DETROIT: Darrell Hazell didn’t coach at Ohio State when Craig Krenzel was the starting quarterback.
Hazell arrived in February 2004 to handle OSU’s wide receivers. Krenzel’s final season was 2003. But as he led the Buckeyes to the 2002 national championship, Krenzel became the ultimate game-manager for Jim Tressel, Hazell’s boss for seven years.
Little did Hazell know when he took the job at Kent State in 2011 that he was about to find his Craig Krenzel.
Spencer Keith, the senior who has directed the 11-1 Golden Flashes to tonight’s MAC Championship Game against Northern Illinois at Ford Field, is cut from the same cloth.
This season, Keith has shown he can play Tressel ball almost as well as Krenzel. Keith has thrown just seven interceptions in 264 attempts and has 11 touchdown passes. His streak of 248 attempts without an interception fell just short of the NCAA’s career top three.
In his 14-0 BCS championship season, Krenzel tossed seven interceptions against 12 touchdowns.
He’s been overshadowed by Kent State’s talented running back tandem of Dri Archer and Trayion Durham, but Keith has had his moments. He turned in a three-touchdown performance at Bowling Green on Nov. 17, and his 295 passing yards against the Falcons were his most since 2009.
Krenzel usually hovered around 200 yards per game, especially when he had freshman running back Maurice Clarett in 2002, but turned in 273- and 272-yard efforts against N.C. State and Indiana as a senior.
Keith carries a 3.79 grade-point average as a pre-med biology major with a minor in mathematics. He plans to graduate in December 2013.
Krenzel won the 2003 Draddy Trophy, considered the academic Heisman, with a 3.68 average in molecular genetics.
He doesn’t look athletic, but Keith can run. He’s rushed for 153 yards and three touchdowns in the past four games.
Krenzel surprised the Miami Hurricanes in the national championship with 81 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Hazell seemed to copy that plan when Keith picked up 39 yards on the ground at Bowling Green.
When it comes to interviews, neither offers much, although Krenzel has improved since he began working for a Columbus radio station as a sidelight to his insurance business.
Asked Thursday how he feels to be playing for a MAC title after three consecutive 5-7 seasons, Keith said: “It’s a great feeling. It’s a huge opportunity for our team and our program. It’s been a long time since we’ve been in one of these situations. Yeah, I’ve been waiting for this personally for four years now and I’m going to take advantage.”
Those who have covered the Buckeyes for years could have closed their eyes and believed it was Krenzel at the microphone.
“He is Krenzel,” Hazell agreed Thursday.
Krenzel waited nearly two years for his chance to start at Ohio State and took advantage of Steve Bellisari’s suspension for a drunken driving arrest. He grabbed the job and never let it go with a victory in his first career start at Michigan.
Keith has been starting since he arrived at Kent State from Little Rock, Ark., although there were times he nearly threw the opportunity away. He was benched for Cedric McCloud last season in a 40-10 loss at Northern Illinois. Keith’s ineffectiveness was building and a turnover-plagued effort, which included an interception returned 25 yards for a touchdown, led to his benching.
That scarred Keith for a while. His obsession about being careful with the ball carried over into this fall. Hazell brought in David Fisher, a junior college transfer, and true freshman Colin Reardon to battle Keith. Hazell postponed his decision on a starter at least twice during training camp.
But somehow as the season went on, Keith managed to find the right balance. He feels he’s grown since that disastrous day in DeKalb.
“I feel like I’ve come really far, taking care of the ball especially,” Keith said. “Towards the latter part of last season and this season, that was my focus. From the midway point of last season, I feel like I’ve done a good job of that and just managed the game well.”
Hazell lauded his quarterback Thursday, knowing he’ll need him as the Huskies focus on shutting down Archer and Durham.
“He’s been exceptional for us,” Hazell said of Keith. “He’s really taken it upon himself to make sure this offense moves forward and it all starts with his ball security. I can’t be more proud of anybody on our football team. He’s battled through some adversity. We brought some guys in to compete with him and he fought them off. He’s done an excellent job of leading this football team to 11 wins.”
Even without posting big numbers, Krenzel was at his best in big games. Keith and the Golden Flashes have never faced pressure like this. Unlike past MAC championships, the nation will be watching with a possible BCS bowl bid on the line.
When he pats Keith on the back and sends him into the game tonight, Hazell might think, “May Krenzel be with you.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.