JONESBORO — Arkansas State isn’t real familiar with its bowl game opponent.
ASU received an invitation Sunday evening to play in the GoDaddy.com Bowl against Mid-American Conference runner-up Kent State. The Jan. 6 meeting at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala., will be the first between the Red Wolves and Golden Flashes.
With no history to consider, and no reason to follow Kent State closely until now, Arkansas State doesn’t know much about the team it will face in its first game of 2013.
"You know, I don’t know a lot about them other than they’re in the Top 25," Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn said. "They obviously are a good team and I’m looking forward to playing them."
Kent State finished the regular season with an 11-2 overall record, including an 8-0 run in the Mid-American Conference and the East Division title. The Golden Flashes suffered a 44-37 double overtime loss to Northern Illinois in the MAC championship game last Friday night.
The loss to NIU snapped Kent State’s 10-game winning streak that started in the third week of the season and includes a 35-23 win at No. 15-ranked Rutgers in late October. KSU’s only other loss of the season was a 47-14 drubbing at Kentucky.
The Golden Flashes followed that loss with 10 straight victories and debuted in the Associated Press Top 25 on Nov. 11 at No. 25. They have remained in the AP poll the past four weeks, climbing as high as No. 18 before the loss to Northern Illinois.
About the same time as Kent State’s initial ranking, some of the Red Wolves started trying to figure out who their opponent might be for a bowl. Since the GoDaddy.com Bowl has ties to both the Sun Belt Conference and Mid-American Conference, several figured last week’s MAC championship game could include ASU’s next opponent.
As it turned out, they were right.
"I watched the (MAC championship) game Friday knowing that it was potentially one of those two teams that we would play in the GoDaddy Bowl," Arkansas State linebacker Nathan Herrold said. "I kind of watched them a little bit and I know that they’ve got a pretty good sized running back that can move good and their No. 1, a receiver for them, is real explosive."
Herrold’s assessments aren’t far off, either.
The Golden Flashes have been primarily a running football team this season, and rank second in the Mid-American Conference and 17th nationally with 228 yards a game on the ground. They’re also very good against the run, allowing just 142 yards a game to rank second in the MAC and 40th nationally.
Kent State’s running game is powered by two of the nation’s best running backs in junior Dri Archer and sophomore Trayion Durham.
Archer has rushed for 1,352 yards and 15 touchdowns while averaging over nine yards a carry. Durham has run for 1,248 yards and 14 TDs while averaging just under five yards a carry.
Together, they form one of the nation’s best backfield tandems.
Kent State quarterback Spencer Keith is a four-year starter who has been effective. Keith, who is from Little Rock and played high school football at Pulaski Academy, has completed 55 percent of his throws for 1,864 yards and 12 TDs and has been intercepted nine times this season.
Defensively, the Golden Flashes returned eight starters this year and are No. 2 in the nation in turnover margin. They’ve forced the most turnovers in the country of 38, while committing just 17.
Kent State is led by senior middle linebacker Luke Batton and junior strong safety Luke Wollet.
Batton has 132 tackles along with 3 1/2 sacks, 5 1/2 tackles for loss, four fumble recoveries and two interceptions. He ranks 19th nationally in tackles per game.
KSU has been vulnerable against the pass this season, ranking next to last in the MAC and No. 108 in the nation.
The Flashes have allowed an average of 277 yards a game passing and given up 26 touchdowns through the air. They have picked off 23 passes, including four by Wollet, to rank No. 2 in the nation in interceptions.
ASU quarterback Ryan Aplin, who has only been intercepted four times all season, said an advantage to the GoDaddy.com Bowl was the date of the game.
Arkansas State has almost five weeks between now and its bowl. The Red Wolves aren’t practicing with final exams going on this week, but figure to resume workouts next week.
"You get a little more extra preparation and you get to know your opponent a little bit more," Aplin said.
Considering Kent State’s ability to create turnovers, that could prove helpful.
Malzahn has been a part of two previous GoDaddy.com Bowls when he was offensive coordinator at Tulsa in 2008 and 2009. The Golden Hurricane won blowout games against MAC opponents Bowling Green and Ball State, respectively.
This time, he hopes to lead Arkansas State to its first FBS bowl victory ever, and a possible Top 25 ranking. ASU received 13 points in the AP poll released Sunday and would need to move up 11 spots to crack the final rankings.
"That’s one of our goals, to be a Top 25 team," Malzahn said. "I think it’s really good that we’re playing a team that’s already in the Top 25, and we’ll see how we compare."