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By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
MOBILE, Ala. -- Slowly, the pain will subside.
Eventually, memories of all the incredible achievements reached by the 2012-13 Kent State football team will drown out the disappointment of closing the campaign with two gut-wrenching defeats, capped by Sunday's 17-13 loss to Arkansas State (10-3) in the GoDaddy.com Bowl -- at least to some extent.
But not yet.
As the Golden Flashes flew back to Kent from Mobile Monday morning, they were still consumed by the whys and what-ifs that always torture players and coaches after a narrow loss.
"I'm sure I will (appreciate the season) later on down the road," said senior quarterback Spencer Keith. "It was a great season. There hasn't been one like this ever at Kent State. I appreciate all the guys working hard and doing what they did to make this one special. We would have liked to finish with a win."
The Flashes (11-3) had a chance to do just that, driving deep into Red Wolves territory in the closing minutes. But on a fourth-and-8 play from the ASU 25-yard line, Keith attempted to scramble for the first down but was stopped three yards short.
Keith took a shot to the ribs a few plays earlier while converting a fourth-and-8 pass for 15 yards to wide receiver Matt Hurdle and missed one play, but said it did not affect him after he re-entered the game.
"I just saw an opening, and I thought they were deep enough to get the first down and they weren't," said Keith. "I just thought I could break that last tackle, and I came up a few yards short. Obviously, hindsight is 20/20, but looking back at it, I wonder if I should have sat back a little longer and tried to find someone (open). But I saw them dropping back really fast, and thought I could get the first down."
The failed fourth-down conversion signaled the end of a frustrating evening for the Golden Flashes' offense, which moved the ball well for most of the game, but failed to cash in on several key opportunities.
Kent State had a first-and-goal from the Arkansas State 1-yard line in the opening quarter, but two stuffed runs were followed by an interception. Keith tried to force a pass over the middle to junior tight end Tim Erjavec, but the ball was knocked away and actually bounced off Erjavec's arm as he was laying in the end zone before getting picked off by Red Wolves linebacker Nathan Herrold.
Trailing 17-10 in the third quarter, the Flashes had a chance to tie the game but a third-and-7 pass to junior speedster Dri Archer was dropped inside the ASU 5.
Then, in the fourth quarter, trailing 17-13 at around the four-minute mark, Keith lofted a perfect 44-yard bomb to Chris Humphrey in the end zone, but the freshman wide receiver could not bring it in.
The Flashes were forced to go the final drive without Archer, who suffered a knee injury in the second quarter. Archer returned to action, and caught a short pass early in the fourth quarter before leaving the game for good.
"It was tough," said Archer. "I had my head down the majority of the (final) series. I just wanted to be out there with my guys."
Archer must now make a decision on whether to stay with his teammates or declare himself eligible for the upcoming NFL Draft.
"I haven't told anyone what decision I'm going to make," said Archer, who finished the season with 1,429 yards rushing (9.0 yards per carry), 561 yards receiving and a school-record 23 touchdowns. "I will probably decide within the next couple days."
After falling just short in their bid to earn the program's first-ever bowl victory in just its third try, head coach Darrell Hazell and his 18 seniors will move on after leading Kent State to a school-record 11 wins, the Mid-American Conference East Division championship and to the program's first bowl appearance in 40 years.
Hazell actually flew to meet with his new employer, Purdue University, on Monday morning, while new Flashes head coach Paul Haynes flew home with the team.
An emotional Hazell had one last message for his players Sunday night.
"I told them to stay together, no matter what happens down the road," he said. "We're a team, and that's how we got to where we are. It's because we are a strong team."
Sophomore tailback Trayion Durham finished with 68 yards on 20 carries in Sunday's bowl game, and wound up with 1,316 yards rushing on 276 attempts for the season (4.8 ypc). Durham and Archer are the only duo in the nation to each finish with over 1,300 rushing yards.
Senior left tackle Brian Winters made his school-record 50th straight start. He will return to Mobile to play in the Senior Bowl on Jan. 26.
Senior kicker Freddy Cortez made both of his field-goal attempts, and closed the season by hitting eight in a row. He leaves as KSU's all-time career scoring leader with 299 points.
Kent State's defense allowed just 285 total yards, and 148 of those yards came in the last 12:02 of the first half, when the Red Wolves scored both of their touchdowns. Senior linebacker Luke Batton had 11 tackles, upping his total to 40 in his last three games, while senior nose tackle Dana Brown had seven tackles and a career-high three tackles for a loss.
The Flashes' defense failed to force a turnover for only the second time this season, and the first since a Week 2 loss at Kentucky.