DETROIT — Kent State thought they could achieve the impossible Friday night.
They almost pulled it off.
The Golden Flashes, a team that hadn’t won a Mid-American Conference championship in 40 years and hadn’t even had a winning season in a decade, were on the verge of breaking through the biggest glass ceiling in college sports. They were about to put the little MAC into a BCS bowl game.
When Kent State led 10-0 in the first quarter, it looked like a trip to the Orange Bowl might actually happen. When they scored a last-minute touchdown to send the game to overtime, destiny appeared to be on their side.
And when Mathew Sims’ field goal started drifting left at the end of the first overtime, it looked like the most improbable season in MAC history was going to have the perfect ending.
Sims slid the 40-yard field goal just inside the upright, forcing a second extra period. On the first play, Northern Illinois running back Akeem Daniels ran 23 yards to the 2, and record-setting quarterback Jordan Lynch dove in on the next snap. Kent State had a chance to force a third overtime, but they stalled at the 9. Spencer Keith was pressured on fourth down, and Demetrius Stone picked off his desperate pass to give the Huskies a 44-37 win and a second-straight conference championship.
“That was a great football game, but this one is going to be hard to swallow for the next few days,” said Golden Flashes coach Darrell Hazell. “We battled all night against a great football team, but in the end, we just needed a couple more plays on both sides of the ball.”
When Hazell, Keith and Dri Archer walked into the post-game interview room, they looked exhausted and disappointed. They all talked about the toughness of the game and the difficulty in beating a team playing in its third straight championship game.
“I always tell the guys to stay calm and take things one play at a time,” Keith said about Kent State’s rally, which saw them come from 27-13 down to tie the game twice in the fourth quarter. “We knew we could get some quick plays going against them, and we just stayed focused. They were tough, but we’ve been doing that all year long.”
Hazell wasn’t surprised that his team scored 21 fourth-quarter points after managing fewer than 100 yards of offense in the first three periods.
“This team has had tremendous resolve all year,” he said. “We have been down quite a few times in the second half, and we’ve always found a way to scrap back and make enough plays to win ball games. It’s been amazing. Obviously, we didn’t quite get it done this year, but you saw what we’ve done all season.”
Friday night wasn’t the time for Hazell or his players to dwell on what they had done this season. The defeat, and the lost chance at the Orange Bowl, were too fresh in their minds to look back on the positives of what might have been the best season in school history.
But at some point, after they play in their first bowl since the 1972 Tangerine Bowl, they will probably realize what they’ve accomplished. They came into the season with just one winning record in 25 years, lost 47-14 to Kentucky in the second game of the season, then won 11 straight games.
On the way, they beat Rutgers — the program’s first win over a ranked opponent — managed the first 8-0 record in MAC East history since Miami in 2003, and had the first 10-win season in school history.
“I can’t begin to put into words how I proud I am of this football team and this organization,” Hazell said. “It is the players in our locker room and the coaches in our locker room that made this entire season special.”
Now Kent State waits — first for a bowl invitation and then for next season, when they try to prove that, for the first time in their 90-year history, the Golden Flashes might have a solid program to put on the field.