Kent State climbs back to football glory


Kent State climbs back to football glory

KENT, Ohio (AP) Alabama coach Nick Saban is elated by a team that's bowl eligible, leads the nation in turnover margin, just knocked off a hated rival and has an entire campus buzzing.

No, not his top-ranked Crimson Tide.

Kent State has made him proud.

``It is my alma mater,'' said Saban, class of '73.

For the first time since Saban played safety on a Golden Flashes squad that included Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert, Kent State (8-1) has climbed back onto college football's main stage. In its second year under coach Darrell Hazell, Kent State has won seven straight games and is knocking on the door of the AP's Top 25.

With a signature road win two weeks ago at Rutgers (ranked No. 15 at the time) and their longest winning streak in 72 years, the Golden Flashes have raised the school's profile, given the underrated Mid-American Conference something else to brag about and brought excitement to the quaint campus about 40 miles from Cleveland.

``It's crazy,'' senior defensive end Jake Dooley said. ``It's amazing what we came into and what we're leaving with. A lot of that is due to Coach Hazell. He has really turned the program around in a respectable way. Teachers now congratulate me when I come into classes. That's something that has never happened before. The environment around campus is totally different now than what it was. It's great.

``We have to keep it going.''

Hazell deserves much of the credit for Kent State's turnaround.

An assistant for seven years on Jim Tressel's staff at Ohio State, the confident Hazell inherited a program that had just six winning seasons since 1974 and hasn't been to a bowl since the 1972 Tangerine. The Golden Flashes started 1-6 last season, and just when a here-we-go-again attitude was beginning to take root, Kent State got hot.

Hazell, a New Jersey native, got his players to believe. He put an emphasis on the running game, and the Golden Flashes took off, winning four of their last five and played for bowl eligibility in the season finale. Five of Kent State's opponents last season went on to win their bowls, including Saban's national championship squad at Alabama.

``You could feel something change then,'' Hazell said, looking back to 2011. ``There was a quiet confidence in our locker room. Now, it's a lot louder. Guys are having fun. It's a lot louder in the stands, too. I wear double headsets, but I can see the passion from the fans. And you can just feel it, too. Fans are coming out of the woodwork and I love it.''

Before last Saturday's matchup with Akron, fans tailgated around Dix Stadium, where loud music echoed in the distance and fireworks exploded during player introductions, again after a go-ahead 30-yard touchdown run by speedy junior running back Dri Archer and following a 35-24 win over the despised Zips in the annual tussle for the Wagon Wheel trophy.

Slowly, fans are returning each Saturday to watch football at Kent State, which in recent years has produced NFL stars James Harrison, Antonio Gates and Josh Cribbs, but hasn't had many teams worth celebrating.

``I went to school here when Jack Lambert did and I've always kind of supported the football program ever since,'' Jim Mitchell of nearby Medina said while sitting in the stands. ``We have had so many coaches come in and promise to build a winner. Coach Hazell did it in two years. The team is winning, but it is the way it is winning, by playing exciting, up-tempo football. This is just great. I used to come to one or two games a year.

``I haven't missed a game since coach Hazell was hired.''

However, it took an Oct. 27 win at Rutgers - Kent State's first over a ranked opponent in 23 tries - to convince the Flashes' faithful that this team was for real.

Kent State rolled up 224 yards rushing on the nation's then-No. 3 ranked run defense and won 35-23, ruining Rutgers' homecoming but giving Hazell a nice return to where he spent three years as an assistant. The Golden Flashes intercepted six passes and forced seven turnovers, which has been a major component in their new-found success.

``Our team played extremely well in all phases at Rutgers,'' the 48-year-old Hazell said. ``We made some plays on both sides of the ball. It was a great win for our program. We have a good football team and we are starting to play with some discipline. We play extremely hard and prepare extremely hard. I am not surprised (at the turnaround), but we have stayed humble and have to keep working at it.''

The Golden Flashes have a tough stretch ahead. This week, they're at Miami of Ohio, which handed then-No. 23 Ohio its first loss earlier this season. On Nov. 17, Kent State travels to Bowling Green before wrapping up the regular season on the day after Thanksgiving at home against Ohio in a game that could decide the MAC East champion.

Then, Kent State gets to go bowling, something foreign to generations of fans.

``My husband said this year's team is bowl eligible,'' said Ann Bullington of Stow, Ohio. ``I didn't even know what that meant.''

Hazell knew a reversal at Kent State was possible. He had recruited in the football-crazed region and was certain finding talent wouldn't be hard.

All that was missing was belief.

``There were a lot of good players in the locker room when I got here,'' he said. ``We went about getting them to do things the right way, take pride in every game, every practice. I told them that they were winners, they just didn't quite know it yet.''

Now they do, and that makes Saban smile.

``I always kind of look and see what the Kent State score was, kind of follow them week to week,'' he said. ``It's really good to see that they're having a great year. It means something to me.''


Freelancer Chuck Murr in Kent, Ohio, and AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Ala., contributed to this report.

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Five observations from Redskins preseason victory over the Jets

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Five observations from Redskins preseason victory over the Jets

Here are my five key observations from the Redskins’ 15-13 preseason win over the Jets.

— It was good that the offense clicked well in the series that Alex Smith was in the game. He was a crisp four of six for 48 yards. It wasn’t good that they couldn’t get the ball into the end zone and that Smith exited after that one series. I know there were concerns about Geron Christian being at left tackle instead of Trent Williams and Smith did get hit pretty hard on the first snap of the game. But after the starting offense sat out the preseason opener I think they needed to go for another series or two.

