NIU outlasts Kent State, wins second consecutive MAC Championship

By Matt Hopkinson

NIU claimed its second MAC Championship title in as many years when it defeated Kent State in Detroit on Friday.

The Huskies (12-1 9-0 MAC) and the Golden Flashes (11-2, 8-1 MAC) battled it out and needed double-overtime to decide the outcome, as the Huskies eventually edged their Eastern division foe, 44-37.

“What a great football game. It’s a tough one for us to swallow right now,” said Kent State coach Darrell Hazell. “That’s a great football team we played and they did an excellent job…. We just needed to make a couple more plays at the end on both sides of the ball…. Their quarterback is an exceptional player and we had a hard time tackling him all day.”

While being praised as exceptional by Hazell after the game, NIU junior Jordan Lynch and the Huskie offense was stagnant for most of the first quarter.

Kent State opened the scoring early with a touchdown on a 15-yard touchdown run by senior running back/wide receiver Dri Archer. The Golden Flashes were in excellent field position when senior cornerback Darius Polk forced an Angelo Sebastiano fumble on a punt return.

The Golden Flashes tacked on a field goal later, after an 18-yard Ryan Neir punt once again gave Kent State a short field to work with.

NIU was able to add a 27-yard Mathew Sims field goal with under 30 seconds left in the first quarter to make the score 10-3.

The Huskies flipped the script in the second quarter, scoring twice and holding Kent State scoreless to go into halftime with a touchdown lead, 17-10. Lynch was able to connect with senior wide receiver Martel Moore on a 14-yard touchdown catch, and junior running back Akeem Daniels scored on a 1-yard touchdown run.

Despite the close score, Kent State only had 65 total yards and just four first downs in the first half.

Hazell knew he had to change the course of action for his team heading into the second half.

“We had trouble running the football in the first half,” Hazell said. “And we just thought we got to live and die by the zone and we came back out with the zone play and tried to run Tray [Durham] and Dri [Archer] and try to establish 3- or 4-yard gains and we were able to pop a couple.”

Those changes helped give Kent State a shot in the arm offensively, as they had more net yards than the Huskies in both the third and fourth quarters.

Despite this, NIU looked in prime position in the third quarter to run away with the game, as it came out and tacked on another 10 points to Kent State’s three. Kent State’s kicker Freddy Cortez opened the scoring with a field goal early, but the Huskies scored 10 unanswered points behind a 1-yard touchdown run by Lynch on a drive that included a 44-yard breakaway run by Lynch. Sims added a 29-yard field goal with 2:38 left, to make the score 27-13, NIU.

The fourth quarter is when Kent State showed its will to fight and why it made it to this point of the season.

The Golden Flashes started their first drive of the quarter at their own 4-yard line with more than seven minutes left and put together a 96-yard drive to score, mostly behind a 60-yard pass play from quarterback Spencer Keith to Archer. Keith finished the drive with back-to-back 5-yard rushes, the second going across the goal-line for the score.

Kent State struck again a mere 15 seconds later after, forcing a fumble from Lynch on the Huskies’ first play after Keith scored. The fumble was caused and recovered by freshman linebacker Zack Hitchens, who proceeded to run untouched to the end zone to even the score at 27 with 4:38 remaining in the game.

NIU answered on a four-play, 75-yard drive, shouldered by Daniels, who accounted for all but 9 yards on the drive. Those last 9 came on Lynch’s touchdown run to give the Huskies a 34-27 lead with 3:12 left to play.

Kent State scored once more to send the game into overtime as Keith led a drive downfield, highlighted by his 19-yard touchdown pass on the move to junior tight end Tim Erjavec.

“I always tell the guys to stay calm and take it one play at a time and that’s what we did,” Keith said. “Even when we got to third down and 10, that type of situation, we were just focused on the next play and try[ing] to execute that.”

Kent State began overtime on offense and converted a field goal on its opening possession. NIU could muster little offense on its possession; it faced 4th and 8, and Sims converted on a 40-yard field goal to go to a second overtime.

The second overtime finally brought the conclusion of the game with Kent State winning the coin toss and choosing to defend first. This proved no easy task as Daniels broke a 23-yard run, which Lynch finished off with a 2-yard touchdown vault over the line to force Kent State to score a touchdown.

The Golden Flashes got a pass interference penalty to keep their hopes alive on third and eight.

Facing fourth down, with the MAC Championship on the line, Keith forced a throw to the end zone, only to be intercepted by senior cornerback Demetrius Stone, crowning the 2012 MAC champions in the process.

“I feel like our defense made big stops whenever we needed to,” said NIU junior defensive tackle Ken Bishop. “We knew we had to win the game up front and first quarter all the way to overtime, we dominated up front. We got two great ends coming off the edge and I feel like it was critical for the interior to be stopped.”