By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
Want proof that anything is indeed possible?
Need assurance that miracles do occur?
Just read these words: Kent State, 2012 MAC East Division football champions.
After a 39-year title drought, most of which was spent wallowing in the bowels of college football, the 25th-ranked Golden Flashes clinched the Mid-American Conference East Division crown by emerging from what may go down as the most thrilling battle in program history with a 31-24 victory over Bowling Green on Saturday afternoon at Doyt Perry Stadium.
Kent State (10-1, 7-0 MAC), which set a school record for wins in a single season with triumph No. 10, captured its first MAC title of any kind since 1972 and earned the program’s first bowl bid since that same season. Most importantly, the Flashes earned a spot in the MAC Championship Game against West Division champion Northern Illinois on Nov. 30 at Ford Field in Detroit.
All this from a program that’s produced a mere three winning seasons in the last 35 years. But those immense struggles of the past have at long last been put to rest.
“What a wonderful win for this football program and all the people who have ever put on football uniforms, even everyone who has ever put on a Kent State sweatshirt,” said second-year head coach Darrell Hazell, who has authored KSU’s amazing turnaround — from a 1-6 to start last season to MAC East Division champs this season.”
“To think of what our team has accomplished here this season and the end of last season is mind-boggling to me,” Hazell said. It just tells you that when guys put their minds to something and they work the plan, so much can be accomplished.
“I can’t be more proud of my players, coaches, support staff. ... This is a great feeling right now.”
Junior blazer Dri Archer led a parade of Golden Flashes heroes, rushing for a career-high 241 yards on just 17 carries with a pair of touchdowns covering 79 and 74 yards that will be talked about for as long as football is played at Kent State.
Senior quarterback Spencer Keith scored the game-winning touchdown on a 7-yard run with 8:14 to play, and junior strong safety Luke Wollet iced it by picking off a fourth-and-long pass in his end zone with just 21 seconds to play.
“This game means so much more to the people here at Kent State right now. It’s 40 years,” said Wollet. “People can sit back in their chair with a big sigh of relief. It feels great to be able to do that.”
There was no time for relief in this epic clash until that last pass came to rest in Wollet’s arms.
Kent State seized early control when an interception by senior cornerback Norman Wolfe set up a 32-yard Freddy Cortez field goal, then Archer shed a tackle near the line of scrimmage and exploded downfield past helpless BG defenders for a 79-yard score to give the Flashes a 10-0 second-quarter lead.
That “control” lasted for all of 19 seconds.
On the Falcons’ next play from scrimmage, junior quarterback Matt Schilz (22-of-44, 355 yards, 3 TDs, 3 INTs) found freshman wide receiver Chris Gallon (10 catches, 213 yards, 2 TDs) wide open down the right seam for a 72-yard score that brought BG within three at 10-7.
Falcons junior Josh Pettus then ripped the football out of KSU receiver Matt Hurdle’s arms following a short catch at the Flashes’ 41, and Bowling Green converted the turnover into a 30-yard Tyler Tate field goal that left the game tied 10-10 at halftime.
The Falcons (7-4, 5-2) grabbed their first lead after junior cornerback Cameron Truss stripped the ball from Keith on a keeper, and junior defensive back Aaron Foster recovered at the KSU 40. Schilz lobbed a 27-yard touchdown pass to junior wideout Shaun Joplin, who snagged it over Wolfe to put Bowling Green on top 17-10.
The Flashes answered on their next possession. After runs of 14 and 11 by Archer, Keith tossed a 32-yard pass to senior wide receiver Eric Adeyemi to knot the contest at 17 with 7:47 to play in the third quarter.
The game was still tied in the fourth quarter when Archer ripped off his most memorable run of what’s been a highlight reel season.
Archer broke loose down the left side to around midfield, where he ducked a couple of BG tacklers and emerged from a pack of players as he jolted across the field and toward the right side. In the blink of an eye, Archer was running loose through the Falcons’ secondary and streaking into the end zone for a 79-yard run that gave Kent State a 24-17 lead.
“He’s a spectacular player,” said Hazell. “The things that guy can do with the ball in his hands are incredible, absolutely incredible.”
However, in a bizarre case of deja vu all over again, this time the Flashes’ lead lasted all of 20 seconds.
Schilz found Gallon down the left sideline, and the Falcons’ 6-4, 221-pound receiver first juked Leon Green, then fought off Sidney Saulter before breaking loose down the sideline for an 81-yard score that knotted the game once again at 24 with 14:11 to play.
“I thought our guys stayed poised throughout the possession changes and the lead changes,” said Hazell. “That’s what it was gonna take for us to win this football game. Our guys have such resolve, you knew they were gonna keep battling no matter what.”
