Kent State opens the 2009 Mid-American Conference part of their schedule on Saturday when the Golden Flashes host Miami at Dix Stadium. KSU is 1-2 after dropping its last two contests while the RedHawks have struggled to find the scoreboard in starting 0-3.
A win for the Golden Flashes keeps the team on track to achieve its goal of winning the MAC East. A loss could trigger a collapse of the team's morale, especially after losing starting running back and offensive captain Eugene Jarvis to a season-ending injury just over a week ago.
That puts a lot of pressure on true freshman Spencer Keith, who is expected to make his second consecutive start in place of injured starting quarterback Giorgio Morgan. But don't expect the 6-foot-2, 190-pounder from Little Rock, Ark., to be rattled.
Keith has played with pressure before, lots of it.
"In the 5A state championship game last year we were without one of our starting wide receivers in the second half, he's at Arkansas now, and our other starter, who led the United States with 130 receptions, was out of the game," said Kevin Kelley, Keith's high school coach at Pulaski Academy. "Spencer carried us. On the last drive, we had three or four fourth downs and he converted them all with his feet. That's not his strength, but that shows you what kind of kid he is. He found a way to get it done. That's what he does; he finds a way to win."
It wasn't just in Pulaski Academy's 35-32 over Helena-West Helena in the 5A championship game that Keith overcame adversity; there was pressure in every game he played.
Kelley doesn't believe in wasting an offensive down by punting away the football. Last season, Keith and the Pulaski Academy offense didn't punt, not once. Instead, Keith and company converted on 44-of-75 fourth down attempts.
"Some of those are on your own nine-yard line and stuff like that, so you've got pressure as a quarterback," Kelley said. "(Keith) embraced it. It was never, 'coach I don't think we can get this done.' I had all the faith in the world in the kid and he came through more often than not."
And so far, Keith has come through for the Golden Flashes. With backup quarterback Anthony Magazu slow to come back from an elbow injury, and Morgan sidelined with a sprained ankle, head coach Doug Martin turned to Keith during Boston College's 34-7 victory. The freshman completed 9-of-14 passes for 71 yards and led the team on its only scoring drive.
Last weekend, Keith made his first start in a 34-14 loss to Iowa State. But, again he was efficient in completing 21-of-32 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns.
Keith's early success can be attributed to his work ethic. He arrived on campus a few weeks prior to the start of camp to begin working out with the team and to familiarize himself with the playbook. That was an encouraging sign, and according to his new head coach, that carried over into two-a-days.
"I was able to talk with him a little bit and talk some football. You could tell he was really bright then. That was encouraging," Martin said. "Of course I can't work with him in the summer though, it's against NCAA rules, but once we got into two-a-days it was really evident that he could pick things up quickly. He didn't need to see something on the board then go out and rep it and then he might learn it. He can take something from the chalkboard right to the field and be able to do it."
That's not news to Kelley, who coached Keith from seventh grade all the way through to his senior season.
"When he was in the seventh grade program, as the head high school coach I'd go down and help with the seventh grade too," Kelley said. "Then when he played junior high, he started as an eighth grader and a ninth grader, I'd go to all those games and sit in the press box and help him out with plays and stuff like that."
It was during those middle school years that Kelley realized he had a special talent in his program.
"When he was in seventh grade I knew he was pretty good. He took the time to learn our offense as a seventh grader," Kelley said. "It was important to him to be successful and to win. He took it upon himself to learn as much as he could so that they could run as much of the offense in seventh grade as they possibly could."
From there, Keith kept getting better and better. He also earned the respect of his teammates.
"He's always been an extremely intelligent kid and an extremely good athlete. Both those things you like in a quarterback," Kelley said. "And he's a leader by example. He really commands the respect of other players without saying anything because everybody saw how hard he works and how much he puts into it; how much he wants to succeed.
"People like that are generally going to be winners. Spencer is one of those kids that has to win; he's extremely competitive. As a coach, he's just what you'd want him to be. If you lose a game, he blames it on himself. He doesn't point the finger at somebody else. He always looks at, 'what could I have done better to win a game?'"
So, when it comes to handling the pressure of getting Kent State off to a good start in MAC play, and essentially saving the Golden Flashes' season, Spencer Keith just might be the right guy for the job.
"I don't think anything phases him, really," Kelley said. "He'll get mad at himself and frustrated, but pressure from starting a football game, I don't think that's going to be a problem at all."