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With Kent State’s dynamic rushing dou of Trayion Durham and Dri Archer hobbled but still toughing it out against visisiting Ohio, the Golden Flashes defense paved the way for the nation’s No. 23-ranked team to continue its march through this unexpected season of greatness.
The Kent State defense entered Friday’s game leading the nation in turnover margin (plus-20) and quickly showed why. In the first quarter, the unit scored two touchdowns off forced Bobcats turnovers - including a 50-yard fumble return by junior safety Luke Wollet - to spark the Flashes to a 28-6 win at Dix Stadium.
Senior linebacker C.J. Malauulu forced the fumble Wollet returned for the game’s first score. About seven minutes later - and a mere 12 seconds after a 15-yard Durham touchdown - Malauulu picked off Ohio quarterback Tyler Tettleton and returned the ball 33 yards as the Flashes opened up a 21-0 lead in the blink of an eye.
Malauulu’s score marked the fourth defensive touchdown and 13th by a different Flashes player this season, but it was just the third interception Tettleton has thrown all season.
Malauulu, one of 19 seniors honored before the 11 am start, intercepted Tettleton in the middle of the field. He then slowed for a pair of blocks near the left sideline and dove just inside the pylon for a score that held through a video replay.
“That was a crazy play, it happened so fast,” said Malauulu, who had seven tackles, including three solo. “I was manned up on the tight end who was off the ball. He stayed in the block, I read the quarterback’s eyes, and 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!’
“I started running up the field and I saw Tettleton, he was about to cut me off so I waited for (Luke) Batton and (Sidney) Saulter to clear him out and thankfully I got in.”
With representatives from the Military and the GoDaddy Bowls on hand, the Flashes defense sacked Tettleton a season-high eight times. Ironically, it was the most KSU sacks in a game since 1994 versus Ohio.
With the defense leading the way, the Flashes 10th consecutiuve victory capped an 11-1 regular season that included a 8-0 sweep of the Mid-American Conference slate. The Flashes are the first MAC East team to go undefeated since current Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger led the Mimia RedHawks to the same mark in 2003.
“Even though we didn’t play as well as we would have liked to on offense, we came away with a big win,” KSU coach Darrell Hazell said. “Our defense played phenomenal through the whole course of the game, creating some points and giving us some short fields.”
Durham, a 250-pound sophomore brusing back, entered the game banged up with quad and hip injuries, but still rushed for 98 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries.
Archer injured his left ankle on a rare fumble early in the third quarter, but was sidelined only briefly. Before the quarter was over, the 5-foot-8, 175-pound speed demon returned to action but was clearly limited.
After the game, Archer tweeted: “I'm good everybody, ill be ready to play next week.” That, despite being limited to 57 yards on 13 carries and failing to score in a game for the first time this season.
But KSU didn’t need Archer’s magic on this day, with the defense keeping Tettleton and company out of the endzone all afternoon. The Bobcats had to settle for kicker Matt Weller’s 33-yard field goal that put them on the board in the first quarter and a 41-yarder in the second.
Flashes quarterback Spencer Keith put the game out of reach early in the fourth quarter with a 24-yd touchdown stirke to fellow senior Eric Adeyemi with 11:44 remaining in the game.
The decimated Bobcats (8-4, 4-4) not only lost their fourth consecutive game, but also three more starting players to injuries – giving them a total of 10 starters lost on the season.
“We just have to keep our head up and keep working and hopefully some time off will help them, but some of them are season ending,” said Ohio junior running back Beau Blankenship, who rushed for a game-high 145 yards on 29 carries. “It’s gut wrenching. We had some guys step up, but it’s hard to see (others) go down.”