At this point, the Flashes’ defense went back to what got them to this point: Forcing turnovers.
After a Kent State punt, Bowling Green took over at its own 20. On the second play, Flashes star defensive tackle Roosevelt Nix batted a Schilz pass into the air, and junior defensive end Richard Gray snared the interception at the BG 20.
After Saturday’s game the Flashes have 21 interceptions, several of which have come from tipped or batted balls.
“That tip was huge,” said Hazell. “The ‘A’ players show up when they have to, and (Nix) is certainly one of them.”
After three straight runs by Archer moved the ball to the 10, Keith faked an inside handoff to Archer and took off to the left, diving into the end zone for a 7-yard touchdown — Kent State’s biggest score in 40 years.
“They’re definitely gonna bite on that fake,” said Spencer, smiling at Archer. “It wasn’t a called run for me, it was a read. I saw them crash in and I took it outside. I saw a guy on my heels and I just ran as hard as I could. I had a clear way.”
Bowling Green had two more shots to retaliate, but came up empty. First the Falcons marched to the KSU 17, where they faced a fourth-and-2. Schilz, under heavy pressure from blitzing Kent State senior linebacker C.J. Malauulu (9 tackles), threw a pass that was batted down by Nix, who had backed downfield in coverage.
The Flashes then went three-and-out, but a 54-yard Anthony Melchiori punt pushed Bowling Green back to its own 25. The Falcons advanced to the KSU 14 before the drive stalled, ending in Wollet’s game-clinching pick.
“I was just looking where his eyes were,” said Wollet. “I knew it was gonna be a desperation heave on fourth-and-13, and I was just fortunate to be there.”
The Flashes pushed their string of victories to a school-record nine games, increased their mark for consecutive road wins in a season to six, and are now 14-2 in their past 16 games after snapping Bowling Green’s six-game winning streak.
“BG, you have to give them tons of credit. They’re fighters,” said Wollet. “Every time we’d punch them, they swung right back. We just happened to get the last punch in.”
The Flashes will play their final regular season game of the year Friday at Dix Stadium at 11 a.m. against Ohio before setting their sights on Northern Illinois.
REMEMBERING A FRIEND
Wollet played arguably the best game of his career on the biggest stage, tying a career-high with 13 tackles, along with 1 1/2 tackles for loss and his game-ending interception, which was the 10th of his career.
Afterward he remembered a former teammate at Poland Seminary High School, Darius Patton, who was found dead Wednesday at his mother’s residence in Farrell, Pa. The death was confirmed a suicide, according to an article that appeared in the Youngstown Vindicator.
Patton received a football scholarship from the University of Pittsburgh, and played for the Panthers last season.
“My old high school teammate, Darius Patton, he died (a few) days ago,” said Wollet, choking back tears. “I knew he was playing with me today. It’s something I’ll never forget. I knew he was here today. It’s very emotional.”
No. 25 KENT STATE 31, BGSU 24
Kent St. 0 10 7 14 — 31
Bowling Green 0 10 7 7 — 24
Kent—FG Cortez 32, 11:40.
Kent—Archer 79 run (Cortez kick), 8:35.
BG—Gallon 72 pass from Schilz (Stein kick), 8:16.
BG—FG Tate 30, 3:36.
BG—Joplin 27 pass from Schilz (Stein kick), 10:50.
Kent—Adeyemi 32 pass from Keith (Cortez kick), 7:47.
Kent—Archer 74 run (Cortez kick), 14:31.
BG—Gallon 81 pass from Schilz (Stein kick), 14:11.
Kent—Keith 7 run (Cortez kick), 8:14.
First downs 14 19
Rushes-yards 42-334 31-83
Passing 91 355
Comp-Att-Int 9-17-1 22-44-3
Return Yards (-1) 0
Punts-Avg. 6-40.8 5-39.0
Fumbles-Lost 3-2 0-0
Penalties-Yards 4-18 3-18
Time of Possession 30:04 29:56
RUSHING—Kent St., Archer 17-241, Keith 12-39, Terhune 1-31,
Durham 10-20, Durden 1-5, Team 1-(minus 2). Bowling Green, Samuel 19-64,
Pettigrew 8-17, Schilz 3-4, Team 1-(minus 2).
PASSING—Kent St., Keith 9-17-1-91. Bowling Green,
RECEIVING—Kent St., Hurdle 3-8, Adeyemi 2-39, Boyle 2-6,
Humphrey 1-25, Archer 1-13. Bowling Green, Gallon 10-213, Joplin 5-74, Bayer 5-48, Burbrink 1-18, Hopgood 1-2.