Kent State has really won the MAC East title. In football.
By ZAC JACKSONFS Ohio
BOWLING GREEN, Ohio - Shortly after Luke Wollett recorded what is most certainly the most important interception in the long and mostly miserable history of Kent State football Saturday afternoon, Darrell Hazell received the second celebratory Gatorade shower of his 22-month head coaching career.
The first one came last year after beating a one-win Akron team, Kent State's backyard rival. This one came after Kent State had clinched the Mid-American Conference East Division title at Bowling Green.
The Flashes won their ninth straight game Saturday, beating Bowling Green, 31-24, to move to 10-1 and ensure themselves a spot in the MAC Championship Game on Nov. 30 in Detroit, where they'll play Northern Illinois. Kent State hasn't been to a bowl game since 1972, the last time the school won a MAC title.
Forty years is a long time — and that drought isn't lost on any player or coach who celebrated in the visiting locker room Saturday afternoon. This marks the Flashes' first winning season since 2001 and just the second in 35 years. Kent State finished 5-7 in each of the last three seasons — and that was actually marked improvement from many seasons past.
Since 1989, 15 Kent State teams have won three games or fewer. The 2012 team is going to the MAC Championship Game, then a bowl game. When the BCS top-25 rankings come out on Sunday night, Kent State figures to be included.
"This was a great win for this football program and all the people who ever put on a Kent State uniform or even a Kent State sweatshirt," Hazell said. "To think what our team has accomplished this season . . . is just mind-boggling to me.
"I'm really happy for everybody. This is a great feeling right now."
These Flashes beat Bowling Green Saturday much in the same way they've been beating teams all year, with an opportunistic defense finishing what dynamic running back Dri Archer started. All Archer did Saturday was run for 241 yards on 17 carries and score two highlight-reel touchdowns, runs that covered 74 and 79 yards.
Bowling Green's final two possessions ended deep in Kent State territory. Defensive end Roosevelt Nix dropped into coverage to break up a fourth-down pass with 5 minutes left, and Wollett picked off what was basically a desperation heave in the end zone with 21 seconds left to seal it.
Nix tipped another pass and Malcolm Pannell intercepted it at the Bowling Green 20 with 10:02 left. Four plays later, quarterback Spencer Keith ran seven yards for what became the final score.
"I don't even know how to describe what this means," Nix said. "We worked so hard for it. It's amazing."
Archer, sidelined and blindsided last year by an academic/administrative issue, is one of the fastest players in the nation. He's the highlight player and the primary highlight maker for the Flashes, but as a guy who's undersized and maybe over-listed at 5-foot-8, 175, he also embodies the underdog, out-of-nowhere nature of Kent State's entire journey.
This is a team that lost by 33 points at Kentucky on Sept. 8 — and hasn't lost since.
"We play together," Nix said. "In past years, people might have put their heads down when something went wrong. We just keep playing the next play."
Archer had one Div. I scholarship offer coming out of high school. On his 79-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter Saturday, he had 11 Bowling Green defenders wondering, too, just where he might have come from.
"He made our guys miss today," Bowling Green coach Dave Clawson said. "Just like he makes everybody miss."
The combination of Archer and 250-pounder Trayion Durham in the backfield has been a tough one for opponents to match all season, and Archer picked up the slack down the stretch Saturday after Durham left with an injury. It was time to take the reigns off of Archer, Hazell said, and he responded.
The Flashes are a veteran team. The veteran offensive line has opened holes all season, and Kent State entered the game with a turnover ratio of plus 20, tops in the nation. Even in a game in which the Flashes actually finished down one in the turnover battle, Wollett recorded the last one.
The biggest one yet.
"There are 40 years worth of football players . . . who started out chasing the same thing we did, 6 a.m. workouts, all the sacrifice," Wollett said. "This game was about so much more than just us. There are 40 years of people who can sit back in their chairs and let out a big sigh of relief."
Thirty minutes after the game, Wollett was still clutching the ball he intercepted. Eventually, he'll have to give it up.
Back in Kent, that trophy case has been itching for a new addition.