Ryan Aplin faces a tough Kent State defense.
Two mid-major programs whose success this year cost each of them their head coaches will meet up in the second-to-last bowl game of the season. The matchup between Kent State from the Mid-American Conference (MAC) and Arkansas State from the Sun Belt Conference also represents the first game between the two schools, although it’s the Red Wolves’ second straight appearance in the GoDaddy.com Bowl. Last season, Arkansas State fell 38-20 to Northern Illinois, which beat Kent State in the MAC Championship Game on Nov. 30 to earn a trip to the Orange Bowl. The Huskies came up short in their first-ever BCS appearance, losing 31-10 to ACC champ Florida State.
Even though Kent State head coach Darrell Hazell has accepted the job at Purdue, he will lead the Golden Flashes in Mobile, Ala., against Arkansas State. Hazell was named MAC Coach of the Year after breaking the school record for most wins in a single season. The previous high was nine back in 1973. This is just the second bowl appearance in the program’s history, the other coming back in 1972, a 21-18 loss to Temple in the Tangerine Bowl.
Arkansas State will be led by defensive coordinator John Thompson, who is serving as interim head coach after Gus Malzahn took the head coaching position at Auburn. Thompson will look to lead the Red Wolves to a second-straight 10-win season. Hugh Freeze led the team to 10 wins and a spot in the GoDaddy.com Bowl last season, but didn’t coach in Mobile after being named the head coach at Ole Miss. Thompson will try to do what fellow interim head coach David Gunn couldn’t last season – post Arkansas State’s first-ever bowl victory. The Red Wolves are 0-2 in bowls since they became FBS members in 1992. Besides last year’s GoDaddy.com Bowl, the Wolves were beaten 31-19 by Southern Miss in the New Orleans Bowl in 2005.
GoDaddy.com Bowl – Kent State (11-2) vs. Arkansas State (9-3)
Date and Time: Jan. 6 at 9:00 p.m. ET
Location: Mobile, Ala.
When the Kent State Golden Flashes have the ball:
The Golden Flashes saw their school-record 10-game winning streak end with a 44-37 double overtime loss to Northern Illinois in the MAC title game on Nov. 30. The Flashes love to run the ball, as they are ranked 16th in the nation in rushing offense (228.3 ypg).
Running backs Dri Archer and Trayion Durham from a productive and dangerous combo, as the duo have combined for 2,600 yards rushing and 29 touchdowns. Archer, who was named first-team All-MAC, is averaging nine yards per carry, while Durham leads the team in carries (256) and is gaining nearly five yards per rushing attempt.
Senior quarterback Spencer Keith has five rushing touchdowns of his own, along with 1,864 yards passing and 12 touchdown passes. Archer also is the team’s leading receiver with 35 receptions for 539 yards and four scores, while wide receivers Eric Adeyemi and Josh Boyle have three touchdown receptions apiece.
Besides his exploits at running back and as a receiver, Archer also was honored as the MAC’s Special Teams Player of the Year. The junior is fifth in the nation with 189.2 all-purpose yards per game. As a kickoff returner alone, Archer averaged 38.2 yards per return and led the nation with three returns for touchdowns. Besides the threat of making a big play on special teams, the Golden Flashes have done a good job of protecting the football this season. They have turned it over just 17 times so far, including only seven fumbles.
Even though the unit benefits from a potent offense, Arkansas State’s defense has held its own. Overall, the Red Wolves are allowing 386.5 yards and 36.4 points per game. They have given up more than 29 points only three times and two of these games were against Oregon (57) and Nebraska (42). The Red Wolves are ranked 51st in the nation in total, scoring and rushing (153.3 ypg) defense, and are No. 58 against the pass (233.2 ypg). The defense hasn’t generated a consistent pass rush (1.5 sacks per game, 96th), and has forced a total of 22 turnovers to this point. Arkansas State does rank among the top 30 teams in terms of kickoff and punt return yardage defense, which could be key considering Archer’s presence for Kent State.
When the Arkansas State Red Wolves have the ball:
After starting the season 2-3, the Red Wolves have since rattled off seven straight wins, scoring 34 or more points in each game. For the season, Arkansas State is 16th in the nation in total offense with more than 481 yards and 22nd in scoring offense with more than 36 points per game.
The Red Wolves are led by senior dual-threat quarterback Ryan Aplin, who took home Sun Belt Player of the Year honors for the second straight season. Aplin, who is on track to finish his career as the conference’s all-time leading passer, has thrown for 3,129 yards and 23 scores this season with just four interceptions.
Aplin also has 443 yards rushing and six scores on the ground, one of four Red Wolves with at least 300 yards rushing and three rushing touchdowns. As a team, the Red Wolves are averaging 217.4 yards rushing per game, which places them 21st in the nation. Junior running back David Oku, a transfer from Tennessee, leads the team with 1,024 yards rushing and a conference-high 15 rushing touchdowns. Oku was second in the Sun Belt in rushing and earned first-team all-conference honors.
Aplin’s leading target is Sun Belt Freshman of the Year J.D. McKissic. The first-year wide receiver made an immediate impact, posting a conference freshman record 92 receptions for 909 yards and four touchdowns. Fellow wideout Julian Jones leads the team with seven touchdown receptions (on just 13 catches), while seniors Josh Jarboe and Taylor Stockemer combined for 76 catches, 1,013 yards and seven scores.
Kent State’s defense has given up its share of yards, but has been able to mitigate the damage done thanks in large part to turnovers. The Golden Flashes are allowing nearly 420 yards per game (78th), but a respectable 25.1 points (49th) per game. Kent State is 40th against the run (143.4 ypg), but ranks near the bottom (106th), when it comes to defending the pass (276.5 ypg). However, the Golden Flashes have picked off 23 passes and have forced a total of 38 turnovers, tying them with Oregon for the most in the nation. The defense has returned five of these takeaways for scores of its own and also ranks 26th in the nation in sacks with 2.5 per contest.
Both programs are looking to end successful seasons with one more win before heading into an offseason characterized by change with new head coaches waiting in the wings. This game also serves as a curtain call for Arkansas State quarterback Ryan Aplin, who has already led the Red Wolves to 19 wins in the last two seasons. The only thing missing from the record-setting senior’s resume is a bowl victory. Having played for an interim head coach in last season’s GoDaddy.com Bowl game, this scenario is nothing new to Aplin or the rest of the Red Wolves for that matter. As explosive as Kent State is on the ground and on special teams, with all-purpose dynamo Dri Archer leading the way, the defense has been very reliant on getting pressure on the quarterback and forcing turnovers. The Golden Flashes won’t get much help in these areas in this contest, however, as the seasoned Aplin caps off his Arkansas State career with one more win, the program’s first-ever in a bowl game.
Prediction: Arkansas State 34, Kent State 30
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