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By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
When you’re playing a football program’s biggest game in 40 years, it’s easy to get caught up in the hoopla and forget about what got you there.
So challenge No. 1 this week facing the Kent State football team as it prepares for Saturday’s showdown at Bowling Green needing a win to capture the school’s first MAC title and bowl berth since 1972 is to avoid the distractions and tendencies to believe all the hype, and focus on the battle itself.
Based on reactions from players at Monday’s weekly press conference, that point has already been hammered home by Golden Flashes coach Darrell Hazell.
“It’s just another football game right now. It doesn’t mean anything if we don’t win,” said junior defensive tackle Roosevelt Nix. “It’s gonna be a battle. We control our own destiny, but you can’t think about that. You gotta think about the battle.”
Saturday’s matchup pits the two hottest teams in the MAC in a clash for first place in the East Division.
The Flashes (9-1) earned their school-record eighth consecutive victory over Miami last Saturday and rest atop the East at 6-0, while the Falcons (7-3) are 5-1 in the division after defeating Ohio 26-14 on Nov. 7 to claim their sixth consecutive triumph.
If Kent State wins, it clinches the MAC East title, a bowl berth and a spot in the MAC Championship game Nov. 30 at Ford Field in Detroit against either Northern Illinois or Toledo. If Bowling Green wins, the Falcons could clinch the East Division crown with a victory in their regular season finale at home against Buffalo on Nov. 23.
The Flashes have not played a football game of this magnitude since their one and only MAC championship team clinched the league title with a victory over Toledo in its final regular season game on Nov. 18, 1972. So obviously emotions are running high in the Kent State locker room.
“We know the significance of this game, but we can’t really worry about it,” said Flashes senior left guard Josh Kline. “Coaches have been preaching about how we’ve gotta play within ourselves this week, we can’t play outside ourselves. We just gotta go out there and execute and have fun.”
No one outside the Flashes locker room could have seen this title run coming seven games into last season, when Kent State headed into its bye week at 1-6 looking to somehow salvage the season. Since then the Flashes have reeled off 13 wins in 15 games, growing more and more confident with each victory.
“It’s great after all we’ve experienced in the past, but we’ve gotta keep working hard,” said senior left tackle Brian Winters. “Coach is stressing to us that we’ve just gotta come out here and play like it’s just another game. We’ve just gotta continue to go out and play football.”
RANKINGS CAN WAIT
Kent State is ranked 25th in this week’s AP Top 25 Poll, but Hazell acts like he wishes the Flashes were still on the outside looking in rather than ranked for the first time since 1973.
“We’ll worry about the rankings when the season’s over,” he said. “We don’t have time to concern ourselves with rankings right now.”
Hazell is certainly well aware that MAC rivals Toledo and Ohio also entered the AP Top 25 this season, but lasted a combined three weeks.
Still, Winters admitted that the Flashes are thrilled to finally receive some national respect.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “Coach told us to not really worry about it too much, that we’ve just gotta continue playing. But it’s a great feeling.”
Sophomore bruiser Trayion Durham (210 carries for 1,059 yards, 13 TDs) and junior blazer Dri Archer (108-1,042, 12 TDs) each eclipsed 1,000 yards last Saturday at Miami, giving Kent State two 1,000-yard rushers in a single season for the first time in program history.
Kline and his fellow linemen take great pride in paving the way for two 1,000-yard rushers.
“It’s very exciting just as an o-line unit,” said Kline. “We’ve done well so far, and those two guys are great running backs. You have the speed with Dri, and Trayion’s just a bruiser. It’s a great feeling when you make a block, just fit up on a guy, and they’re just gonna run right past you or right through you.”
Archer reached 1,000 yards rushing on just his 103rd carry of the season. He averages 9.7 yards per rush.
Archer continues to lead the nation in kickoff returns (40.0 ypr, 3 TDs), ranks fourth in all-purpose yards (199 ypg) and sixth in scoring (11.4 ppg).
Durham hobbled off in the fourth quarter Saturday at Miami with a quad injury, while senior Larry Dawson suffered a head injury on the opening kickoff, but both players should be ready for Bowling Green according to Hazell.
“We should have all players available,” said Hazell. “It’s November and it’s the third week, so you’re gonna have some beat up guys now. But this is about that November toughness that we always talk about with our football team. You gotta show up and play.”