KENT: The sting of a double-overtime loss to Northern Illinois in the Mid-American Conference Championship Game remains but the Kent State football team has a lot of reasons to be proud.
One is a berth in the GoDaddy.com Bowl on Jan. 6 in Mobile, Ala.
The Flashes (11-2) will face Arkansas State (9-3) of the Sunbelt Conference.
“You shake your head in amazement at all the accomplishments that this team has made,” said Flashes coach Darrell Hazell, who went on to share a story about a text he received from Roy Hall, a former Ohio State receiver he coached during his seven seasons as a Buckeyes assistant.
“That text from one of my ex-players kind of summed it up for the year,” Hazell continued. “He said, ‘I learned more about your football team in this one game than I did watching them all year long.’ And that’s true. The resolve, the will, how determined this football team was. … I can’t be more proud of them.”
The Flashes, who finished the season ranked No. 25 in the BCS standings, not only lost the chance to call themselves MAC champions at Ford Field on Friday night, but also the ability to realize the dream of going to the Orange Bowl (where the Huskies are now headed on Jan. 1 to face Florida State).
“Obviously in our locker room after the game there was a lot of broken hearts,” Hazell said. “But that’s part of athletics and sports.”
It appeared as if Hazell had already turned the page to the Flashes’ first bowl game since the 1972 Tangerine Bowl, but it wasn’t so obvious that junior tight end Tim Erjavec and junior defensive end Zach Hitchens had.
“Coach [and defensive coordinator Jon] Heacock was always saying the MAC Championship Game really wasn’t about the ring, it’s about the journey,” said Hitchens, who recovered a fumble and ran it back for a touchdown that helped spark the Flashes’ fourth-quarter comeback to force overtime.
“Losing did hurt because we wanted the ring so we could remember the journey. But we’ll always have the memories of the game and how far we went in our hearts. But it’s still sad and makes me choke up a little bit because we came so far just to lose it at the end.”
As Hazell spoke in his final Monday post-game news conference about looking forward to the bowl game and beyond, the pained looks on the players’ faces whenever Friday’s double-overtime loss was mentioned was palpable even as they said the right things.
“It was a very, very quiet three-and-a-half hour bus ride,” Hazell said. “Guys were tired and guys were emotional and kind of wanted time to themselves, which I completely understand. For me, it was the next day where it started working on my mind a little bit, where I said, ‘what could I have done differently to make the outcome different?’ There was no foregone conclusion what it was. But it was a hard loss.”
Erjavec echoed his coach’s statement.
“It’s pretty much what we worked for every day, so it’s still going to hurt. Probably going to take a while. It’s something we put all our heart and soul into. That’s what two-a-days and summer workouts go into — making it to the MAC Championship Game. So, losing it is just hard.”
But it’s nice to have one more game to look forward to to help ease the pain.
“We have a chance to win a bowl game here at Kent State, something that’s never been done,” Erjavec said. “That would be amazing to make history by making a bowl game and winning it.”
The Flashes will have 14 practices before leaving Jan. 2 to head to Alabama.
“That practice time speaks to development of young players,” Hazell said. “You can’t put a measurement on how important those things are. So we’ll get 14 extra practices that will help us get better for the future.”
Stay or go?
Hazell was asked Monday about ESPN’s report Sunday morning that had him interviewing with Cal.
“There’s so many that are floating around,” Hazell said. “Any time a job comes open, my name’s mentioned. That’s honoring, but I can’t discuss all the rumors that are out there. When something significant happens, whether it’s two years from now or three years from now, I’ll be sure to be loyal to [the local media].”
It’s obvious Hazell’s players think the world of him, but they understand sports is also a business.
“If Coach Hazell left — everyone on our team, we love him — but if it’s best for his family and himself, then that’s what he’s got to do,” Hitchens said.
Last of Archer?
Another rumor floated over the weekend was that junior kick returner/running back/receiver Dri Archer might leave school early to declare for the NFL Draft.
“I’ve had those situations in the past [as an assistant at Ohio State] and you’ve got to look at the numbers,” Hazell said. “You get insight from the NFL guys making those decisions about when a guy might be taken and you lay it all out for him. You always want to do what’s best for the player. But in my perception about where I think Dri is now, it would probably do him good to stay. But we’ll have those discussions if that comes up.”
Senior left tackle Brian Winters will be making multiple trips to Mobile in the upcoming weeks. He will be a part of a small contingent of Flashes that will accompany Hazell on Thursday to visit GoDaddy.com Bowl representatives for a day. After playing in the game on Jan. 6, he will be going back for the prestigious Senior Bowl on Jan. 26.
“One of the highest honors is to play in that Senior Bowl,” Hazell said. “Brian was selected a week and a half ago and he’s fired up about that game. It’s a special honor and there’s not many guys who get invited, it’s a very select few. It’s well deserved by Brian. He’s put the work in and has done a nice job.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Kent State blog at http://www.ohio.com/flashes. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.