By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
Nothing was about to spoil the best regular season in Kent State’s 90-year football history.
Not the bait of next Friday’s MAC Championship Game dangling in front of their noses. Not Mother Nature. And certainly not the injury-ravaged Ohio Bobcats.
The Golden Flashes capped their landmark 2012 regular season in fittingly phenomenal fashion, with a defensive masterpiece spearheaded by their seniors. C.J. Malaluulu and Luke Wollet each scored defensive touchdowns in the first 9:01 of the game, and the Flashes piled up eight sacks while throttling the Bobcats (8-4, 4-4 MAC East) 28-6 on a stunningly sunny November morning-turned-early afternoon in Kent.
Kent State (11-1, 8-0) finished the regular season with a school-record 11 wins, two more than in any previous season. The Flashes increased their school-record winning streak to 10 games, became the first team to go 8-0 in the MAC East Division since Miami in 2003, and finished unbeaten at home (5-0) for the first time since 1956.
With that, one of the most stunning turnarounds in college football history is complete — from 1-6 to start last year to 11-1 the following season under the astute leadership of second-year mentor Darrell Hazell. The Flashes have now won 15 of their last 17 games, and have 16 wins in the past two seasons combined — the same amount of victories they produced from 1989-2000, when they compiled an abysmal 16-115-1 record.
Next up: The MAC Championship Game against West Division winner Northern Illinois (11-1, 8-0) Friday at Ford Field in Detroit.
“I think the biggest thing for me right now is how proud I am of our football team,” said Hazell. “All the players and coaches in our locker room just keep battling. No matter what the circumstances are, they always find a way to come out on the right side. It says a lot about their character, their attention to detail and those types of things.
“This is obviously a big week coming up, but we’re gonna enjoy this win and get back to work tomorrow.”
Kent State’s senior-laden defense shined on Senior Day, turning in arguably its best performance of the season. The Flashes finished with eight sacks in a game for the first time since 1994 and did not allow a touchdown in a game for the first time since 2010 — also against Ohio.
Malauulu set the tone when he jarred the ball away from Bobcats star running back Beau Blankenship, and junior teammate Wollet picked it up off one hop and raced 50 yards for his third career touchdown to give Kent State a 7-0 lead just under two minutes into the contest.
“I was just going for the tackle and it just happened to come out,” said Malauulu. “I can’t take too much credit for that.”
But Malauulu can take full credit for the game’s next monster play.
After a 40-yard pass from senior quarterback Spencer Keith to senior wideout Eric Adeyemi set up a 15-yard touchdown run by sophomore tailback Trayion Durham that made it 14-0, Malauulu was back at it. This time he picked off a pass by OU quarterback Tyler Tettleton and raced 33 yards for a score, just nipping the pylon with a dive to make it 21-0 with 5:59 still left in the first period.
“Oh man that was a crazy play,” said Malauulu. “It just happened so fast I couldn’t believe it. I was actually manned up on the backside tight end, who was off the ball and he stayed in to block. So I looked at the quarterback and I saw his eyes move toward the other side of the field, so I started just rolling over that way. I came up with the ball thrown at the other tight end.”
The Flashes forced their NCAA-leading 35th turnover, and Malauulu became the 13th different player this year to intercept a pass. Along with the eight sacks, the Flashes also amassed 11 tackles for loss and held Ohio to 339 total yards on 87 plays, an average of just 3.9 yards per play.
“I thought our defense played phenomenal throughout the whole course of the game,” said Hazell. “Our defensive line did a great job of beating single blocks up front, and kept the pressure on those guys. We brought some blitz, but didn’t feel like we had to bring a whole lot of blitz. I thought our guys on the edge and inside, even when they didn’t get a sack, were nibbling at his feet.”
All seven seniors on defense had stellar games. Batton tied a career-high with 16 tackles, and also notched a sack and two tackles for a loss; free safety Leon Green made seven tackles along with Malauulu; cornerback Norman Wolfe had six tackles; nose tackle Dana Brown produced two sacks and two tackles for loss; Saulter made four stops; and defensive end Jake Dooley chipped in a tackle for loss and a sack, raising his team-leading total to 6 1/2.
The Flashes’ offense wasn’t as hot as its been recently, but still managed to produce 207 yards rushing on 38 totes. Durham bounced back from a hip-pointer suffered during the third quarter of last Saturday’s huge win at Bowling Green to rush for 97 yards on 16 carries. Star junior speedster Dri Archer was bottled up for the most part, managing 53 yards rushing on 13 carries with a long run of 16 yards, along with two catches for 58 yards, including a 38-yarder.
Archer left the game briefly in the third quarter with an ankle injury, but returned and contributed a 10-yard run during the Flashes’ game-clinching touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.
“We didn’t play as well as we wanted to on offense,” said Hazell. “They were dropping a safety in the box and we weren’t accounting for that guy. He was making the hit on the backside. We probably should have thrown it a little more. But I thought they did a good job of getting that extra hat in the box, and we fell off a few blocks that we should have sustained.”
Kent State managed only three drives of 50 yards or more, but the last one ended with a 24-yard touchdown pass from Keith (9-of-20, 170 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) to Adeyemi (3 catches, career-high 74 yards) that increased the lead to 28-6 with 11:44 to play, effectively sealing the win.
Moments later, the Flashes seniors walked off the field to a standing ovation, proud of what they’ve achieved, but hungry for more.
“It is special to get the win on the last one at Dix Stadium,” said Keith. “I just appreciate all the players and coaches in today’s game working their butts off. Coach Hazell’s done a great job of coming in here and turning everything around, and we’ve all responded really well. We’ve just gotta keep it going.”
Weather forecasts looked bleak all week long, but the morning rains gave way to sunny skies as kickoff approached. The 11 a.m. start turned out to be quite a blessing, as the weather stayed nice until clouds and winds rolled in midway through the fourth quarter.
Thanks in major part to the weather, a crowd of 18,230 took in Friday’s game. Fans were still trickling in midway through the second quarter, and the concession stands were soldout of major food items before halftime.
“I was really happy with how big a crowd we had, just based on the situation, (the morning after) Thanksgiving,” said Keith. “We really appreciate our fans.”
While no one can say they saw 11-1 coming, Hazell said he noticed the potential for a special season on the first day of preseason camp.
“When I first took the job I knew these guys were very talented,” said Hazell. “We needed a few extra players here and there, but the locker room was full of talent. Now the belief was not always there, and paying attention to some of the specifics wasn’t always there, but those are things you can correct.
“But I tell you when I really got a gut feeling was our first day of camp on Aug. 2. We turned the lights out and we put on a tape, trying to do some visualization. We turned the lights back on and there was a sense at that point in time that came across for these guys that they get it.
“At that point in time I felt pretty good.”