KENT: Not even a half-hour after Saturday night’s loss to Buffalo, Kent State football coach Paul Haynes was already mentally turning the page from his team’s fourth consecutive defeat to the most anticipated game of the season — Saturday’s rivalry match-up against the Akron Zips.
In the locker room right after the Golden Flashes’ 41-21 loss to visiting Buffalo and about 20 minutes later in the post-game news conference, Haynes only briefly touched on the frustrating loss. He followed the same pattern in his weekly news conference Monday.
“It’s Akron week,” said Haynes, a former defensive walk-on at Kent State who later served as an assistant coach before returning to his alma mater after 25 years in December to take his first head coaching position. “It’s everything. It makes or breaks seasons. You throw records out the window and whatever has happened in the past out the window. It does not matter, as it all comes down to what happens at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday.”
With the struggling Zips and Flashes owning identical records of 2-7 overall and 1-4 in Mid-American Conference play, both teams have plenty of areas to shore up to claim the coveted Wagon Wheel trophy that goes to the winner and has been in the Flashes’ possession for the last three seasons.
For Kent State, it’s many simple, albeit crucial, things.
“We’re gonna get back to the basics,” Haynes said. “We have to play more fundamentally and technically sound. When we go back and watch the film, that what we’ve [noticed] — we haven’t done that in the last couple weeks.
“For us to be successful, it comes back down to the fundamentals of football: running, tackling, blocking, getting off blocks, throwing and catching. If we do those things better, we’re going to give ourselves a better chance to win. And what a week to do it.”
As an example and being a defensive-minded coach, Haynes pointed to one of the Flashes biggest fundamental breakdowns against Buffalo on the Bulls’ game-changing touchdown just before halftime that gave them a 13-point lead.
“On the touchdown right before the half when their guy ran the ball, we had two guys [who], were they being held? Yes, they were,” Haynes said. “But we teach our players techniques to get out of it and they didn’t do it.”
Just as much as the importance of playing fundamentally sound, preparation for any rivalry game includes plenty of emotional motivation. By Sunday, there were already signs referring to Saturday’s match up against the Zips plastered all over the team’s meeting rooms and locker room at Dix Stadium.
They served as reminders to all the Flashes, but especially the 21 players and three coaches who are new to the Akron-Kent State rivalry, about the importance of beating the Zips annually.
But the biggest reminder hasn’t moved from its place for three years. Hanging on the wall in a small hallway leading into the Flashes locker room is the giant Wagon Wheel that features the score of every game played between the rivals since 1946.
“We see it every day,” Flashes quarterback Colin Reardon said. “It’s eye level, it’s right there. When we go out to practice and head out the hallway, guys bump into it everyday with their shoulder pads. So, you notice it every day.”
In addition to the Wagon Wheel, the Flashes have other reminders of the importance of defeating Akron throughout the season.
“We have ‘Zip Periods’ [during practice in the preseason and during each week of the season],” Reardon said. “It’s a little extra conditioning, a little extra something we do to help us constantly get better to beat Akron. Because even if we do nothing else all season, even if have 0 wins, [facing the Zips] is a like a championship game — a MAC Championship game almost.”
Reardon watched last year’s 35-24 comeback victory over Akron from the Dix Stadium sideline while serving a redshirt year behind senior starter Spencer Keith. This season, Reardon will guide the Flashes offense onto the field at InfoCision Stadium as KSU’s new starter looking for the same result.
“Rivalry games are all the same,” he said. “One team can be the worst team ever and the other can be No. 1 in the nation. In a rivalry game, all that means nothing. Whoever wants it more is gonna win it …that’s how it’s always been and that’s how it always will be. We’ve been looking forward to this game all season, and I’m excited to get a chance to be a part of it finally.”
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.