KENT: Heading into each game during the football season, Kent State coach Darrell Hazell and his staff make a list of key points to emphasize throughout the week of practice that they’d like to see come to fruition on game day.
One of the goals that had been drilled into the players’ heads all week in preparation for facing No. 18 Rutgers on Saturday was to come away from the game with a plus-one turnover margin.
Despite playing on the road against an undefeated and nationally ranked opponent, the Golden Flashes (7-1) did that and more, forcing seven turnovers — including six interceptions — in a 35-23 upset victory over the Scarlet Knights (7-1).
“I thought our kids prepared like crazy,” Hazell said. “We made enough plays early in the game to keep those guys off balance. Rutgers kept fighting back, but our guys kept fighting them off with one big play after another as we were able to force a lot of turnovers.”
The interception fest began with junior defensive end Mark Fackler’s first of two interceptions, resulting in a 25-yard touchdown early in the second quarter that gave the Flashes a 14-3 lead.
“That was big,” Hazell said. “That pick-six by Mark sparked our sideline, and our defense started thriving off that.”
KSU defenders returned the six interceptions for 79 yards, resulting in a nearly 15-minute edge in time of possession.
“Our defensive staff did an unbelievable job of scheming those guys,” Hazell said. “[Rutgers] threw a lot of crossing routes coming into the game, a lot of quick throws as they knew they had to get it out of the quarterback’s hands. So they were releasing two receivers. Our defense showed them edge blitz, brought edge blitz and dropped the interior guys. [We] were dropping the nose out, dropping the end out. So, [we] were sending two and dropping nine and that’s hard on a quarterback, especially if you’re not ready for that.”
Fackler got his hands on two other Gary Nova passes, managing to intercept a second.
“Every week it seems like a new guy steps up,” Fackler said. “But it’s really just everyone doing their job. Watching a lot of film, you notice a couple things.”
For the large role he played in the Flashes’ defensive showing, senior linebacker Luke Batton was named the Mid-American Conference East Division Defensive Player of the Week. Batton, a Macedonia native, led KSU with 13 tackles (seven solo), had a sack, an interception, tipped a pass that led to another interception and a quarterback hurry.
“It always builds momentum when you get turnovers,” Batton said after the game. “It gets your whole team up, especially the defense. Everyone is trying to get a little piece of the pie.”
Although Kent State lost two fumbles by running back Trayion Durham, the defense made up for the miscues.
“We talked about it all week that in [Rutgers’] first seven games, those teams they beat lost because they self-destructed in the second half,” Hazell said. “We emphasized that over and over again — to take care of the football and not beat ourselves in the second half.”
Hazell, known to keep his emotions in check publicly, seemed to get caught up in the moment toward the end of the game. After senior cornerback Sidney Saulter came down with an interception on the first play of the fourth quarter, Hazell leapt in the air and chest bumped Saulter as he came over to the sideline.
Asked about the celebratory moment caught on camera and spread via Twitter, Hazell couldn’t recall doing it.
“It was a great game and a great environment,” he said. “Our kids were hitting on all cylinders and it was a lot of fun to be out there and feel the energy from our guys and our sideline.”
The moment might have been lost on Hazell, but the importance of the game and what it means for KSU’s football program moving forward, likely never will.
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Kent State blog at https://ohio.com/flashes. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.