KENT: Back in February and March, Kent State football coach Darrell Hazell clearly saw the path his Golden Flashes could take for a breakout season.
He rolled the desk chair in his office at the M.A.C. Center over to the right about a foot and pointed to the 2012 season schedule taped on a mini fridge that held cups of yogurt and canned soda pop.
“If we start off well and finish strong, I really like our chances,” he said on several occasions.
It seemed as if Hazell was being a tad optimistic when the Flashes were outplayed in every phase of the game during an embarrassing 47-14 loss to host Kentucky in the second game of the season.
Hazell did get the Flashes to win four of their final five games in 2011 but the loss to the Wildcats, a lower-level Southeastern Conference team, seemed like the perfect time to temper expectations this season.
But as anyone who has come to know Hazell, he and his coaching staff’s leadership skills are not to be taken lightly. Instead of struggling to find their footing, the Flashes responded to the disheartening loss with even more desire to “finish strong.”
That’s exactly what Kent State did.
The Flashes (9-1, 6-0 Mid-American Conference) have reeled off a program-best eight-game winning streak that earned the team a No. 25 ranking in the Associated Press poll for the first time in nearly 40 years.
More important, the Flashes are on the verge of claiming their first MAC East Division title with a victory today at Bowling Green, a game that kicks off at noon at Doyt Perry Stadium.
A win over the host Falcons would pit the Flashes against three-time West Division winner Northern Illinois (10-1, 7-0) in the MAC Championship Game on Nov. 30 at Ford Field in Detroit.
“This team continues to amaze me where they are in their efforts, their maturity level and their attention to detail,” Hazell said Monday at his weekly news conference. “They’ve really figured out how to win.”
Bowling Green (7-3, 5-1) also is playing extremely well. The Falcons are winners of their past six games after being shut out 37-0 at Virginia Tech on Sept. 22.
“These are very good football teams playing against each other, and [the Falcons] look very similar as you watch the film,” Hazell said. “Their front seven is exceptional, and I think their defensive line is very good, very active. Their linebackers run, and they tackle extremely well, and they play some man coverage on the outside. But from our offensive standpoint and their defensive standpoint, I think we’re very evenly matched.
“And if you flip to the other side of the ball, they do a good job with their quarterback [junior Matt Schilz], getting [the ball] out of his hand very fast trying to drop it off on swing and bubble [passes]. Their running back [sophomore Anthon Samuel] came alive in the Ohio game and made some huge plays. He’s a very strong, physical runner. And they’re playing great special teams right now, so we’re probably looking in the mirror a little bit.”
In Bowling Green’s 26-14 victory at Ohio last week, the Falcons special teamers made it tough going on the Bobcats punt coverage.
“We’re gonna do our normal deal [on special teams],” Hazell said. “We put a lot of attention into our punt unit. That’s our No. 1 play in football for us. But obviously, they stressed out Ohio. Every time Ohio lined up to punt, there was some stress involved. So we’re going to have to do a good job protecting [freshman] punter [Anthony Melchiori].”
KSU’s field-goal unit, featuring senior kicker Freddy Cortez, has become a major strength for the Flashes, but Hazell said the Falcons kick unit hasn’t been as good.
“Freddy’s really come on as of late, been really consistent. He’s really solid and has a lot of range as we all know. And they’ve struggled in their field-goal unit throughout the course of this year. They’ve had a couple misses and changed their kicker a couple times, so hopefully that can pay some big dividends for us in the game.”
The game most likely will be decided in the trenches.
“They have a really good front seven,” Flashes senior left tackle Brian Winters said. “And we have a really good offensive line. What we’re gonna do is continue to play the way we’ve been playing. We’re not gonna change anything up. We’re gonna continue playing smash-mouth football.”
Said senior left guard Josh Kline: “It’s going to be a physical game on both sides of the ball in the trenches. So we’ve gotta just play physical, play smart and execute. We can’t have any mistakes as a group on both sides — D-line and O-line. ... We’re going to have to play inside ourselves. We can’t play outside of ourselves. We know the significance of this game, but we can’t really worry about it.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at email@example.com.