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Golden Flashes look to finish strong

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(AP photo)
Kent State’s Dri Archer runs the ball into the end zone on a 79-yard run during the first half against Bowling Green on Saturday in Bowling Green, Ohio.

KENT, Ohio – The division has been clinched and along with it a spot in next week’s Mid-American Conference Championship game. After that, a trip to a bowl game.

Kent State, ranked in The Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since 1973, has rarely had it so good. And, it would appear there is little to be gained today in a conference finale against Ohio.

Truth is, everything’s at stake for the Golden Flashes.

A win over the Bobcats would complete the greatest regular season in Kent State football’s 90-year history. It also would bolster the school’s bowl resume, send the team’s seniors out in style and make coach Darrell Hazell an even hotter commodity than he is already.

It would be easy to coast to the finish line. Hazell won’t allow it.

“This game is like every other game on our schedule,” said Hazell, who in just two seasons has moved Kent State to the top of the underrated MAC. “We owe it to our seniors who take their last step in Dix Stadium. We are going to play. We are all competitors. We are going to play every single contest as hard as we can to win the football game. We are going to do everything we can to win.”

The 23rd-ranked Golden Flashes (10-1, 7-0), who will face No. 24 Northern Illinois in the MAC title game next week, are trying to finish off a season unlike any other at Kent State.

They’ve already eclipsed the school record for wins set by the 1973 team that was coached by Don James and included Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert and Alabama coach Nick Saban, a skinny safety back in those days. There hasn’t been an 8-0 team in the MAC East in conference play since Miami in 2003.

Hazell is wary of the Bobcats (8-3, 4-3), who knocked off Penn State to open the season and were ranked just a few weeks ago before dropping three of their last four.

“We are not going to do anything we haven’t done for the past 11 weeks as far as preparation,” he said. “It is a good Ohio football team that has lost three games in the MAC. They are very dangerous. We have to do a good job in all phases to be successful.”

That’s been the key all season for Kent State.

Among the nation’s best rushing teams, the Golden Flashes also lead all FBS schools in turnover margin, and in junior running back/return specialist Dri Archer, have one college football’s most electrifying players.

Archer, whose blistering speed has attracted the attention of NFL scouts, leads the nation in kick return average. He’s also fourth in all-purpose yards, tied for fifth in scoring and is averaging a mind-blowing 10.3 yards per carry. In last week’s win over Bowling Green, Archer reeled off two long touchdown runs, including an oh-no-he-didn’t 74-yarder that became one of those plays looped day and night on ESPN.

Racing down the left sideline, the 5-foot-8, 175-pound Archer appeared to be stopped near midfield by several defenders. He momentarily vanished before emerging like a surfer lucky to stay on his board in a monster wave. He cut back across the field, picked up a few blockers and jetted to the end zone.

Even as he watched the tape, Archer couldn’t believe what he had done.

“Wow, that really happened,” said Archer, who rushed for a career-high 241 yards as Kent State clinched the East. “It catches me off guard sometimes what I do, but it turned out good for us. The only thing I was thinking about was not getting tackled.”

That’s now Ohio’s concern, and Bobcats coach Frank Solich knows the only way his team has a chance is to slow down Archer.

“We’ve had some really good playmakers in the MAC, but he’s something special,” Solich said. “I think that you could place him in any conference in the country and he would be special. He’s not big, he’s got great speed and he’s very fluid in his running style. You can use him a lot of different ways, and Kent State does a great job with that.

“If you let him get started, he’s got a shot at things. You’ve got to control him some. He’s going to have some big plays, you just hope that everyone that’s built around him offensively doesn’t also have big plays.”

The Bobcats, who have never beaten a ranked team in 15 tries, are coming off a disappointing 52-27 loss to Ball State on Nov. 14. But the extra time off has allowed a team that has had more than its share of injuries some time to recover and Solich is confident his team can give Kent State its best shot.

“You better be a really good football team to win games, and you better have a little luck on the way,” he said. “We were a really good football team that didn’t have a lot of luck. We’ll finish off very well. I like the attitude of our team, and they’ll be ready to play.”

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