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The last time the Kent State Golden Flashes played in the MAC Football Championship Game

It was nine years ago the Flashes last found themselves in the title hunt. It’s been a long road back for the Blue and Gold.

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MAC Championship - Kent State v Northern Illinois Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

The Kent State Golden Flashes (7-5, 6-2 MAC) were preseason favorites to win the East, and they’ve performed up to that expectation in 2021, having made it all the way to the MAC Championship Game set to be played on Saturday, Dec. 5 at noon Eastern time. The 2021 Flashes, much like the last KSU team to make it to the precipice of the MAC, has relied upon a dominant offense, especially in the ground game, to make it to the Motor City, scoring an average of 32.8 points per game (41st in the country) to run over opponents.

Kent State secured their first outright MAC East title since 2012 with a heart-pounding, instant classic game last Saturday afternoon with the Miami RedHawks, getting a vital pass break-up in the first overtime on a two-point conversion attempt to secure the title in a do-or-die final game.

The Kent State team which departs for Detroit this week isn’t quite up to the standard of their 2012 forefathers, but looking back at the statistics shows there are very few teams in college football history who could have held up to those Golden Flashes.

The two major names who defined this era of Kent State football were Trayvion Durham and the incomparable Dri Archer. A classic “thunder and lightning” running back combo, Durham and Archer both rushed for over 1,000-plus yards in the 2012 season, with Durham as the workhorse back with 1,316 yards and 14 touchdowns on 216 carries, while Archer was a change-of-pace back with 4.2 40-yard speed, collecting 1,419 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground on just 159 carries.

The receiving corps was also led by Archer and his 39 receptions for 561 yards and four touchdowns, running routes both out wide and from the backfield to guide the Flashes success. Josh Boyle (28 rec., 338 yards, three touchdowns), Matthew Hurdle (35 rec., 333 yards, one touchdown) and Chris Humphrey (26 rec., 319 yards) were the other top receivers on the roster. Punt return specialist Eric Adeyani was second-best on the roster with three touchdowns on 18 receptions for 242 yards as a deep threat option.

Spencer Keith directed the passing effort, finishing 183-of-333 for 2,021 yards, 12 touchdowns and 10 interceptions through the air, while also contributing to KSU’s ferocious running attack with 166 yards and five touchdowns on 72 carries.

The defense was one of the best in the MAC at causing turnovers and scoring points, with a whopping 25 interceptions, five forced fumbles and five defensive scores on two interceptions returns and three fumble returns.

Linebackers Luke Batton and CJ Maluulu were first and fourth on the tackle charts, respectively, with Batton’s 143 tackles, eight-tackles-for-loss, three sacks, two interceptions and one fumble recovery touchdown leading the KSU defensive effort. Maluulu was pretty good himself, with 72 tackles and an interception return touchdown.

The secondary was a true ballhawking unit, with Luke Wollett (119 tackles, six tackles-for-loss, one sack, four interceptions), Sidney Saultier (82 tackles, four tackles-for-loss, one interception), Darius Polk (58 tackles, three tackles-for-loss, three sacks, one interception) and Leon Greene (39 tackles, three interceptions) combining for nine interceptions throughout the season.

The defensive line was led by future NFL prospect Roosevelt Nix, a five-foot-eleven, 260 lb. defensive tackle who led one of the best individual campaigns in recent memory despite being undersized at the defensive tackle spot. Nix finished his junior campaign fifth-best on the tackle charts with 59 tackles, leading the team with 16 tackles-for-loss and six sacks, while also forcing three fumbles and breaking up two passes. Hybrid linebacker/defensive linemen Jake Dooley (45 tackles, nine tackles-for-loss, seven sacks) and Mark Fackler (25 tackles, five tackles-for-loss, one sack, three interceptions) were nightmare matchups in pass rush and coverage for opponents, giving KSU a unique ability to mix-and-match to opponents.

Dri Archer and Eric Adeyani led the special teams unit in punt and kick return duties, with Archer’s three touchdowns on 16 returns and a 36.6 yards per return average topping the charts. Adeyani had a respectable 16.6 yard per return average and was used as the steadier hand, especially on punt returns.

