By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
For members of the Kent State football program, the process of prying their thoughts and minds away from last Friday's gut-wrenching MAC Championship Game loss and turning their attention to the upcoming bowl game continues.
The 25th-ranked Golden Flashes (11-2) are slowly recovering both emotionally and physically from their double-overtime loss to Northern Illinois, and perspective is gradually taking hold. The coveted GoDaddy.com Bowl bid they received following a record-setting 11-win regular season certainly gives them plenty to feel good about, even though they fell agonizingly short of accomplishing their ultimate goal.
"(Defensive coordinator Jon) Heacock was always saying the championship game was really not about the ring, it was about the journey," said junior defensive end Zack Hitchens. "Losing did hurt, because we wanted the ring so we could remember the journey. But we'll always have the memories of the game and how far we went in our hearts.
"It's still sad. It makes me choke up a little bit, because we came so far just to lose at the end. There was never a time in the game when I thought we couldn't win, because we've come back so many times."
The Flashes overcame a 14-point deficit with under five minutes remaining and scored the touchdown that sent the game into overtime with 44 seconds left. They then nearly won it with a field goal in the first overtime, but the Huskies answered with a field goal of their own that just cleared the left upright before the Flashes ultimately fell in the second extra session.
"(The MAC championship) is what we worked for every day, so it's still gonna hurt. It's probably gonna take a little while (to recover)," said Kent State junior tight end Tim Erjavec. "It's something we put all of our heart and soul into; all the two-a-days, the summer workouts, all that to make it to the MAC Championship Game. Losing it is just hard.
"But it would be amazing to make history by making a bowl game and winning it. Making history at Kent State, that's a big thing for all of us."
The Flashes could earn the first bowl victory in school history when they meet Sun Belt Conference champion Arkansas State (9-3) on Jan. 6 in Mobile, Ala. That opportunity is precious for any mid-major program, but especially for one that hasn't been to a bowl game in 40 years.
"You don't take anything for granted in this business," said second-year KSU coach Darrell Hazell. "To be able to say we're gonna represent Kent State in this great bowl game, it's a huge moment for this program. Huge."
Hazell knows he must rally the troops following the tough loss.
"We played an excellent team in Northern Illinois, and their quarterback (Jordan Lynch) was obviously the difference. He's an outstanding player," said Hazell. "But I couldn't be more proud of how hard our guys fought. Obviously in the locker room there were a lot of broken hearts. But that's part of athletics.
"We're really looking forward to going down to Mobile. I've heard it's an outstanding bowl, and I think our kids will really enjoy that trip."
The GoDaddy.com Bowl bid is a precious consolation prize for a Kent State team that has drastically surpassed everyone's expectations but their own in 2012.
"I gotta text from Roy Hall, one of my ex-players (at Ohio State), that kind of summed it up for the year," said Hazell. "He said I learned more about your football team in this one game than I did watching them all year long. And that's true. The resolve, the will, how determined this football team was ... I can't be more proud of those guys."
HAZELL DEFENDS REVERSE CALL
Hazell admitted that he'd been driving himself crazy just like any coach would, replaying Friday's game in his mind.
"I think the next day is when it started working on my mind a little bit, where I wondered what could I have done differently to make the outcome different," he said. "It was a hard loss."
One play Hazell does not regret calling is the reverse to Erjavec in the first overtime, which ended in near disaster.
After sophomore tailback Trayion Durham rushed for nine yards to the NIU 5 on first down, Durham was stuffed on the following play. Then on third-and-1, Hazell called a reverse. Durham tried to hand the ball off the Erjavec, but Erjavec never secured it and actually kicked the ball across the field. A hustling quarterback Spencer Keith recovered the fumble at the Huskies' 16.
"I had on my script any time it crossed the 50-yard line and it's third-and-1, we're gonna run the reverse, which is called Falcon because we put it in for the (Bowling Green) week," said Hazell. "We had practiced it probably 15-20 times. I thought if we called it, then we would score, and I still feel the same way. If we execute it, we score. There's one guy backside, and he's accounted for by Spencer, and if we run outside, we're gonna score. But we didn't execute as well as we could have.
"I don't question that call. I'd call that 100 out of 100 times. It's a good play when it works, it's a bad play when it doesn't work. It was based on film study and breaking down tendencies. It was not a gamble play."
Did Hazell consider going for two and the victory after Kent State scored a touchdown to get within 34-33 at the end of regulation.
"It came down over the headset. He said, 'Hey, you want to go for two?' And I said, 'Nope.' Take it to another possession," said Hazell.
ADVICE FOR ARCHER
Hazell said he had heard a rumor that Kent State junior speedster Dri Archer may leave school after his junior season and declare himself eligible for the NFL Draft.
If Archer is considering the NFL, what advice would Hazell give him?
"I've had those situations in the past," said Hazell, who had several of his players leave early while he was the wide receivers coach at Ohio State. "You've gotta look at the numbers. You get very good insight from the NFL, when guys are going to be taken and that sort of thing. You always want to do what's best for the player."
Archer made some impact during his freshman and sophomore seasons at Kent State, totaling 386 yards rushing, 306 yards receiving and 717 yards in returns with six total touchdowns. He was forced to sit out last season because of an academic issue, then exploded for 2,460 total yards and a school-record 22 touchdowns in 2012.
Despite his stellar numbers, Hazell believes another season at Kent State may be most beneficial for Archer.
"My perception of where he is right now, it would probably do him good to stay," said Hazell. "There's nothing like experience. But we'll have those discussions if that comes up."