BOWLING GREEN, Ohio — Kent State’s remarkable season just keeps getting better.
The No. 25 Golden Flashes are going to their first Mid-American Conference title game with the most wins in school history. But getting there wasn’t easy Saturday, especially for second-year coach Darrell Hazell.
Kent State’s defense stopped Bowling Green twice within the last five minutes in the Flashes’ territory, holding on for a 31-24 victory.
Luke Wollet’s interception of Matt Schilz’ heave into the end zone with 21 seconds left sealed the victory. The Falcons had driven to the Kent State 14 with less than a minute left, before coming up empty on four consecutive throws.
“My stomach was in my throat,” Hazell said. “I couldn’t let the players see it.”
The former Ohio State assistant has revived a Kent State (10-1, 7-0 MAC) program that has been one of the worst in the conference the last four decades with more winless seasons (four) than winning ones (two) up until this year.
The Flashes’ speedy junior running back Dri Archer took over the game with leading rusher Trayion Durham banged up and unable to do much.
Archer ran for 241 yards on 17 carries and two touchdowns of more than 70 yards.
On his second score at the start of the fourth quarter, Archer broke three tackles on his way to a 74-yard touchdown run that put Kent State ahead 24-17. He appeared to be stopped at midfield, but somehow managed to slip away and zigzagged into the end zone.
The teams traded scores until Kent State defensive tackle Roosevelt Nix tipped Schilz’s pass and lineman Richard Gray grabbed the ball out of the air, setting up the Flashes at Bowling Green’s 20.
Archer took it from there, getting the offense down to the 7. Quarterback Spencer Keith then faked to Archer and kept it for a 7-yard TD that put the Flashes ahead for good with 8:14 left.
Bowling Green (7-4, 5-2) had two more shots, but they were stopped on downs and then intercepted in the end zone.
Keith, a senior, said his teammates had no doubt they were going to win. That wasn’t an attitude they had in the past.
“Before we definitely had some doubt,” Keith said. “Just because of our past history.”
Back in the national rankings for the first time since 1973, Kent State avoided becoming the third MAC team to lose a week after getting into the Top 25.
Ohio was the first MAC team to get into the rankings this season, and the Bobcats then lost their next game to Miami (Ohio). Toledo got into the rankings and promptly lost to Ball State last week.
It was a game of big plays on both sides, with four touchdowns going for over 70 yards, including Archer’s scoring runs of 79 and 74 yards.
Archer and Durham have both run 1,000-yards, but Archer knew he would be counted on even more with teammate hurting.
“Coach told me all week I’d have to do more,” he said
Archer’s first score was spectacular, too. He took a handoff, made one cut and raced past everyone for a 79-yard TD that gave Kent State a 10-0 lead midway through the second quarter.
Kent State extended its school record nine-game winning streak in what is its first winning season since 2001.
They’ve now won 14 of 16, including 11 straight in the MAC, since beating Bowling Green a year ago.
Schilz was 22-of-44 passing for 355 yards and three touchdowns, carving up a Kent defense that has given a lot of passing yards all season.
His throw to Chris Gallon along the sideline for an 81-yard TD, his second of the day, tied it at 24-24 early in the fourth quarter.
Gallon finished with 213 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
Bowling Green had taken the lead early in the third quarter 17-10 when Schilz lofted a 27-yard throw to Shaun Joplin who leaped over a defender and came down with one foot in the corner of the end zone.
Kent State came back on the next drive by turning to Archer who had a catch and two runs for 38 yards, setting up Keith’s 32-yard TD pass to Eric Adeyemi, making it 17-17 with 7:47 left in the third quarter.
Bowling Green had bottled up the Flashes’ physical, grind-it-out running game in the first quarter, holding them to just three first downs — the first coming on a fake punt that gained 31 yards.
That’s when Kent State began relying on Archer.