The Kent State football team’s matchup against Northern Illinois University had a lot of hype going into the game.
Not only was it a potential Mid-American Conference Championship Game preview, but it was the first time since 1973 that the two teams with the best conference record in the MAC faced off in Kent in the month of November.
99 combined points and 1,345 yards between the two offenses later, and it’s fair to say that the game lived up to the hype as the Flashes beat the Huskies 52-47.
“There might be some magic in those powdered blues,” coach Sean Lewis said in reference to the baby blue uniforms the Flashes sported for the game. “I don’t know what it is, but I’ll take it. It’s great to be sitting alone a top the East”
Graduate student running back Xavier Williams seemed just as excited for the win.
“That’s MACtion,” he said. “That’s football. You never know what’s going to come, you never can plan anything. All you can do is just keep working and keep pushing.”
Lewis has said several times this season that the key for his team’s success is to stop the run and to be able to run the ball.
That mantra held true Wednesday as the Flashes’ defense held NIU, which entered the game first in the MAC in rushing by averaging 232 yards per game, to 131 yards.
Lewis said that running had been Northern Illinois’ “dominant hand.”
“They had been running the ball really well,” Lewis said. “And we want to make people beat us with their left hand. Their quarterback had a heck of a night, but we knew going into it that they had been leaning heavily on the run, and we wanted to stop that. And we held them well below their season average.”
Huskies’ freshman running back Jay Ducker, who rushed for 210 and 183 yards in his last two starts, only had 101 yards.
KSU’s defense had nine tackles for a loss, with sophomore defensive lineman Adin Huntington leading the way with 2.
Ducker and redshirt senior running back Clint Ratkovich each had two rushing touchdowns.
The Flashes’ rushed for 360 yards. Sophomore running back Marquez Cooper and Williams both rushed for career-highs. Cooper led the team with 173 yards and two touchdowns. Williams ran for 103 yards.
Williams credited the offensive line for the duo’s performance.
“I’m thankful for the o-line,” he said. “They really did a major job tonight, like they do every week. The coaches gave the right calls for the right situations, and the team just pulled together as one.
Every week there’s a plan to come establish the run, let them know who’s running up front. Thankful for our o-line for being tough because that’s what we build our culture on: toughness.”
Graduate student quarterback Dustin Crum ran for 72 yards and two touchdowns, the fourth time in his career he’s had two rushing touchdowns.
“[The offensive line] has done a great job making holes and paving the way for our backs,” Lewis said. “We set up some things schematically to where Dustin would run the ball a little bit more. We knew this was a marquee game, so we pushed our chips in.
We like to say that when we run our quarterback, we’re going to run him for first downs, and we’re going to run him for touchdowns. Three of his four rushes were either first downs or a touchdown, so we’ll take that.”
Not only did the offensive line help establish the run, but Crum was not sacked once.
“The game’s won and lost there,” Lewis said. “We knew this was going to be a physical, four-quarter fight. You could look to the trenches, and whoever won the line of scrimmage, was more physical and could execute with discipline was going to be the team to win.”
The game started out as a defensive battle.
The Huskies drove 70 yards in four plays on the game’s opening drive. Redshirt junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi’s 36-yard touchdown pass to freshman wide receiver Trayvon Rudolph would be the first quarter’s only score.
Five of the game’s next six drives would end in a punt.
“We had two drops and a false start penalty,” Lewis said. “That’s not who we are. I don’t know if it’s that we hadn’t played in 10 days, or what it might be.”
Lewis added that the issues may be because for the third straight week, their opponent’s defense changed their play style.
“Northern Illinois had been exclusively a four-two-five team,” he said. “They come out and they play a three-three stack against us. We spend 10 days preparing for a four-two-five, and they come out and play a completely different style of ball. So we had to settle in and make some corrections. And the kids did that.”
The one drive that didn’t result in a punt occurred late in the first quarter with NIU driving deep into Kent State territory.
Redshirt senior wide receiver Tyrice Richie caught a 27-yard pass to put the Huskies in the red zone, but graduate student safety Nico Bolden stripped the ball from Richie’s arms and recovered the ball.
KSU is tied for second in the FBS in turnovers with 20 this season, and several of those turnovers have occurred with its opponent driving into Kent State territory.
