No quarterback has led his team into the Mid-American Conference Championship Game in a more quiet, unassuming fashion than Spencer Keith.
Kent State's senior signal-caller is an exception to the rule in the MAC, which clearly states that championship teams must have a one-man show at quarterback who produces mind-boggling individual numbers and big plays in bunches.
Last year, Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish accumulated 4,595 total yards and 39 touchdowns while carrying his team to the MAC crown. Other quarterbacks who have won MAC title games since its inception in 1997 include mega-stars Dan LeFevour of Central Michigan, Bruce Gradkowski of Toledo, Ben Roethlisberger of Miami and Marshall's Byron Leftwich and Chad Pennington.
This season's MAC Championship Game features Northern Illinois quarterback sensation Jordan Lynch, who has rushed for 1,611 yard and 16 touchdowns and thrown for 2,750 yards and 23 more scores … along with Kent State and Keith, who has managed a modest 1,674 passing and 11 touchdowns compared to seven picks, along with 190 yards and four TDs on the ground.
Thanks to that monstrous disparity in numbers, Lynch will receive all the hype this week while Keith slides in under the radar. And that's just fine with Keith.
"I don't really worry about numbers. I stopped worrying about that a long time ago, years ago," said Keith. "I just do whatever the coaches tell me to do, just play my role to the best of my ability, whether it be making checks or getting the ball down the field. I just try to operate the offense and get the ball to the playmakers."
In Keith's case, numbers are basically irrelevant because his strengths are immeasurable.
"He's intelligent, he's a leader. Those are his strengths," said Golden Flashes offensive coordinator Brian Rock. "He's got that great point-guard mentality, where you don't have to make all the plays, you've just gotta get the ball to the guys that can make the plays."
Keith is surrounded by a sturdy offensive line and two 1,000-yard rushers in 250-pound sophomore bulldozer Trayion Durham and junior blur Dri Archer, all of whom he utilizes to the fullest extent.
"Quarterbacks are evaluated on whether they can move the team, and do you win? That's the bottom line," said Rock. "Spencer does a great job of putting us in position to succeed."
That's ironic, considering Keith has been placed in spots where failure was almost expected several times during what has been a rocky four-year career as Kent State's starting quarterback.
When Keith arrived at Kent State under head coach Doug Martin in 2009, he was known as the quarterback from the high school that never punted. He amassed astronomical numbers back in those days, leading the nation as a senior with 5,310 passing yards and 70 touchdown passes while steering Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Ark., to the 5A state title.
Keith saw action in his second game with the Flashes, and took over as the team's starting quarterback just five games into his freshman season. He wound up starting seven games and compiled a highly respectable 3-4 record while throwing for 2,147 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Keith has started every game for the Flashes since then, but there have been struggles aplenty along the way. He threw 14 interceptions compared to just 11 touchdowns as a sophomore, when Martin resigned after a 5-7 season.
Keith kept his job as the starting quarterback under new head coach Darrell Hazell, but times were about to get tougher than ever.
The Flashes dropped six of their first seven games in 2011 due mostly to a dreadful offense that averaged just 10.7 points and 181 yards per game. At this point, members of a Kent State defense that had been dominant for the past several years had grown tired of seeing one solid effort after another from its side of the ball get wasted.
"When we were struggling, he was the one who was taking the brunt of it," said Hazell. "He stuck his chin out there and took all those shots. He has never once pointed a finger at anybody."
Fortunately for the Flashes, a switch up front during the bye week ignited the offense and triggered a 4-1 finish to the 2011 season that served as a catapult to what would become the best campaign in Kent State football history.
Still, despite the offense's improved play at the end of 2011, Keith's job was in jeopardy.
Not many senior quarterbacks with three years as a starter on their resume have ever had to battle for their job. But that's exactly what Keith was forced to do during fall camp, the preseason, and even into the early stages of the 2012 campaign.
Hazell brought in junior college transfer David Fisher along with freshman Colin Reardon, and declared the quarterback job open during camp. Keith was not named the starter until just before the season opener against Towson.
