KENT, Ohio – One month ago, Ohio was unbeaten, ranked and rolling toward a title.
After four losses in five games and a slew of injuries, the Bobcats are bruised, battered and bewildered.
They're eligible for a bowl, but they hardly feel worthy.
"We're a banged-up football team," coach Frank Solich said Saturday following a 28-6 loss to No. 23 Kent State, which finished off a perfect season in the Mid-American Conference and warmed up for next week's title game against No. 24 Northern Illinois.
This was not the finish the Bobcats (8-4, 4-4 MAC) had envisioned. Following a win over Akron on Oct. 13, Ohio was 7-0 and ranked in the AP poll for the first time since 1968.
It all crumbled.
Kent State returned a fumble and interception for touchdowns in the first quarter and built a 21-0 lead over the Bobcats, who seemed to be groggy following an 11 a.m. kickoff. By the time Ohio recovered, it was too late.
"It was terrible," junior running back Beau Blankenship said. "We tried to rebound from it. We kept our heads up and tried to pull it out. It's upsetting to finish the season like this."
C.J. Malauulu returned an interception 33 yards for a touchdown — 12 seconds after another Kent State TD — in the first quarter as the Golden Flashes (11-1, 8-0) won their 10th straight win, improved their bowl resume and continued the best season in the program's 90-year history.
If not for a loss to Kentucky in the second game, Kent State would be unbeaten.
"Our guys believe, and we believe what the coaches are telling us," said quarterback Spencer Keith.
Trayion Durham rushed for 97 yards and scored on a 15-yard run in the first quarter as Kent State quickly built its three-touchdown lead. And although the Golden Flashes' offense did little in the second half, Kent State's defense wouldn't budge and finished with eight sacks on Ohio quarterback Tyler Tettleton.
Ohio lost three more players to injuries. Offensive lineman Ryan McGrath broke his leg in the first quarter, and the sight of him going down in pain seemed to shake some of his teammates. It also further decimated a unit that's been ravaged of late. The Bobcats have lost 10 players who were projected as starters when the season began to injuries.
"We just have to keep our head up and keep working and hopefully some time off will help them, but some of the injuries are season ending," said Blankenship, who rushed for 138 yards on 25 carries. "It's gut wrenching. We had some guys step up. It's hard to see them go down, I'm close to them and I love them."
With representatives from the Military and GoDaddy.com bowls on hand, the Bobcats wanted to put on a good show.
But the early turnovers created a hole that was just too deep.
Ohio now must hope it did enough before its recent slide to get picked for a postseason bowl.
"I'm not making a case," Solich said. "We are what we are, we've got eight wins. We'll go with the bowl seed, and we'll go from there, but I'm not making a case one way or another."
The Golden Flashes came in leading all FBS schools in turnover margin, and they wasted little time forcing the Bobcats to cough up the football.
Kent State scored two defensive touchdowns in the first quarter — one on a 50-yard fumble return, the other on Malauulu's pick — to stun Ohio and open a 21-0 lead.
Just 12 seconds after Durham's 15-yard burst, aided by some bad tackling, made it 14-0, Malauulu picked off Tyler Tettleton in the middle of the field. He found some blocks down the left sideline and dived inside the front pylon for the score, which survived a video replay.
"That was a crazy play," Malauulu said. "It happened so fast. I read the quarterback's eyes, I rolled over that way and came up with the ball. I picked it and I was like 'Oh my gosh, I caught the ball.'"
Earlier, Malauulu stripped Blankenship and Kent State's Luke Wollet fielded a one-hopper off the turf and sprinted half the field to make it 7-0.
Ohio managed a 33-yard field goal by Matt Weller to close the quarter, but the Bobcats were down 18 despite outgaining the Golden Flashes, running more than twice as many offensive plays and holding the ball for eight more minutes.
Two plays did them in.
"We just killed ourselves with the turnovers," Blankenship said. "Just stupid plays."