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MAC Championship: Northern Illinois 41, Kent State 23
What's more impressive: Five MAC titles in 11 years? Or winning a league title after going 0-6 the year before?
Welcome to The Ypsilanti Eleven! Northern Illinois won the 2021 Mid-American Conference’s football championship over Kent State by a score of 41-23. NIU pulled things off by running the ball 61 times, which is a new MAC title game record, and simply not letting Kent State get a touchdown until midway through he second half.
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Huskies win fifth MAC title in 11 years, first in Hammock era
Who saw this one coming? Sources say: nobody in the media
Nobody in the media picked Northern Illinois to win the MAC Championship this year. It can’t be overstated: this team went 0-6 last year. That’s zero wins and six losses! This team came into the year with damn near a hundred (not really, but let’s call it that) freshmen on the roster. There was a new quarterback that hadn't done a lot to impress at Michigan State, and now he’s the guy for NIU’s offense. The media collectively looked at Thomas Hammock’s situation, where he went 5-7 and 0-6 in his first two years as his alma mater’s head coach, and assumed that this guy was a bad year away from maybe losing his job.
Inside Hammock’s locker room back in DeKalb, there weren’t media expectations. Hammock wasn’t trying to have a turnaround season every week of the season, and he wasn’t trying to get his team to do more than what it was capable of. Win or lose, Hammock kept things the same with his players and coaches, and everything materialized into an unforgettable MAC title run: one that looks so much different than what it won in 2011 over Ohio, or 2012 over Kent State, or 2014 over Bowling Green, or 2018 over Buffalo. No team has ever done what this team was able to accomplish this year, and there’s a lot of validation to be had across Northern Illinois’ administration (and locker room, obviously) for having this kind of year.
Nobody picked NIU to win its MAC West division. On the other side of the conference, Kent State was picked heavily by the media to win the East, which it barely did last week with a 48-47 overtime win against Miami OH. It was the team many assumed would make it this far vs. the team that nobody outside of the locker room had a reason to believe in.
And like every great MAC title game, this one was decided by the side that needed to prove everybody wrong.
NIU dominated early
Northern Illinois absolutely controlled the first half of the game. By halftime, the Huskies were up 17-0 with twice as much offense produced than the high-flying Flashes. (35 plays, 148 yards, 18 first downs for NIU; 13 plays, 77 yards, 6 first downs for Kent State).
Kent State simply had too many missed opportunities that turned into unsustained drives. The Flashes are fine with only seven minutes of possession in a half, but not when the scoreboard shows a goose egg.
No need for shootout
The last time these two teams met, it was a 52-47 tilt in Dix Stadium: a full-on Kent State game if you will. There were 87 passes thrown, 1,345 yards of total offense, and no turnovers by the Flashes.
This, however, was a full-on NIU game. Why race to 50 points when grinding things out when 61 rush attempts — a new MAC championship record — will do the trick?
Jay Ducker, this year's MAC Freshman of the Year, led NIU's ground game with 146 yards on 29 carries (5.0 avg.). His longest of the day only went for 24 yards so it's not like he was peeling off for 30 or 40 yards at a time. No, the freshman running back ran right at Kent's defense and continually dared them to bring him down. And if it wasn’t Ducker carrying the rock, then Kent State was tasked with trying to bring down Antario Brown (14 att., 75 yards) or Clint Ratkovic (9 carries, 25 yards, 1 TD in first quarter).
But the most productive rusher, as far as the scoreboard’s concerned, was QB Rocky Lombardi. The Michigan State transfer only moved the ball 17 yards with his legs (long: 5) but scored three touchdowns on the day with a couple of runs from inside the 5-yard line. Midway through the second quarter, Lombardi punched in a QB sneak at the goal line which gave the Huskies a 17-0 lead through halftime.
As a team, NIU had 266 rushing yards, and a averaged 4.36 yards per carry.
Poor day for the MAC’s MVP
On Wednesday, the Mid-American Conference announced it’s all-conference award winners. While Central Michigan running back Lew Nichols II took home this season’s Offensive Player of the Year honors, Kent State’s quarterback Dustin Crum was the Vern Smith Leadership Award Winner (aka, the MAC’s MVP trophy).
Saturday — of all days — just wasn’t his day.
Crum had two overthrows in the first half that should’ve ended in touchdowns (to Dante Cephas on 1st play, Nykeim Johnson on 4th down in 2nd quarter). He also had a deep pass under-thrown to TE Hayden Junker that was intercepted deep in NIU territory. A fourth shoulda-been score from Crum’s arm came in the first drive of the third quarter when a throw to Keshunn Abram in the end zone sailed way over his head. Add it up, and we’re probably looking at 28 points left on the field from poor throws out of this year’s MAC MVP.
For the day: Crum was 11/21 passing for 128 yards, 1 TD and 2 picks. He was also sacked four times
Who doesn't love a good pick six?
The Flashes, down 17-3 late in the third quarter, tried to get its pass game going to finally get a touchdown score in the ball game, but Crum’s fifth big passing error led to more points for NIU. Being hit hard as he tried hitting Abram for a quick gain, Crum’s throw went errant and was picked off by NIU’s C.J. Brown, who returned it to the house.
This drive right before this was very abysmal for the Huskies. NIU’s offense found itself in a 2nd & 35 hole after a couple of penalties. The first was a holding call to back the Huskies up from 1st & 10 on Kent’s 34-yard line to to 1st & 20 on Kent State’s 44. Then a late hit was called on NIU offensive lineman Marques Cox. Rocky Lombardi’s pass was batted down at the line of scrimmage, but a Kent State defender still picked up the ball and half-heartedly played on even though the play was blown dead. Cox unnecessarily played on too, and bringing down the defender. NIU moved back across the wrong side of the 50 yard line thanks to a couple of penalties, which led to NIU’s one and only punt of the day.
But then the defense came through with a takeaway and a score on the very next play, so all was instantly forgiven.
Kent ended up scoring, but it was way too little (and way too late)
Kent State finally got on the board late in the third quarter. The first catch for Nykeim Johnson, a one-year transfer from Syracuse, came late in the third quarter: a 17-yard screen pass that got him in the end zone untouched, and cut into NIU’s lead at 24-10. It was Johnson’s third TD reception of the year.
But, that TD would come way too late for it to really matter. Same with backup QB Collin Schlee’s TD run with four minutes left in the game, and his TD pass to TE Luke Floriea — both garbage-time scores to make the game’s final score read more respectably.
Best-dressed title game
Here’s an opinion about something I feel very confident in. This was the best-looking MAC championship game at Ford Field in the game’s history. Color rush games should be more welcomed in championship arenas, but this is especially true when we’ve got red and black vs. powder blue and gold.
Kent State’s helmets were designed to pay homage to Kent State’s last MAC championship title back in 1972.
NIU’s 61 rush attempts helped the Huskies eat up 40:01 of possession on the clock.
Kent State’s offense out-gained NIU 391 yards (62 plays, 6.3 yards/play) to 368 (76 plays, 5.1 Y/P).
NIU’s defense notched 10 total tackles for loss with hits coming from C.J. Brown, Jaden Dolphin, Muhammad Jammeh, Nick Rattin, Lance Deveaux, Cade Haberman, Pierce Oppong, and Devonte O’Malley.
Tomorrow, Sunday, is when the rest of the bowl games (and College Football Playoff) will be decided. Both teams (NIU at 9-4, Kent State at 7-6) await their fates, but every MAC team that is bowl-eligible will be able to make it to a bowl game this year.