Darrell Hazell took Kent State to college football's postseason for the first time in 40 years. Getting that elusive bowl victory now becomes the responsibility of another coach.
The No. 25 Golden Flashes closed a dream season with another disappointing loss, falling 17-13 to Arkansas State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl on Sunday night.
"It's hard not to come away with a win," Hazell said. "I have some strong feelings for the guys right down the hallway here. I'm going to miss those guys."
Hazell roamed the Kent State sideline one more time in the Golden Flashes' first bowl game since 1972. He is leaving the program to take over at Purdue.
Kent State put up a good fight against Arkansas State, which won the GoDaddy.com Bowl in its second try after losing 38-20 to Northern Illinois last season. But the Golden Flashes struggled on offense — especially in the red zone — settling for just two field goals in the final three quarters of the game.
Dri Archer led Kent State with 77 yards rushing, including a 16-yard touchdown run. Spencer Keith completed 17 of 33 passes for 157 yards and one interception.
Archer missed much of the second half after injuring a knee in the second quarter. He tried to return in the second half, but spent the final minutes watching from the sidelines.
"I could only hobble around on it in the second half," Archer said. "I knew it would hurt my team if I stayed out there so I couldn't go anymore."
Without him, Kent State's offense wasn't the same.
Ryan Aplin threw for 213 yards and a touchdown for Arkansas State. J.D. McKissic caught 11 passes for 113 yards.
Arkansas State's usually prolific offense struggled against Kent State, but the consistent Aplin-to-McKissic connection and a stingy defense was enough to help the Red Wolves (10-3) to their first bowl win since joining the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1992.
Kent State (11-3) was driving late in the game when Keith tried to scramble on fourth down and was stopped a few yards short of the marker with 52 seconds left. Linebacker Qushaun Lee made the shoestring tackle for the Red Wolves and finished with a team-leading 13 stops.
"That was a good one," Arkansas State interim coach John Thompson said. "Our guys stepped up with a minute to go. We really needed a play, and our guys made one. It wasn't anything except for ballplayers. It was anything special at all. We just made plays."
Thompson, a veteran defensive coordinator, coached the Red Wolves after Gus Malzahn left to take the Auburn job last month. It was the second straight season Arkansas State had to play its bowl game without the coach that led it to a Sun Belt championship — Hugh Freeze left for Mississippi in 2011 before last year's GoDaddy.com Bowl.
The results were much better this time — and the defensive-minded Thompson was especially pleased with that side of the ball.
Arkansas State's offense was dominant during the last half of the regular season, averaging more than 41 points during a seven-game winning streak.
But the Red Wolves had to rely on their defense in this one while the offense slowly warmed up. Kent State took a 7-0 lead on Archer's 16-yard touchdown run and the margin could have been worse, but Arkansas State linebacker Nathan Herrold picked off a tipped pass in the end zone to end a promising drive for the Golden Flashes.
David Oku rushed for a tying 10-yard touchdown with 5:40 remaining in the second quarter, and then Aplin hit McKissic for a 31-yard touchdown minutes later to make it 14-7.
Kent State responded with a 42-yard field goal by Freddy Cortez just before halftime. The teams traded field goals in the third quarter, but neither team could score in the fourth.
The Golden Flashes put together one last drive in the final minutes, with Keith completing a clutch 15-yard pass over the middle on fourth down with less than two minutes remaining. He was headed for another fourth-down conversion just four plays later, but was tripped up on a scramble deep in Arkansas State territory. The Red Wolves then began to celebrate on their sideline.
"I saw their defense drop back really fast, and I thought I had enough room to get the first down," Keith said. "But they were able to get me on the ankle."
It was a disappointing end to an otherwise breakthrough season for Kent State, which set a school record with 11 victories, including a 10-game winning streak that lasted nearly three months. But they dropped their last two games, including a 44-37 double-overtime loss to Northern Illinois on Nov. 30 in the Mid-American Conference championship.
One reason Kent State was able to win 11 games was a dynamic rushing attack that averaged more than 250 yards per game. But the duo of Archer and Trayion Durham didn't have a particularly good game against the Red Wolves.
Aplin completed 21 of 30 passes in his final college game. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound senior owns nearly every school passing record and is the Sun Belt two-time player of the year.
This wasn't one of his most spectacular games, but he was consistent, made very few mistakes and had no turnovers.
That was no small feat against Kent State, which led the nation with 38 takeaways coming into the game. The Golden Flashes couldn't get one against the Red Wolves.
"That was a huge part of our game plan," Aplin said. "We knew we couldn't afford to give them momentum. Our guys did a great job taking care of the ball and giving our defense a chance to help us win."
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