Senior placekicker Freddy Cortez handled field goals, finishing 19-of-25 on field goals and a perfect 58-of-58 on extra points, totaling 115 points. Anthony Melchiori averaged 42.6 net yards on 72 punts, picking up 3,065 yards.

Coming into their game against the #19 NIU Huskies, the Flashes had a season performance for the ages, winning 10-straight games after losing 47-14 to Kentucky in Week 2, including a dominant 35-23 victory over #18 Rutgers, to find themselves ranked #25 starting in November, and climbing all the way to #18 after a 28-6 throttling of the Ohio Bobcats to finish out the MAC East season in style.

It was a true clash of titans in Detroit, as the two nationally-ranked teams entered the contest looking to bust into the New Year’s Six as part of the old Bowl Championship Series system, and would play the first overtime MAC title game since the adoption of the concept to decide the winner, as the NIU Huskies narrowly edged out the Golden Flashes in double overtime on a two-yard Jordan Lynch touchdown run to win by a final score of 44-37.

Kent State found themselves stymied at the end of three quarters, falling behind to NIU 27-13 with 15 minutes remaining and their usual contributors struggling. That all changed with 4:53 remaining, as Spencer Keith capped off a drive with a five-yard rushing touchdown to get KSU within a score. On NIU’s next possession, the Flashes caused a fumble, and their defense, as they had all season, seized upon the opportunity, with Zach Hitchens collecting the 22-yard return touchdown to tie the game up in just under 30 seconds of game clock.

NIU went on the attack on the next possession, needing just over a minute to gain another touchdown to take back the 34-27 lead, this time on Jordan Lynch’s second rushing score of the day from nine yards out with 3:12 remaining.

Needing a touchdown, Kent State used up all but 44 seconds of the clock to march down the field and find junior tight end Tim Erjavec for his lone touchdown of the season from 19 yards out to bring the score tied back up once again.

Both teams bowed up on defense in the first overtime, with both teams opting for field goals from 33 yards out for Kent State and 40 yards out for NIU, respectively. In the first possession of the second overtime, Jordan Lynch would score from nine yards out to put pressure back on Kent State once again.

The Flashes wold get up to the NIU 23 on third-and-eight, but Rashaan Melvin committed pass interference on an incomplete pass, allowing KSU to go up to the NIU 12-yard line with a new set of downs. After an initial two-yard run by Trayvion Durham, KSU struck out on two straight pass attempts, calling timeout before the fourth down try.

It was all for naught, however, as Demetrius Stone got in front of Spencer Keith’s final pass to assure the Huskies would walk away with both the MAC championship and an eventual invitation to the Orange Bowl as BCS busters.

(A brief aside: after NIU’s appearance in the BCS against Florida State in 2012-13, and UCF’s win over Baylor in 2013-14 to follow, approval of a new postseason championship would be accelerated, resulting in the College Football Playoff we know today.)

The Golden Flashes would finish their seasons at the GoDaddy Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, losing to the Sun Belt’s Arkansas State by a final score of 17-13. Head coach Darrell Hazell would depart after the bowl game to coach the Purdue Boilermakers, with Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Paul Haynes hired in his place.

It was a season full of what-ifs for the Golden Flashes, especially in light of the 2013 season, which was marked by what was supposed to be Dri Archer’s Heisman campaign being destroyed by a dreaded season-ending knee injury at the start of the season. The Flashes finished 4-8 that year, and never had higher than three wins again until 2019, in Sean Lewis’ second season in charge.

Since that 2019 season which ended in the program’s first-ever bowl victory, the Golden Flashes have made the climb back up to be one of the MAC East’s most feared programs, and will look to pick up the program’s first division championship since 1972, when Don James led KSU to the title and finished 6-5-1, including 4-1 in the MAC season. That 1972 season was Kent State’s last bowl appearance before the heralded 2012 squad’s appearance in the Bowl.

The Golden Flashes will look to finish the job they were expected to do in the preseason by the prognosticators— and avenge their 2012 loss to the Huskies— on Saturday, Dec. 5 at noon Eastern time on ESPN.