KENT - They sat in a darkened room on the first day of training camp, surrounded by the sounds of quarterbacks barking signals, coaches blowing whistles and fans cheering.
Kent State coach Darrell Hazell told his players to close their eyes and visualize what they wanted from this season. The Golden Flashes imagined titles, national rankings, a bowl game.
It has all come true.
Tribune Chronicle / Dave Dermer
Kent State linebacker C.J. Malauulu reaches and grabs the ball away from Ohio receiver Troy Hill during Friday’s game at Dix Stadium. Malauulu intercepted the ball and took it back for a touchdown during the first quarter where KSU went up 21-0.
"It's happening," senior linebacker C.J. Malauulu said. "This is what we dreamed about."
Malauulu returned an interception 33 yards for a touchdown - 12 seconds after another Kent State TD - and the No. 23 Golden Flashes completed a perfect season in the Mid-American Conference with their 10th straight win, 28-6 over Ohio on Friday.
The regular-season finale was a tuneup for Kent State (11-1, 8-0 MAC East), which will meet No. 24 Northern Illinois, the league's West champion, in next week's MAC championship. The win allowed the Golden Flashes to continue the best season in the program's 90-year history and assured they will remain ranked for the first time since 1973.
The Golden Flashes are also guaranteed a bowl invitation, something they haven't received since 1972, when they played Tampa in the Tangerine Bowl.
If not for a loss to Kentucky in the second game, Kent State would be unbeaten.
"Our guys believe, and we believe what the coaches are telling us," said quarterback Spencer Keith.
Trayion Durham rushed for 97 yards and scored on a 15-yard run in the first quarter as Kent State built a 21-0 lead. And although the Golden Flashes' offense did little in the second half, Kent State's defense wouldn't budge and finished with eight sacks.
The Bobcats (8-4, 4-4) lost four of their last five after cracking the Top 25. Ohio also had three more players go down with serious injuries, and have now lost 10 players who were projected as starters when the season began to injuries.
"It's gut wrenching," running back Beau Blankenship said. "We had some guys step up. It's hard to see them go down, I'm close to them and I love them. It's upsetting to finish the season like this."
With representatives from the Military and GoDaddy.com bowls on hand, the Golden Flashes put on a dazzling show early before the game bogged down into a puntfest. But Kent State, which got only 53 yards from speedy running back Dri Archer, took advantage of Ohio's mistakes in the opening quarter and did enough to pad its bowl resume.
The Golden Flashes entered the season hoping to build on a strong finish in 2011, when they won four of their last five. But no one could have expected such a dramatic turnaround in Hazell's second season, which will have at least two more games.
Hazell spent seven seasons as an assistant at Ohio State under Jim Tressel before taking the Kent State job. He may soon be on his way elsewhere with major programs such as Tennessee and California already with openings and other schools likely to make changes.
But nothing will take away what he's done in a short time with the Golden Flashes.
Their 11 wins are the most in school history and with 16 wins in the past two seasons, the Golden Flashes have matched the school's win total from 1989-2000, when Kent State went 16-115-1.
"There was a weird feeling that things were changing around here," said Malauulu, a junior college transfer. "Coach Hazell talked about how it would be the people who would change things, and I just hopped on the bus and believed."
Kent State is the first MAC East school to go 8-0 in conference play since 2003, when Miami did it behind senior quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
"It's been fun to watch this team all season," Hazell said. "They're mature, they don't flinch, they don't panic and they feed so well off each other."
The Golden Flashes came in leading all FBS schools in turnover margin, and they wasted little time forcing the Bobcats, who seemed sleepy with an 11 a.m. kickoff, to cough up the ball.
Kent State scored two defensive touchdowns in the first quarter - one on a 50-yard fumble return, the other on Malauulu's pick - to stun Ohio and open a 21-0 lead.
Just 12 seconds after Durham's 15-yard burst, aided by some bad tackling, made it 14-0, Malauulu picked off Tettleton in the middle of the field. He found some blocks down the left sideline and dived inside the front pylon for the score, which survived a video replay.
"That was a crazy play," Malauulu said. "It happened so fast. I read the quarterback's eyes, I rolled over that way and came up with the ball. I picked it and I was like 'Oh my gosh, I caught the ball.'"
Earlier, Malauulu stripped Blankenship and Kent State's Luke Wollet fielded a one-hopper off the turf and sprinted half the field to make it 7-0.
Ohio managed a 33-yard field goal by Matt Weller to close the quarter, but the Bobcats were down 18 despite outgaining the Golden Flashes, running more than twice as many offensive plays and holding the ball for eight more minutes.
Two plays did them in.
"We just killed ourselves with the turnovers," Blankenship said. "Just stupid plays."
Weller's 41-yard field goal before halftime trimmed Kent State's lead to 21-6 and sent Ohio's players to the locker room with confidence after being on the verge of a blowout loss.
But the Bobcats, who also hurt themselves with penalties in the first half, couldn't get anything going on offense after halftime. They were still hanging around in the fourth quarter before Keith hit Eric Adeyemi for a 24-yard TD to make it 28-6.
When the final seconds ticked off the clock, Kent State's players lined up and rang a victory bell before heading to the locker room.
Once ignored, the Golden Flashes are making noise.
"We knew we could do something special," Malauulu said. "This is the season we all wanted."