Wednesday’s matchup between the Kent State football team and Northern Illinois University could very well be a preview of the Mid-American Conference Championship Game.
It’s the first time since 1973 that the two teams with the best record in the MAC will face off in Kent in the month of November. NFL Hall of Famer Jack Lambert was on Kent State's defensive squad that year. Alabama head coach Nick Saban was a graduate assistant on the coaching staff.
The Huskies, coming off a winless COVID shortened season, are undefeated in conference play and sit in first place in the West Division.
The Flashes are 3-1 in the MAC and tied for first place in the East Division with Miami.
Coach Sean Lewis said matchups like these have been what the team has talked about since day one.
“We want to graduate our kids,” he said. “We want to retain the wheel. We want to win the East. We want to win the league. And we want to play in big, meaningful postseason games. So this is a step in that progression. Shoot, it’s been almost 50 years since a team has gotten a chance to play for a championship, meaningful game in this way. It’s rare. Championship moments are very rare.
I was talking with [offensive line coach Bill O’Boyle,] who’s been coaching college football for 35 years. I’ve been alive for 35 years, he’s been coaching ball as long as I’ve been alive. And in those 35 years, he’s had the opportunity to play for six conference championships. You got to take a second, you got to detach and you got to realize how sacred these moments are.”
The Huskies have been perfect in conference play, and they are 6-2 overall. They upset Georgia Tech 22-21 to start the season.
The next week Northern Illinois almost upset Wyoming, only losing by seven points after the Huskies scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to take the lead only to have their comeback thwarted by a Cowboys touchdown with a minute and a half left.
Six of Northern Illinois' games have been decided by eight points or less.
Lewis said getting the win will come down to “competitive maturity.”
“That’s the one thing about these two ball clubs right now,” he said. “We have to feel good about the experience that we’ve had and the guys we’ve been around in this foxhole for a very long time. We got to lean into that competitive maturity to know that this is going to be a four quarter fight, that it’s going to require having emotional maturity to not get too high or too low.”
The Huskies are led by coach Thomas Hammock, who Lewis is very familiar with. Hammock was a graduate assistant 2003-2004 at Wisconsin, where Lewis played tight end.
“Our relationship goes way back,” Lewis said. “He was one of the first people that greeted me when I was at Wisconsin. So we have that background together, that history. He’s built his team to play with great effort and great attitude. They fight like crazy in every single game that they’ve been in. They found a way to come back and win.”
The game will feature two of the highest scoring offenses in the conference.
Northern Illinois University has the third best scoring offense in the MAC with an average of 29.8 points per game.
The Flashes are fourth with an average of 29.1 points per game.
Lewis had a simple explanation for how to stop the Huskies offense.
“You have to limit the number of times they score,” he said. “Not to make it simpler than it is. It’s a great challenge when you play these balanced attacks. You got to win the field position game. Everything’s tied together to where you’re able to stay on schedule, and you limit the number of times they get into the endzone. I’m not very smart, but I know if we can find a way to score one more point than them, we win.”
Northern Illinois is the best running offense in the MAC. They average a conference best 232 yards per game and are second in yards per carry with 4.9.
Kent State has played four of the five teams ranked in the top five in rushing.
“It’s how the league is built,” Lewis said. “Everyone knows that if you’re going to win these meaningful games late, you have to play great rush defense and you have to be able to run the ball. [Northern Illinois] does it best in the league. I know they’re damn good. We have to do a great job of violent fundamentals at the point of attack, and we have to create knock back. Our guys have to welcome that challenge.”
Freshman Harrison Waylee was the team’s primary rusher, with three of his four starts resulting in 100+ yard performances, before being injured against Eastern Michigan.
Freshman running back Jay Ducker has taken over since then, rushing for 210 and 183 yards in his last two starts,
The Flashes’ rushing defense is 10th in the conference, allowing 204 yards per game. But last week they held Ohio, who came into the game third in rushing, to 135 yards. They had allowed back-to-back 300+ yard rushing performances in the weeks prior.
The only top five rushing offense that the Flashes haven’t faced this season? Themselves. Kent State is second in yards per game with 220.
The Flashes’ continue to have a dominant backfield duo in sophomore Marquez Cooper and graduate student Xavier Williams. Cooper has rushed for 558 yards and five touchdowns. He averages nearly 70 yards per game.
Williams has 378 yards and one touchdown.
Graduate student quarterback Dustin Crum leads the team in rushing touchdowns with six, and he has rushed for 368 yards.
Crum is just as dangerous as a passer, and he is fourth in the MAC in passing yards this season with 1,770. He has thrown nine touchdowns and averages 221 yards per game.
Northern Illinois' offense is led by redshirt junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi.
The Huskies are last in the MAC in the passing game, only averaging 165.5 yards per game.
But last week Lombardi, who transferred from Michigan State in the offseason, had his best performance as a Huskie. He threw for 348 yards and three touchdowns.
Lombardi also has 324 rushing yards, including a 124-yard performance against Maine.
Lewis pointed out that the team didn’t have to pass often because of their run success.
“They got behind in last week’s game,” Lewis said. “And he showed the ability that he has to throw the ball around. They showed the dynamic skill that they have to chase those guys down and win that game. He’s very dangerous, and he flies under the radar because of their rushing attack. But he’s more than capable.”
Redshirt senior wide receiver Tyrice Richie leads the receiving core in yards with 480 yards. Freshman wide receiver Trayvon Rudolph has 330 yards and four touchdowns on just 18 catches.
The Flashes’ defense is the second-worst in the conference in passing, allowing an average of 270 yards per game. But they make up for it in their turnover ability, and they are second in the FBS with 13 interceptions.
Kent State's passing game is sixth in the MAC with an average of 230 yards per game, but redshirt sophomore Dante Cephas is the third best receiver in the conference.
Cephas is tied for second in the MAC in touchdowns with six, and he is third in yards per game with around 85.
Northern Illinois' defense is ranked ninth in the conference. It is seventh in the run and ninth in the pass.
With a below average defense, the Flashes offense will look to have a big game in order to compete with the Huskies high-powered offense.
Lewis repeated a favorite saying of his as he prepares his team for an important stretch of games.
“These games in November are the ones we’re going to remember,” he said. “If we don’t handle this thing the right way, it doesn’t matter. When it’s all said and done and the job is complete, I’ll have a victory cigar. Until the job is done, let’s get better.”
Jimmy Oswald is a sports editor. Contact him at email@example.com.