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By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
Eight days ago, a date with two-time defending Mid-American Conference champion Northern Illinois seemed like a downright scary proposition for the injury-riddled Kent State football team.
Now that the matchup is five days away, it seems much more doable.
The Golden Flashes (2-3, 1-1 MAC) have gotten healthy since suffering back-to-back lopsided losses at LSU and Penn State, and earned a confidence-boosting 32-14 road victory last week at winless Western Michigan to snap a three-game losing streak.
Now KSU feels like they're as ready as ever for their rematch on Homecoming on Saturday at Dix Stadium with the Huskies (4-0, 0-0), who edged the Flashes 44-37 in double-overtime in last year's MAC Championship Game classic.
"It's good that we've got guys like (senior speedster) Dri (Archer) and (senior guard) Pat McShane back. (Senior defensive tackle Roosevelt Nix) is feeling healthier, (senior strong safety) Luke Wollet's feeling healthier," said KSU first-year coach Paul Haynes. "We're about as healthy as we've been all year besides the first game of the season, so I feel good about where we are. Now you feel that you've got your horses that can go run and win the race."
Last Saturday, Archer and McShane played together for the first time this season since the first quarter of the opener against Liberty, when Archer suffered an ankle injury. Together they spearheaded a Kent State rushing attack that produced 276 yards on 47 carries against the Broncos, averaging nearly six yards per rush.
In the 10 quarters that preceded the Western Michigan game, the Flashes rushed for a mere 136 yards on 74 carries (1.8 yards per attempt).
"Running the ball and being able to establish the run, that's the best thing that came out of that game offensively," said Haynes. "Getting (Archer and McShane) back of course does help us because they're good football players, and also they're good leaders. Having Dri back is huge. All the teams know who he is and where he is on the field. You don't have to give him the ball all the time to make things open up, you can do some deceptive things and it opens up some other things in the run game and the pass game."
While injuries to Archer, McShane and other key performers hindered the team's progress through the first four games of the 2013 season, they may actually help the team's development in the long run, according to Haynes.
"We've played some tough teams, and there are a lot of guys who stepped up and got some experience against some very good football teams that will help us down the road," said Haynes.
While the Flashes are feeling much better about themselves overall following last week's win, few teams in the country are pounding their collective chests any harder than the Huskies -- and deservingly so.
Northern Illinois vaulted to No. 23 in the country in the latest USA Today Top 25 Coaches Poll after dismantling host Purdue -- coached by 2011-12 Kent State mentor Darrell Hazell -- 55-24 last Saturday. That victory gave the Huskies a 2-0 record against the Big Ten this year, as they edged host Iowa 30-27 in their season opener.
Northern Illinois is led by senior quarterback Jordan Lynch, the reigning MAC Player of the Year, who has piled up 439 yards rushing and 869 yards passing, while producing 13 touchdowns thus far in '13.
"We've got a big week of preparation this week, got a very good football team coming in here," said Haynes. "They are ranked in the top 25, and it's very much deserved. But our guys will be up for the challenge. It'll be a good fight."
Not many people outside of the Kent State family believe the Flashes have a fighting chance against the Huskies, who have been listed as a nine-point favorite. But now that they're healthy, the Flashes believe they have a chance -- and that's really all that matters to them.
"In our team room, we all believe we can go out and win the game," said junior defensive end Nate Vance. "We're healthy and we're ready to go."
DRI FEELING FINE
After missing all or part of the previous five games due to injuries, Archer went the distance against the Broncos and came out of the game feeling good physically.
"I felt pretty good (on Sunday), better than what I expected," said Archer, who produced 121 yards and a touchdown on just 10 touches. "A couple bumps and bruises, just sore from not playing for a while, but besides that I felt pretty good. I had to go back out there and get my feet wet again. My first full game all season, I feel real good about where I'm at right now."
Facebook: Allen Moff, Record-Courier