Kent State’s football program understands the agony of waiting for something that may never come.

Thirty-nine seasons have passed, each snuffed out before players, coaches and the campus could revel in the spoils and pride of the postseason. Thirty-nine seasons have come and gone since anyone in gold and navy blue could answer to the moniker “champion”. 

And the wait ticks on. But that agony of uncertainty is waning – the light at the end of a four-decade-long journey through the dark has finally revealed itself. That glow in that darkness is second-year head coach Darrell Hazell and the 112 players who’ve quickly come to invest themselves in his vision, his plan.

“I made a statement at the [introductory] press conference – I didn’t think I was going to get this kind of response, but I got a chuckle from the people in the audience. I said, ‘Anytime you think about Kent State football, you think about things being positive. Don’t think about anything negative anymore,’” Hazell remembered. “And I got a little chuckle … Our whole self image was the first thing that had to change.”

In less than two years, the incredulous chuckles have dissipated. A 9-1 start and a perfect conference record have the power to turn skeptical laughter into sincere smiles. Before Hazell’s arrival last year, Kent State had won fewer than 40 percent of its games in its long history. And though the team crawled through the first half of last season – they couldn’t immediately purge the poison inherent in four decades of disappointment – the Golden Flashes surged in the second half and have won 13 of their last 15.

Tomorrow, they square off with Bowling Green, which comes into the weekend with a 5-1 conference record and lurks directly at the Golden Flashes’ heels in the climb for the MAC East crown. Win this weekend and Kent State will have earned its first berth in the MAC title game since the game’s 1997 inception and, more importantly, will be 60 minutes away from ending one of the nation’s most lamentable streaks – Kent State hasn’t won a conference championship or appeared in a bowl game since 1972, when both Alabama coach Nick Saban and Missouri coach Gary Pinkel were playing for the Golden Flashes.

[Coach Hazell] came in and changed the program. Coach is different because he’s been in a big program for a while. He knows the ins and outs of everything; he knows what he’s talking about.
-- Dri Archer

But lose, and Bowling Green – the best conference opponent the Golden Flashes have faced all season – stand to take their place in the MAC title game. Despite a generation’s worth of angst riding on the contest, Hazell has spent a week trying to ensure that his team, those 112 men, approach their practice time and those fleeting moments on the field on Saturday like they have in the in the 10 games prior.

“They obviously know the history of how long it’s been since there’s been a championship at stake,” Hazell said. “I tried to downplay that a little bit on Sunday night. I said, ‘Hey, you don’t have to do anything extraordinary this week that you haven’t already done to get you to this position.’ ”

Hazell spent more than a decade coming to understand the importance of getting the smallest details right while he worked as an assistant at major programs like West Virginia, Rutgers and Ohio State. When he stepped on Kent State’s campus, his first mission was to cleanse his program of any pessimism and doubt that had accumulated in the hallways like plaque slowly clogging an artery. Simultaneously, he worked to make countless tiny changes – from adding desk space to meeting rooms, to enforcing a rigid daily routine, to handing out a 400-page guide that walked players through everything from weekly schedules to brotherhood – that not only made players’ lives easier, but demonstrated to his program that, when preparing to win, no detail was too small to overlook. 

“We connected right away,” said junior Dri Archer, the centerpiece of the team’s offense and, perhaps, the nation’s most lethal return man. “He came in and changed the program. Coach is different because he’s been in a big program for a while. He knows the ins and outs of everything; he knows what he’s talking about.”

If it was up to Hazell to change everything outside the sidelines, much of the responsibility to change what transpires between them has fallen to Archer, who possesses athletic abilities befitting the SEC, and has made habit this year of making MAC defenders look like high schoolers. But, last season, he couldn’t flaunt those impressive talents. Archer learned he was academically ineligible and spent a year practicing on the team but idling on the bench through games. The undersized running back, who only got one offer coming out of high school because of his stature, has relied on that slight for motivation. A year spent helplessly watching his team only served to pour gasoline on that fire. In college, he has packed 15 pounds onto his 5-foot-8 frame.

“It killed me,” Archer said of sitting out last year. “It motivated me to be bigger and stronger this season.”