"They brought a couple guys in. I had to battle Fisher in the spring and the fall, and he did a great job competing," said Keith. "I feel like it has made me a better player and helps me focus on one day at a time instead of thinking about games ahead, because there's always someone back there. It's definitely come out as a positive thing."
Still, Keith admits that having his job threatened was difficult to handle.
"It was tough at times, in fall camp and in the spring, but I just kept my mindset right on football and what was best for the team," said Keith. "I've always had the mentality to compete and never give up. I knew I had to compete and fight for the job. I knew my teammates were watching, and I can't let them down. I love those guys. I'd do anything for them."
Keith got off to a mediocre start in 2012. He didn't throw a single pick in the first three games but also wasn't producing many big plays, which prompted Hazell to give Fisher the bulk of the snaps in the second half of KSU's Week 3 win at Buffalo.
Following the game, Hazell refused to name a starter. In fact he never did name a starter during the week, but it was Keith who trotted onto the Dix Stadium field to face Ball State.
"It's just tough in those times to know what to do," said Keith, "but I think everyone responded well."
By the end of this late September afternoon, Kent State's great quarterback debate would be put to rest for good.
KEITH SAVES THE SEASON
At long last, Keith caught fire against the Cardinals. He started taking the shots downfield and in the red zone that Hazell had been prodding him to take, and it paid off with touchdown passes of 23, 28 and 33 yards in the first three quarters alone.
However, a dramatic rally by Ball State threatened to ruin Keith's performance. A late touchdown gave Ball State a 43-42 lead, and precious few Flashes fans gave the home team with its long-standing losing tradition much of a chance when KSU took over at its own 6-yard line with 2:05 to play and no timeouts.
That's when Keith engineered an improbable drive that would prove to be the turning point in Kent State's record-shattering 2012 season.
After converting a 3rd-and-10 from the six with a 14-yard pass to Matthew Hurdle, Keith converted a do-or-die fourth-and-10 from his 33 with a 15-yard strike to Hurdle. Keith then hit Josh Boyle for 20 yards, which helped set up a chip-shot 25-yard field goal by senior kicker Freddy Cortez with six seconds left that gave Kent State a spine-tingling 45-43 triumph.
"I told myself before that last drive to just go out there and take it one play at a time and just stay calm in the pocket," said Keith. "The line did a great job; I didn't get touched the whole drive, so that definitely played a part in it."
Since that game Keith has been a model of consistency, making plays when he needs to while always making use of his top weapon, one that's unmatched by any quarterback in the country.
FUTURE IN MEDICINE
While Keith has been impressive on game days, he's at his best when the stadium lights are turned off.
Keith carries a 3.79 grade-point average as a pre-med biology major with a minor in mathematics. He is on pace to graduate in December of 2013, then plans to attend medical school.
"He's a brilliant guy," said Hazell. "Any time you've got a guy under center who is that smart, you can do so many things with him. His intelligence spreads throughout the whole team."
No one knows Keith any better than senior left tackle Brian Winters, who has protected him for the past four years.
"He's a really smart player. He studies the game more than anyone I've ever known," said Winters. "He knows what's gonna happen and when it's gonna happen. Some quarterbacks don't make the right checks, but he's always on top of it."
Keith's ability to check into the proper run plays based on the defensive formations he's facing has led to a slew of scores this season, including a pair of touchdowns in Kent State's upset victory at No. 18 Rutgers.
"He's so special because he prepares so well," said Hazell. "He gets all the guys in the right place, and gets us in all the right plays. He just does exactly what we need him to do."
WHATEVER IT TAKES
With Archer and Durham in the backfield, the Flashes haven't needed Keith to put up Lynch-like numbers. But as he's shown repeatedly during Kent State's school-record 10-game winning streak, Keith is fully capable of making clutch plays when necessary.
So if Friday's title game comes down to a final drive, the Flashes' fortunes are in good hands.
"I look forward to those times when I have to make plays to get the job done," said Keith. "Whenever that time comes I'm always ready for it."
The roller-coaster ride of a career Keith has endured has him prepared to face any and all obstacles, both on and off the field.
"I'm so proud of Spencer, how he's taken this team to 11 wins this year after all he's been through," said Hazell. "He's been exceptional for us. He's just the ultimate team player."