UNIVERSITY PARK: When Kent State’s 2013 football schedule was released in the offseason, there was a stretch of sure-to-be difficult games that caught everyone’s attention immediately. The highlight being back-to-back road trips to LSU and Penn State, national power Football Bowl Subdivision programs.
The tough road stretch began last week when the Golden Flashes (1-2) lost 45-13 to the No. 8-ranked Tigers in Death Valley.
This week, KSU’s underdog traveling tour brought them to a more pleasant-sounding atmosphere in Happy Valley, home of Penn State — for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff televised by the Big Ten Network.
However, even with Penn State’s national image taking a huge hit the past few years after the shocking Jerry Sandusky scandal and the ensuing death of longtime coaching legend Joe Paterno, the Nittany Lions (2-1) still present the Flashes with a tough matchup.
The Southeastern Conference’s Tigers featured a talented roster of athletic speedsters. The Nittany Lions boast the depth and brawn that the Big Ten has long been known for.
“Penn State is still Penn State, I don’t care who the head coach is at Penn State,” Flashes coach Paul Haynes said. “Penn State is going to be physical. Penn State is going to establish the run and [second-year] coach [Bill] O’Brien is a great coach with a good offensive mind and is not going to put his quarterback in bad situations. Don’t put [the offense] in bad situations or try to force something, just punt the football and play great defense. That’s Penn State and that’s how Penn State has always been.”
Having endured last week’s experience at 92,342-seat Tiger Stadium seems to have given the Kent State players confidence heading into the even larger Beaver Stadium, which seats 106,572.
“To go into those big venues and be able to play against the so-called ‘bigger schools,’ our guys look forward to it all the time,” Haynes said. “It’s going to be a great challenge, but it’s going to be fun for us as well.”
Fun? The Flashes are likely to get outmuscled and pushed around like they were in 2010 in a 24-0 loss. KSU also is winless in nine attempts against six Big Ten programs.
Or, is it really fun to lose key players to season-ending injuries like nose tackle Nate Terhune, whose attire for this week’s trip included crutches and a black cast on the broken right leg that he suffered in the first quarter at Louisiana State University?
Yep, still fun indeed, agreed KSU receiver Chris Humphrey and punter/kicker Anthony Melchiori.
“It’s exciting to go play a so-called ‘bigger team,’ and it helps us get recognition also,” said Humphrey, a junior and Solon native. “Playing in front of a bigger crowd like that also helps your mental preparation because you know it’s gonna be loud, so it makes you focus more.”
Melchiori also put a positive spin on playing another FBS power school on the heels of being humbled at LSU. He even did so knowing the Nittany Lions, led by a freshman quarterback, will be as focused as ever against KSU after their 34-31 upset defeat by visiting University of Central Florida last week.
“It really is an exciting environment and fun to play in these types of games,” said Melchiori, a former Aurora standout. “It helps all three phases of our team — defense, offense and special teams — to play competition like that. These bigger teams like LSU and Penn State, if the stars align, it can happen. We can beat these kinds of teams.
“Akron gave Michigan a pretty good game last week. So, we need to take games like that and bring that into our own mentality. We need to go into this Penn State game with the mindset that we can beat teams from the Big Ten and other conferences.”
It’s not that often a KSU player will willingly give any kind of credit to its nearby bitter rival, as Humphrey quickly drew the line when it was suggested he might have been rooting for the Zips to score the shocker of the college football weekend.
“Oh no, I’ll never be rooting for Akron until the day I die,” he said. “But I definitely give them some credit for playing a bigger school like that in the Big Ten. But they fell short — and I was happy about it.”
Melchiori caught the exciting end of the Akron/Michigan game streaming on his computer.
“We still want to go out and beat [the Zips], so I wasn’t really rooting for them,” he said. “But you like to see a MAC team compete with those guys.”
With the Zips hosting Louisiana-Lafayette at 6 p.m. tonight, perhaps a handful of Zips players will be quietly rooting for the Flashes to pull off an upset for the underdog today.
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Kent State blog at http://www.ohio.com/flashes. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/sports.abj.