Those painful hours spent adding muscle to his body and watching his team take the field without him have yielded startling results – the numbers suggest he is one of the nation’s elite skill players. He has 12 rushing touchdowns and 1,043 rushing yards on only 108 attempts – his 9.66 yards-per-carry is best in the nation. He has caught 27 balls for 387 yards and four scores, which, despite spending most of his time in the backfield, are team-bests in all three categories. He is averaging 40 yards-per-kickoff return – best in the nation by a wide margin – and has taken three of his 14 attempts, an astounding 21 percent, back for touchdowns. All told, his 1,990 all-purpose yards put him third nationally.

2012 KENT STATE SCHEDULE
DATE OPPONENT RESULT
Aug. 30 vs. Towson W, 41-21
Sept. 8 at Kentucky L, 47-14
Sept. 19 at Buffalo W, 23-7
Sept. 29 vs. Ball State W, 45-43
Oct. 6 at Eastern Michigan W, 41-14
Oct. 13 at Army W, 31-17
Oct. 20 vs. Western Michigan W, 41-24
Oct. 27 at No. 18 Rutgers W, 35-23
Nov. 3 vs. Akron W, 35-24
Nov. 10 at Miami (Ohio) W, 48-32
Nov. 17 at Bowling Green Noon ET
Nov. 23 vs. Ohio TBD

“What I see when I watch him is how fast he is in tight spaces and when he’s around people,” Hazell said. “I don’t even know how to describe it. His first two steps in the hole are incredible.”

And Archer has compiled those remarkable numbers while being restrained by opponents and his own coach. He has only had the chance to return 14 kickoffs for a reason: teams have become resolute in their efforts to keep the ball out of his hands. After averaging 47 yards-per-return through Kent State’s first five games, he’s only had four balls kicked his way through the last five contests. And, earlier this season, Hazell was careful to limit Archer to 15 to 18 touches per game in hopes of keeping the small back fresh for the important stretch run.

Once again, for Hazell, taking note of the smallest details has made a difference. The coach was able to restrain himself from overusing his most potent weapon thanks to the play of Archer’s backfield-mate sophomore Trayion Durham.

Durham outweighs Archer by 50 pounds and he too has eclipsed 1,000 yards on the season -- the power and speed tandem is the reason Kent State has the nation’s 15th-best ground attack. Hazell said that rather than embrace a pass-centric system, he has tailored his offensive attack around his versatile backfield armory. The coach has asked senior quarterback Spencer Keith to do nothing more than limit mistakes, manage the game and let Archer and Durham, who frequently share the field, do the damage. 

“I would say they are pretty dynamic,” Miami (Ohio) junior linebacker Chris Wade told the Miami Student after Kent State’s 48-32 win last week against the RedHawks in which Durham and Archer both eclipsed 150 rushing yards and scored five total touchdowns. “Anytime you have a 250-pound running back running at full speed it is going to be difficult to stop him. And a guy as fast as [Archer] is, it creates challenges for defenses because we have to be able to guard both.”

But Durham and Archer are merely two of 112. And two players alone can’t propel a team within a breath of a championship. Two players alone can’t keep the ghosts of 39 seasons at bay. The rest of the offense had to step up when Ball State erased a 13-point Kent State lead in Week 5. Down by 2 with 2:04 to play, Kent State drove from its own six to the Ball State eight. Archer didn’t touch the ball that drive and Durham only touched the ball once. Without that drive and the ensuing 25-yard Freddy Cortez field goal that sealed the victory, this week’s game against Bowling Green might not carry the same import. That drive is the moment Hazell counts as his favorite as Kent State’s head coach.  

“They hadn’t been able to win those types of games,” he said. “I thought that brought our team extremely close together.”

For 60 minutes on Saturday, the Golden Flashes will need to resemble the team that marched on Ball State. In Week 1, Bowling Green gave Florida a scare in Gainesville, and it possesses the nation’s ninth-best scoring defense, making the Falcons a formidable impediment to Kent State’s long-awaited championship. And though Hazell is trying to instill the notion that it’s just another Saturday in his players, he understands that, for the program where optimism has long drawn chuckles, it’s anything but.

“I don’t want to put it out of perspective, but you talk about putting your footprints in something that has not been done, if we’re able to do it, it’ll be neat, neat thing for this campus,” Hazell said.