Football loses rematch to Northern Illinois in MAC Championship Game

Graduate student running back Xavier Williams (2) runs the ball during the MAC Championship against Northern Illinois University in Detroit, Michigan on Dec. 04, 2021. Kent State lost to NIU 41-23.

Kent State football coach Sean Lewis repeated the same mantra all-season long.

“We need to run the ball well, and we need to stop the run. We do that, we win.” 

Lewis credits that style of play to what won the Flashes the Mid-American Conference East Division title, to how they got to play in the MAC Championship Game against Northern Illinois.

And Lewis was right. Kent State did not run the ball, and it did not stop the run. 

And KSU lost 41-23 on Saturday. 

“This is a big one, you’d love to have it,” Lewis said. “But we obviously came up a little bit short. I picked a bad day to not coach these guys to the best of my ability. And that’s unfortunate, because these guys deserve better.”

“We got a locker room full of warriors that gave it their all, just came up a little bit short. I’m not going to let this one loss define our team. We’ve had a heck of a run; these guys are young men of great character.” 

When the two teams met on Nov. 3, the Flashes held NIU, which is ranked fifth in the FBS in rushing yards (231.5), to only 133 yards rushing. 

By the end of the first quarter, Northern Illinois had rushed for half of that total.

By halftime, the Huskies had surpassed it by 17 yards.

“There’s really good coaches and really good players in this league,” Lewis said. “It was one way before [when the two teams played in the regular season], and it was completely different this time. We knew every time you play someone a second time that there’s a chance where it’s going to flip on its head and go that way.”

Northern Illinois finished the day with 266 rushing yards. 

“[Northern Illinois] played more downhill,” Lewis said. “They committed numbers to the box, and we were just a click off in our throw game to where we weren’t able to equate numbers and pull some of those guys out of the box.”

Freshman running back Jay Ducker had 146 yards, his third-highest output of the season. Freshman running back Antario Brown had 75 yards. 

Kent State, which came into the game first in the MAC and third in the FBS in rushing yards with an average of 247.3 per game, was held to 195 yards, many of those yards coming in garbage time near the end of the game. 

Graduate student running back Xavier Williams, whose 168 yard performance against Miami was a career high, led the team with 93 rushing yards. 

Sophomore running back Marquez Cooper, who came into the game third in the MAC in rushing yards per game (89.3), ran for five yards on six carries. He was the fifth-best rusher of the day. 

Northern Illinois drove to the KSU 23-yard line on its opening possession, but the Flashes’ defense, like it did several times against Miami last week, held the Huskies to a field goal.

Graduate student quarterback Dustin Crum found junior wide receiver Ja’Shaun Poke for a 75-yard touchdown on the second play of KSU’s opening possession, but an ineligible receiver downfield penalty wiped it off the board, and the Flashes were forced to punt later on the drive. 

That drive set the tone for a first half that was filled with near misses and penalties for Kent State. 

“Anytime something like that happens, it hurts a little bit,” Crum said. “But it’s something you have to flush straight away. You have to do your best to stay even-keeled, especially in big games like this. Control what you can control.”

NIU would work methodically down the field on its next drive, traveling 75 yards in 10 plays and scoring on a 2-yard end-around touchdown run by redshirt senior running back Clint Ratkovich to go up 10-0. 

Crum tossed only his fifth interception of the season, but the third in the last two games, when he under threw a deep pass to graduate student wide receiver Nykeim Johnson. 

Crum struggled to connect on the deep pass all game long, and he finished the day 11-of-21 with two interceptions, one touchdown and 128 yards. 

The Huskies made Kent State pay for the turnover, moving the ball down the field with ease, scoring on a 1-yard QB sneak by redshirt junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi and making it a three-score game. 

Lombardi finished the day with only 17 rushing yards but three rushing touchdowns. He went 7-of-15 for 102 yards and one interception.

“He’s a good player,” Lewis said. “We knew going into it that [the Huskies] had a balanced attack. If you commit numbers to the box to stop the run game, the way that we did, there’s going to be opportunities on the edge to play catch. And he’s a difference maker for them.” 

Lombardi had a school-record 532 passing yards last time he played Kent State. 

