KENT, Ohio (AP) — C.J. Malauulu returned an interception 33 yards for a touchdown — 12 seconds after another Kent State TD — and the No. 23 Golden Flashes completed a perfect season in the Mid-American Conference with their 10th straight win, 28-6 over Ohio on Friday.
The regular-season finale was a tuneup for Kent State (11-1, 8-0 MAC), which will meet No. 24 Northern Illinois in next week’s MAC championship. The win allowed the Golden Flashes to continue the best season in the program’s 90-year history. They are ranked for the first time since 1972, the last time they appeared in a bowl game.
Trayion Durham rushed for 97 yards and scored on a 15-yard run in the first quarter to put Kent State ahead 14-0.
On Ohio’s next play, Malauulu picked off Tyler Tettleton and scored.
The Bobcats (8-4, 4-4) lost four of their last five after cracking the Top 25.
With representatives from the Military and GoDaddy.com bowls on hand, the Golden Flashes put on a dazzling show early before the game bogged down into a puntfest. But Kent State took advantage of Ohio’s mistakes in the opening quarter and did enough to pad its bowl resume.
The Golden Flashes entered the season hoping to build on a strong finish in 2011, when they won four of their last five.
But no one could have expected such a dramatic turnaround in coach Darrell Hazell’s second season, which will have at least two more games.
Kent State is the first MAC East school to go 8-0 in conference play since 2003, when Miami did it behind senior quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
The Golden Flashes came in leading all FBS schools in turnover margin, and they wasted little time forcing the Bobcats, who seemed sleepy with an 11 a.m. kickoff, to cough up the ball.
Kent State scored two defensive touchdowns in the first quarter — one on a 50-yard fumble return, the other on Malauulu’s pick — to stun Ohio and open a 21-0 lead.
Just 12 seconds after Durham’s 15-yard burst, aided by some bad tackling, made it 14-0, Malauulu, a senior from Oceanside, Calif., picked off Tettleton in the middle of the field. He found some blocks down the left sideline and dived inside the front pylon for the score, which survived a video replay.
Earlier, Malauulu stripped running back Beau Blankenship and Kent State’s Luke Wollet fielded a one-hopper off the turf and sprinted half the field to make it 7-0.
Ohio managed a 33-yard field goal by Matt Weller to close the quarter, but the Bobcats were down 18 despite outgaining the Golden Flashes, running more than twice as many offensive plays and holding the ball for eight more minutes.
Weller’s 41-yard field goal with 15 seconds left before halftime trimmed Kent State’s lead to 21-6 and sent Ohio’s players to the locker room with some confidence after being on the verge of a blowout loss.
But the Bobcats, who also hurt themselves with penalties in the first half, couldn’t get anything going on offense after halftime. Still, they were hanging around in the fourth quarter before Kent State’s Spencer Keith hit Eric Adeyemi for a 24-yard TD to make it 28-6.
Following the game, Kent State’s players paused on the way to the locker room and each rang a victory bell.
Once ignored, the Golden Flashes are making some noise.