for a long, long time.

“We knew we could do something special,” Malauulu said. “This is the season we all wanted.”

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