— The starting defense was in for two series with mixed results. The first Jets possession ended with a three and out with Daron Payne getting a third-down sack to close out the series. The second time, however, Sam Darnold like a drive that covered 42 yards and resulted in a field goal. The rookie completed passes for 13, six, 11, nine and six yards in the drive and looking every bit like the phenom that Josh Norman talked about in Richmond this week. The starting defense was good against the run, allowing 13 yards on six carries in the two drives.

— It looked like WR Cam Sims’ roster bubble was about to burst in the second quarter when he had a Colt McCoy pass in his arms in the red zone with no defender within a couple of yards of him. But the ball popped up in the air and the Jets’ Doug Middleton accepted the gift interception. But later on, he caught a key third down pass between two defenders. In that same drive he made another catch surrounded by defenders and he held onto it when he hit the ground hard. But the touchdown was called back by an illegal formation penalty. Then on the next to the last play of the game, his 20-yard reception set up the game-winning field goal.

— Tim Settle continues to impress. For a couple of drives in the second quarter the Jets’ offensive starters were up against the Redskins’ second-team defense, including Settle. The rookie manhandled former Redskins center Spencer Long on a few snaps and beat some double teams as well. Settle didn’t just impress against the run. He got a couple of pressures on Darnold and nearly got a sack. They will have to find snaps for him in the rotation if he keeps this up.

— The final word here is on playing time. For the most part, the Jets’ starters played the first half. For the Redskins it was one series for the offense and two for the defense. I have to wonder how ready this team with a new quarterback under center will perform coming out of the gate. They will be playing with fire if they don’t sweep their first two games against the Cardinals and Colts. Gruden is 0-4 in season openers as the Redskins coach. I have to say that I’m skeptical that his method of preparing the team for Week 1 will work.

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Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, and follow him on Twitter @TandlerNBCS and on Instagram @RichTandler.

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Instant analysis: 5 field goals lift Redskins past Jets

Instant analysis: 5 field goals lift Redskins past Jets

LANDOVER, MD — Here is my instant analysis of the Redskins’ 15-13 preseason win over the New York Jets.

— Alex Smith started the game and so did most of the other players who are expected to start Week 1. Rob Kelley was at running back, Josh Doctson and Paul Richardson lined up at receiver, and the offensive line was intact — with the exception of Geron Christian playing left tackle. Vernon Davis was the tight end. 

— Smith moved the team efficiently on the first drive, completing four of six passes for 48 yards. He converted one third-and-9 by finding Doctson in a big soft spot in the Jets’ zone for 11 yards. On third-and-goal at the 4, he threw a pass a little behind Trey Quinn; it was catchable but not easy and Quinn couldn’t handle it. A field goal made it 3-0. After that 11-play, 71-yard drive, Smith and most of the rest of the offensive starters left the game. 

— Ten of the 11 regular defenders started the game, the exception being Matt Ioannidis. In his first series in a Redskins uniform, Daron Payne stopped the drive with a sack on third down. After that three-and-out, they weren’t as effective against Sam Darnold on their second possession. The rookie was sharp leading a 12-play, 42-yard field goal drive. 

— The first time Samaje Perine touched the ball, he ran for 30 yards off left tackle, following a nice block from J.P. Holtz, a tight end who was lined up at fullback. Since they released the only fullback on the roster last week, TE as FB is likely to be the plan. Perine then left the game with an ankle injury. He did not return. 

— There were some special teams gaffes in the first half. Dustin Hopkins hit the right upright on a 35-yard field goal try but it went through. On the ensuing kickoff, though, the kick went out of bounds. Later on, Byron Marshall put the ball on the ground on a kickoff return but replay showed it that he was down. So there was one costly miscue and two near-misses. 

— The Redskins backup defensive unit was back on its heels in a second-quarter drive with most of the Jets’ offensive starters in. They ended the drive when Danny Johnson make a good tackle to force a third and one. The Jets went for it and Darnold’s pass was tipped by Deshazor Everett and intercepted by Troy Apke. Tim Settle dominated in the middle, usually matched up against former Redskins center Spencer Long. 

— It was bad news, then good news for rookie WR Cam Sims in the second quarter. First he had a pass in his hands for a first down in the red zone but the ball popped out without him being touched and the pass was picked off. On the Redskins’ next possession he made a nice catch between two defenders for a 27-yard gain on third-and-10. Later in the drive he made a leaping catch in the end zone, but a penalty negated the TD. He has been inconsistent in practice in Richmond and is carrying over. 

— The Redskins had some red zone woes in the first half. The had three shots from there and settled for field goals every time. They also had the situation where Sims had the pass in his hands in the red zone before it popped out for an interception. 

— Long shot Martez Carter got his name on the board with a runs of nine and then 30 yards, showing blazing speed around the corner on both runs. He remains a long shot but speed like that will get you some attention. 

— Third QB Kevin Hogan was able to lead a scoring drive on his first possession but it was done mostly via Carter’s runs and the first application of the new helmet rule in a Redskins’ game this preseason, a flag that went against the Jets. The next two possessions he went two for three for seven yards and the Redskins went three and out both times. 

— The Jets kicked a late field goal to take a 13-12 lead. Hogan had a chance to bring them back and got them into Jets territory. Then Cam Sims made a 20-yard grab to set up a 40-yard field goal attempt. Hopkins hit it as time ran out to give the home team a 15-13 lead. 

— The win doesn’t mean anything but it’s always more fun to win than to lose. 

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, and follow him on Twitter @TandlerNBCS and on Instagram @RichTandler