It didn't take Kent State very long to ensure their fans that they were not going to be suffering from any holiday hangover.
Senior day at Dix Stadium started with a bang for the Golden Flashes, and it was the defense - as they have most of the year - that led the way.
C.J. Malauulu started things early for Kent State, stripping the Bobcats' tailback Beau Blankenship of the ball at midfield on Ohio's first drive of the game. Luke Wollet scooped up the loose ball and raced 50 yards to the endzone to give Kent State a quick 7-0 lead with just two minutes off the clock.
After trading punts during the next three series, it was the quick-strike offenses turn, and Kent State wasted no time. From their own 40, senior quarterback Spencer Keith hit Eric Adeyemi for a gain of 44 yards, and two plays later Trayion Durham was rumbling into the Bobcat endzone from 15 yards out, giving Kent State an early 14 point lead halfway through the first quarter.
One play later, it was the Golden Flashes defense that struck again. Malauulu, a senior lineback from California, jumped in front of a Tyler Tettelton pass at the Ohio 33-yard line and saw nothing but daylight ahead of him, racing into the endzone for Kent State's second defensive score in less than 10 minutes of game action. The 35th turnover of the season for the Kent State defense - the most in the country - gave Darrell Hazell and his team a comfortable 21-3 lead at the end of the first quarter.
While the Kent State offense struggled to get much going, the defense maintained consistent pressure on Tettleton throughout the second quarter and fought off a blustery wind that prevailed most of the afternoon. The pressure on Tettleton was an important part of the game plan, according to the Malauulu.
"Containing Tettleton and keep him from getting out of the box, especially to his right," the senior linebacker said."I think we did a good job of that, and covered him when we needed to, got sacks, and I'm just grateful for all those guy [teammates]. "
As halftime drew near, a Matt Weller 41 yard field goal cut the Golden Flashes lead to 21-6, a lead that felt much more substantial than the two score difference would indicate.
The third quarter was much like the second, as each team struggled to establish any offensive rhythm. Three Anthony Melchiori punts bracketed a Dri Archer fumble as Kent State was unable to put up any points for the second straight quarter. Fortunately for the struggling offense, the defense handled the potent Bobcats' offense and kept the Bobcats off the scoreboard, despite allowing a big day to Blankenship. The Ohio star recorded his ninth 100-yard rushing game of the season, collecting 145 yards on 29 carries, but was unable to break the occasional bending Golden Flashes' defense.
As the final quarter rolled around, it was more of the same for Ohio as they tried to claw back into the football game. A poor punt on the opening series of the quarter gave Kent State the ball at the 50-yard line, and Keith and the offense took advantage.
Adeyemi picked up six yards, then Archer - back on the field after nursing an ankle injurt for most of the third quarter - ripped off ten yards to the Ohio 34. Keith found Tim Erjavec for 13 yards and one play later hit Adeyemi again, this time from 24 yards out for the score. Freddy Cortez connected on the extra point, and with 11:44 to play, Kent State led the Bobcats 28-6.
From there, Kent State unleashed the dogs on defense, sacking Tettelton left and right - collecting eight of them on the game, three more than any other game this season - and Ohio had no answer. When the clock ran out, the scoreboard read 28-6 Golden Flashes, and Kent State's dream season continued with their 10th straight victory this season, and their 8th win in 8 games against MAC opponents. It's been a season defined by a number of key moments for the Golden Flashes, and it's a team that has really changed from a year ago.
"Coach Hazell has done a great job of coming in here and turning the whole thing around," Spencer Keith said post-game. "We've all responded really well, and we've got to keep it going these last two games. Last year was disappointing, but we came into fall camp wanting to turn this program around."
Hazell, for his part, agree with Keith that things started to change at the end of the summer, as the team prepared for fall camp.
"It's been fun to watch this team all season long. They're mature, they don't flinch, they don't panic and they feed so well off of each other. That's probably one of the biggest reasons why," said the Golden Flashes' second-year head coach. "When I first took the job, I knew these guys were talented. If you look in our locker room, it's full of talent. The belief was not always there, paying attention to the specifics weren't always there, but those are things that you can correct. When I really got a gut feeling was the first day of Fall Camp, August 2. We turned the lights out and put on a tape to try and do some visualization. We turned the lights back on and there was a sense at that point in time...that they get it."
It was a workman like effort for a Kent State team that has definitely been more explosive this year, but as they have all year, the Golden Flashes found a way to come up with the big plays when they needed it. Keith was not spectacular, finishing only 9-20 for 170 yards, but he did enough to outduel one of the conference's premier signal-callers in Tettleton. Ohio defended the "thunder and lightning" of Durham and Archer better than any opponent in months, but the pair still averaged five yards a carry on their way to 150 total rushing yards.
Kent State will not have much time to celebrate or rest on their laurels. Next week they will head to Detroit for the MAC championship game against their MAC west counterpart, 11-1 Northern Illinois for the outright MAC title. Kent State is hoping to become the first MAC east team to run through the conference unblemished since the Ben Roethlisberger led Redhawks of Miami (Oh.) did so in 2003.