The Arkansas State Red Wolves will try to close out their season with an eighth consecutive win as they tangle with the Kent State Golden Flashes in the GoDaddy.com Bowl at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Alabama on Sunday night.
"Making history at Kent State, that's a big thing for all of us to leave all our names behind," tight end Tim Erjavec said. "And we have a chance to make history to win the first bowl game at Kent State so that's something we're really looking forward to do."
Kent State would be playing in a BCS bowl had it not suffered a heartbreaking 44-37 double overtime loss to Northern Illinois in the Mid-American Conference Championship. The setback to the Huskies snapped the Golden Flashes' 10-game winning streak and dropped their overall record to 11-2 with an 8-1 mark in league play. Still, KSU's 2012 season was surprisingly successful and it will be making its first appearance in a bowl game since 1972. Coach Darrell Hazell's tremendous job of turning around the team that finished 2011 with a 5-7 record yielded multiple job offers and he decided to begin a new chapter of his career as Purdue's head coach.
"The players in our locker room and the coaches in our locker room have made this entire season special with a tremendous belief system and a never quit attitude," said Hazell. "It is a very, very tight locker room and I can't put into words how proud I am of this football team and the organization."
Kent State hired alum Paul Haynes, who spent this past season as Arkansas's defensive coordinator, as its new head coach, but Hazell will be on the sidelines to lead the Golden Flashes one final time before heading to West Lafayette.
Arkansas State will not have its head coach Gus Malzahn, who will take over the prestigious Auburn program after leading the Red Wolves to their second consecutive Sun Belt Conference championship. Defensive coordinator John Thompson will serve as ASU's interim coach for this contest. Thompson inherits a team than finished the regular season with 9-3 overall including a 7-1 mark in SBC play. The Red Wolves have won their last seven contests since losing their league opener to Western Kentucky, and their other two losses came on the road at Oregon (57-34) and Nebraska (42-13).
'Our team played its best game in the biggest moment," Malzahn said after leading the team to a 45-0 rout of Middle Tennessee to clinch the SBC Championship. "I'm so proud of our players and coaches. The defense just did an unbelievable job. We are playing our best football right now, and that's what we need."
This will be the first meeting in history between these schools on the gridiron.
Kent State used a dynamic rushing attack to put up 228.3 yards per game on the ground on its way to 34.6 points per game. The Golden Flashes' junior tailback Dri Archer is the biggest home run threat in the nation and was named to a Walter Camp First Team All-American after gaining 9.1 yards per carry, which is the highest single-season average this century by a player with at least 150 carries. The elusive and speedy rusher finished the regular season with 1,352 yards and 15 touchdowns on 150 carries.
The Red Wolves will also have to stop Archer in the passing game as he leads the team with 539 yards and four TDs on 35 receptions. He is also the nation's most productive kick returner with 573 yards and three TDs on 15 returns.
If Archer was not enough to worry about, his teammate Trayion Durham effectively complements him with a power running style. Durham racked up 1,248 yards and 14 TDs on 256 carries.
Spencer Keith will be under center for the Golden Flashes. The senior QB has provided leadership as the team's signal caller, but he has been struggling down the stretch. Keith was picked off six times in the final four games after only throwing three interceptions in the first nine contests. He still enters the bowl game with a decent season stat line of 1,864 yards and 12 touchdowns to nine interceptions on 166-of-300 passing.
The Golden Flashes are not quite as tough on the other side of the ball with allowed averages of 419.9 yards and 25.1 points per outing. However, Kent State forced 35 turnovers to finish second in the nation in turnover ratio (+ 1.62). The defensive unit was better against the run, as it ranked 40th in the FBS and third in the MAC with 143.4 rushing yards allowed per game.
Senior LB Luke Batton anchored the defense with 132 total stops, two interceptions, and one fumble return for a score. Junior DB Luke Wollet has made an impact all year long as well to register with 108 tackles, four interceptions, and one 83-yard fumble return for six points.
During its current seven-game win streak, Arkansas State has put up 34 points or more in every game. It had the highest scoring offense in the Sun Belt with an average of 36.4 ppg. The team racked up 512 yards of total offense its regular-season finale versus Middle Tennessee to eclipse the 500-yard mark in total yards of offense for the seventh time this season.
Ryan Aplin was named the SBC Offensive Player of the Year leading the SBC in passing yards with 3,129,yards and 23 TDS to just four interceptions. The senior signal caller passed for 300 yards or more in three straight games before ending the regular season with 238 yards and three touchdowns on an efficient 19-of-21 passing against the Blue Raiders.
David Oku (1,024 yards) has been at the center of the team's fantastic rushing attack that has racked up more than 2,600 yards. Oku's 15 rushing touchdowns are the most in the conference. Rocky Hayes has been potent on limited touches, with an incredible 481 yards on just 50 carries for 9.6 yards per carry.
J.D. McKissic is the top option for Aplin in the passing attack. The wideout has reeled in 92 receptions for 904 yards and four TDs. The second most frequent receiver for ASU is Josh Jarboe, who has made 47 catches for 546 yards and four scores. Julian Jones is the team's top red zone threat as his team- leading total of seven touchdown grabs accounts for more than half of his receptions.
The Red Wolves are ranked second in the SBC in total defense (386.5 ypg) and first in scoring defense (25.4 ppg). The unit allowed only 203 yards of total offense and shut the Blue Raiders out in the regular-season finale.
Nathan Herrold was one of the linebackers on the All-Sun Belt First Team after he registered 109 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, three interceptions, and two fumble recoveries. Tim Starson has recorded team-highs in both tackles for loss (12.5) and sacks (4.5).