The Flashes are first in the FBS in turnover margin (+15) as their offense rarely turns the ball over.
“You get what you emphasize,” Lewis said. “It’s one of our controllables in our program. The ball is everything. It’s so important that they named the game after it. It’s football. So you better go get it, and you better protect it.”
Kent State would get its first points of the day on a 39-yard field goal by freshman kicker Andrew Glass.
The Huskies would immediately answer, scoring on a 79-yard touchdown pass to Rudolph, who was now the team’s primary target after Richie suffered an injury.
Rudolph played a historic game for the Huskies, having a MAC record 309 receiving yards. He has the most receiving yards by an FBS player this season.
Lombardi threw for a school-record 532 yards and had three touchdowns. The last time Kent State allowed 500 or more passing yards in a game was 2009, when Bowling Green quarterback Tyler Sheehan threw for 505 yards.
Lewis said that Northern Illinois had some great playmakers.
“They did a nice job moving them around,” he said. “They created some favorable matchups at times. I don’t know if many people in the league have a playmaker like [Rudolph.] He’s dynamic. He picked his parents the right way, he’s got some skills. We killed the run, and when you do that you’re going to concede some things. But the biggest thing is that we got the win.”
NIU was ahead 14-3, and momentum had swung back their way.
The Flashes would explode in the remaining 10 minutes of the second quarter, scoring four touchdowns and setting a school record for most points in a single quarter with 31.
First Crum scored on a trick play that saw the Flashes snap the ball directly to Cooper, who handed it off to his quarterback as Crum ran a reversal. Crum faked a reversal to another KSU player, fooling the defense and allowing him to run untouched into the end zone.
Cooper scored on a 27-yard touchdown run that gave the Flashes the lead, but NIU would answer with a 5-yard run by Ducker to jump back ahead 21-17.
Crum would once again use his feet to find the end zone, running through two tacklers on his way to regaining the lead for KSU.
Williams called Crum a “dual threat.”
“You never know what he’s going to do with the ball in his hands,” he said. “It could be throw or run.”
Graduate student tight end Kris Leach scored his first touchdown of the season on a 4-yard pass to cap off the historic fourth quarter, and the Flashes went into halftime with a ten point lead.
Graduate student wide receiver Nykeim Johnson scored twice in the third quarter, first on a 14-yard run and later on a 36-yard pass, and the defense only allowed one Huskies’ touchdown to give Kent State a 45-27 lead entering the fourth quarter.
Every single one of KSU’s scoring drives were under two minutes long.
The offense scored 52 points while only possessing the ball for 24:56, 11 minutes shorter than how long the Huskies had the ball.
“We’re flash fast,” Cooper said with a laugh. “We go over this every single day. It’s been a key focal point ever since I got here. That’s what we do.”
NIU scored two touchdowns in the fourth to pull within five points of the Flashes with eight minutes to go.
Cooper would widen the margin on a 36-yard touchdown run, but the Huskies would strike back to once again be five points behind.
KSU ran out the remaining five minutes, with Cooper efficiently moving the ball down the field, giving Kent State its first win against the Huskies since 2001.
Kent State had lost 10 straight games to NIU coming into the game.
Crum finished the day completing 66.7 percent of his passes for 322 yards and two touchdowns.
Cooper said that Crum “has been a leader ever since I got here.”
“He helped me with the playbook,” Cooper said. “He’s a great chief of the offense. He’s always in control and always calm and cool.”
Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Dante Cephas had his fourth 100+ yard game of the season with 124 receiving yards.
Junior wide receiver Ja’Shaun Poke had a season-high 84 yards.
The Flashes (4-1 MAC, 5-4 overall) are in sole possession of first place in the East Division after Miami (3-2, 4-5) was upset by Ohio Tuesday. Buffalo and Ohio are tied at 2-3, and Bowling Green and Akron are tied at 1-4.
Williams said that being in first place feels “amazing.”
“Ain’t nothing like to be at that top and everybody’s chasing after you,” he said. “Never get too high, never get too low, just keep working no matter what happens.”
NIU (4-1, 6-3) remains in first place in the West Division. Three teams are tied for second at 3-2, and two are tied for last at 2-3.
The Flashes will next play at Central Michigan (3-2, 5-4) on Wednesday Nov. 10.
Jimmy Oswald is a sports editor. Contact him at email@example.com