Down 17-0, the Flashes moved into NIU territory off of two long graduate student running back Xavier Williams runs, but he was tackled for a loss on second down, and Crum was sacked on third, to set up fourth and 12. 

Crum was sacked four times.

Crum said Northern Illinois’ defensive line didn’t do anything special.

“They are who they are,” he said. “They try to get after you a little bit, which they did. I need to do a better job pulling the trigger at times and getting the ball to my receivers on time.” 

The KSU offense would stay on the field, but Crum would overthrow his receiver for an incomplete pass and a turnover on downs. 

Northern Illinois continued to run the ball down the throat of the Kent State defense, driving into the red zone as the end of the first half drew near. It looked like the Huskies would score points on each of its first four possessions. 

But Lombardi threw a pass right into the arms of graduate student safety Nico Bolden. 

The Flashes, with not enough time left to turn the pick into points, went into halftime down 17-0. 

At halftime, the Huskies controlled the time of possession 22:51 to 7:09. They came into the game second in the MAC with an average of 32:28 per game. 

“We just couldn’t get off the field,” graduate student cornerback KJ Sherald said. “Time of possession was a huge difference. They did a good job of holding the ball, getting the lead and milking the clock the rest of the game.” 

NIU nearly doubled Kent State’s time of possession, controlling the ball 40:01 to 19:59. 

Kent State received the second half kickoff, and it needed a spark to get back into the game. It looked like it found that spark in the passing game with a 26-yard pass to redshirt sophomore wide receiver Dante Cephas and a 12-yard pass to fifth-year wide receiver Keshunn Abram. 

Cephas led the team in receiving with 102 yards. No other KSU receiver had more than 40 yards. 

But another Crum overthrow, this time to an open Abram in the end zone, and a false start killed the drive, and the Flashes settled for a 41-yard field goal. 

NIU drove past midfield, including converting a fourth down on an 8-yard pass to freshman wide receiver Trayvon Rudolph, but two penalties killed the drive and KSU got the ball back, needing a touchdown to pull within seven points. 

KSU’s defense shut down Rudolph for most of the day, holding him to 50 yards, 36 of those on one play, and zero touchdowns. 

“That goes to the plan that [defensive coordinator CJ] Cox and the defensive staff put in,” Lewis said. “The preparation that the kids put into the plan and executing what we asked him to. Unfortunately, there was one untimely spot where he was able to make a catch and make a play. You got to be on your ps and qs on every single snap. When you have an opportunity to get off the field, you have to make those plays.” 

Rudolph had a MAC record 309 receiving yards the last time the two teams played.

But on the first play Crum’s pass was read perfectly by freshman safety C.J. Brown, who jumped in front of the ball, intercepting it and running into the end zone untouched. 

“Unfortunately, we got a little backside pressure,” Lewis said. “Crum got hit when he was delivering the pass, and the ball floated to [the defender]. He was able to catch it and take it the other way.” 

Crum looked to redeem himself on the ensuing possession, moving Kent State into Huskies’ territory on two long runs. 

On third and 12, Crum completed a 17-yard touchdown pass to Johnson to make it 24-10 shortly before the fourth quarter. 

Northern Illinois’ next drive would be the dagger to end the game. 

NIU faced third and 12 deep in their own territory after a holding call, but Lombardi completed a 32-yard pass to Rudolph. Ducker broke for a 24-yard run, and an unnecessary roughness penalty on KSU put the ball on its own 12-yard line. 

Kent State was penalized seven times for 73 yards, five of those coming in the first half. 

Lombardi scored on touchdown run off a fake handoff that fooled the entire Kent State defense, and the Huskies were up 31-10 with around 11 minutes left in the game. 

KSU and NIU scored throughout the fourth quarter, but the deficit was too deep for the Flashes to overcome.

Kent State will have to wait at least another year to finally get its first MAC title in 49 years. 

The Flashes will next play in a TBD bowl game. The game will be announced on ESPN at noon on Sunday. 

“We’ve got one more game that we’ve earned the right to play,” Lewis said. “And I know they’re going to bounce back and respond the right way.”

Jimmy Oswald is a sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].