By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
MOBILE, Ala. -- Kent State has been extremely busy putting 40 years of football futility to bed this season.
So far the Golden Flashes have earned a school-record 11 wins, including a program-best 10-game winning streak, and captured the Mid-American Conference East Division championship -- their first title of any kind since 1972.
Tonight they'll have an opportunity to go where no Kent State football team has gone before when the Flashes (11-2) make their first bowl appearance in 40 years, taking on Sun Belt Conference champion Arkansas State (9-3) in the GoDaddy.com Bowl at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
Because no KSU team has ever gone bowling, and won.
"This university hasn't won a bowl game yet, so it's a big chance for us," said senior quarterback Spencer Keith. "It definitely is exciting."
To earn the first bowl win in the program's 90 years of existence, Kent State will have to knock off a red-hot Arkansas State squad that closed the regular season with seven consecutive victories, including a 45-0 shutout of an eight-win Middle Tennessee squad in its season finale.
"They're good. Just a good football team top to bottom," said second-year KSU coach Darrell Hazell. "This is a great matchup, a huge game for both teams."
The Red Wolves are led by senior quarterback Ryan Aplin, who has thrown for 3,129 yards and 23 touchdowns this season while tossing just four interceptions.
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound signal-caller can also do damage with his legs, as he's rushed for 443 yards and six TDs.
"(Aplin's) a very good player," said Hazell. "He's very efficient with the ball."
Arkansas State also features a solid tailback in 5-10, 195-pound junior David Oku, who has rushed for 1,024 yards and 15 touchdowns, along with Sun Belt Freshman of the Year wide receiver J.D. McKissic (92 catches, 909 yards, 4 Tds). They spearhead a Red Wolves offense that averages over 36 points and 481 yards per contest, and has committed only 14 turnovers -- three less than KSU.
Defensively, the Red Wolves are similar to the Flashes -- they've bent, but haven't broken much, especially against league foes. Arkansas State gave up a combined 99 points in non-conference losses to national powers Oregon and Nebraska, but held the rest of their opponents to an average of 20.6 points per contest.
The Arkansas State defense is led by 6-3, 235-pound senior linebacker Nathan Herrold, who has amassed 109 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, two sacks, three interceptions, five pass breakups, two forced fumbles and two recovered fumbles. Another player to watch is 6-5, 255-pound senior defensive end Tim Starson, who leads the team with 12.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.
"They've got some good players up front on defense," said Hazell. "They run around well and have some good team speed."
Both teams are coming off long layoffs marred by coaching changes.
Kent State has not played in 36 days since falling 44-37 to Northern Illinois in a classic MAC Championship Game clash, while Arkansas State has been out of action 35 days since blanking Middle Tennessee State to secure its second straight Sun Belt crown.
During the down time, Hazell accepted a six-year, $12 million offer to become head coach at Purdue, while first-year Red Wolves mentor Gus Malzahn took the job as head coach at Auburn. Malzahn left immediately, while Hazell wanted to remain Kent State's coach through the bowl game and was permitted to do so.
Defensive coordinator John Thompson was promoted to interim head coach after Malzahn left, and will lead the Red Wolves in tonight's game before former Texas offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin takes over the Arkansas State program. Thompson will remain the team's defensive coordinator under Harsin.
A veteran coach with over three decades of experience at the collegiate level, Thompson is thoroughly impressed with the Flashes offense.
"When you put the (Kent State) tape on your eyes go to three players immediately," he said. "You look at Archer, and his speed is absolutely amazing. You realize right then that's a special player you have to get a lot of eyes on. Then it goes to the power of Durham, the big back. Then you go to their left tackle (senior Brian Winters), and he's probably the best that we've seen all year long."
Thompson's thoughts kept returning to Archer.
"If you're not trying to defend him he's a blast to watch," he said.
Archer may be the most explosive player on the field, but both teams have plenty of other weapons.
"There's some marquee players to watch in this game," said Hazell. "I think it will be a fun game to watch."
The lengthy layoffs both teams have been forced to endure could make things interesting at the start, according to Hazell.
"It's been awhile since we've both played," said Hazell. "There will be a little bit of sparring I would think in the first quarter, trying to feel each other out and get back into a little bit of rhythm. The big key to me is the first quarter and which team settles in the best."
The Flashes are hoping to avoid being second-best in another bowl game.
Kent State made two previous trips to bowls, falling 19-7 to Delaware in the 1954 Refrigerator Bowl and 21-18 to Tampa in the 1972 Tangerine Bowl, following its one and only MAC championship season.
Flashes fans that have flocked to Mobile this weekend, along with those watching from home, are hoping the third time's the charm.
"We want to be the first team in (school) history to win a bowl game," said KSU senior right tackle Kent Cleveland, "and leave our mark on the program even more than we have so far."