Jimmy Miller

KENT: Kent State coach Paul Haynes has been involved in his fair share of rivalries.

He was a graduate assistant coach at Bowling Green, now a Mid-American Conference powerhouse, that frequently plays rival Toledo.

He coached at both Ohio State and Michigan State as a defense coach, so he’s witnessed their rivalry games with not only each other but also with Michigan.

And, most recently, before taking the coaching position at Kent State, Haynes was a defensive coordinator at Arkansas, an SEC team noted for its disdain for other teams in the highly competitive conference.

But none of these matchups resonate with Haynes as loudly as the Kent State-Akron rivalry, set for its 58th installment Friday at noon at Akron’s InfoCision Stadium. The game will be televised on ESPN3.

Haynes has both coached in the battle for the Wagon Wheel — his Golden Flashes are 1-1 in the series after a 27-24 comeback victory last season — and has played in it, as he donned a Flashes uniform as a walk-on safety from 1987 to 1991. He also was involved in the game in 1999 and 2000, when he coached the Flashes secondary.

“I’ve been a part of a bunch of [rivalries] and it comes down to who wants it more and the execution of the game,” Haynes said. “This is my heart here at Kent State. This one means the most to me.”

Reciting the now-common adage that records don’t matter in this game, Haynes said the Zips, who are bowl game eligible for the first time in 10 years, will bring an “electric” crowd to Friday’s game. The Flashes (3-8, 2-5) will have to mentally erase a four-game skid, which sent the team plummeting from the upper rankings of the MAC East Division.

Meanwhile, the Zips offense and run defense, ranked third in the nation, have started to heat up in recent weeks as the team has put together a three-game winning streak.

“They’re kind of going on all cylinders,” Haynes said of the Zips, who are 6-5 overall and 4-3 in the MAC. “It all starts up front. They’re man-childs up front in their defensive line … and their offense, in the last couple weeks, they’ve really kind of turned the corner.”

Sophomore quarterback Thomas Woodson leads the Zips offense with 1,894 yards passing and 15 touchdown passes, but senior tailback Conor Hundley is the focal point. He’s amassed 785 yards rushing and nine touchdowns this season.

Senior Imani Davis and sophomore Jerome Lane are the primary targets in the passing game. They have combined for 11 touchdowns and are the only two Zips with more than 500 yards receiving.

On the other hand, the Kent State offense is coming off of what Haynes dubbed one of its best performances of the year after compiling 164 total yards in a 27-14 loss to Central Michigan.

Quarterbacks Colin Reardon and George Bollas split playing time in that loss and will do so again against the Zips, Haynes said. The quarterback playing the best will play the most, he said.

The Flashes are hoping nine days of rest since their loss to Central Michigan helps injured players get back on the field. That is especially true for junior defensive lineman Terence Waugh, whose nine sacks rank ninth in the nation. Haynes said Waugh is questionable and may play just a few snaps.

The Flashes are significant underdogs, but Haynes said that won’t matter come kickoff.

“Guys are looking forward to it,” Haynes said. “This isn’t one of those type games where you have to motivate. If you have to motivate for this one, you’re in trouble. Why wouldn’t we be an underdog? That’s a given, but it really doesn’t matter. It still comes down to the … rivalry of the game.”