PUSKAS || Heacock, Kent State bowling tonight

Jon Heacock will coordinate perhaps the nation’s most opportunistic defense tonight when Kent State and Arkansas State meet in the GoDaddy.com Bowl at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala.

Heacock, the former Youngstown State head coach, has played a pivotal role in the resurrection of Kent State’s football program and the end of the Golden Flashes’ 40-year bowl drought.

Kent State (11-2, 8-0 Mid-American Conference East) is tied for the lead in the Football Bowl Subdivision in turnover margin (+21) and turnovers gained (38).

On Oct. 27, Heacock’s defense forced seven turnovers in a 35-23 victory over then-No. 15 Rutgers. The win thrust the Golden Flashes into the national spotlight and, oddly enough, eventually cost Kent State its coach. Not long after Northern Illinois defeated Kent State, 44-37 in double-overtime, in the MAC championship, Purdue came calling and Darrell Hazell accepted an offer to coach the Boilermakers.

Heacock could join Hazell in West Lafayette, Ind. He could remain at Kent State under new coach Paul Haynes or perhaps wind up somewhere else. Published reports Saturday had Heacock leaning toward the Boilermakers, but nothing has been finalized.

First, Hazell and Heacock will try to help Kent State become one of only a handful of FBS teams with 12 victories this season.

“Coach [Hazell] is the only coach who is coaching in a bowl game with a job somewhere else,” Heacock said. “We’re just trying to clear out the clutter and stay focused on what we’re trying to do.”

Arkansas State (9-3, 7-1 Sunbelt Conference) runs a scheme they’ve seen before.

“They like to spread the field, similar to what we saw against Northern Illinois,” Heacock said. “The difference is that their quarterback [Ryan Aplin] would rather throw it than run it. But they spread the field vertically and horizontally.”

Aplin has passed for 3,129 yards and 23 touchdowns, with just four interceptions. But the Red Wolves haven’t seen a defense with a nose for the ball like the Golden Flashes have.

Junior safety Luke Wollet — a Poland High School graduate — is Kent State’s second-leading tackler with 108 stops. Wollet leads the Golden Flashes with four interceptions and is second with eight passes defensed and two fumble recoveries.

But Wollet has had help. Thirteen Kent State players have intercepted passes, 10 have forced fumbles and 11 have recovered loose balls. Nineteen players have broken up passes, including freshman backup safety Jordan Italiano, a Canfield High School graduate. Italiano has played in 12 games — including one start — and has made 22 tackles.

Heacock said Kent State’s defense is in good health. His main concern tonight? Fundamentals.

“I’m wary as a defensive coach because we haven’t been able to tackle much in practice over the last few weeks,” he said. “You have to be wary of maintaining the fundamentals that got you here.”

Those fundamentals almost got Kent State to the Orange Bowl. But Northern Illinois got that berth and eventually lost to Florida State, 31-10, on New Year’s Day.

“We were six inches from there, no question,” Heacock said. “That’s how the game goes.”

Ed Puskas is The Vindicator sports editor. Write him at epuskas@vindy.com and follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/edpuskas85.

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