49 years in the making: A Kent State football MAC Championship preview

Head coach Sean Lewis rings the Starner Victory Bell to celebrate the Kent State Football team beating Miami University and advancing to the MAC championship.

It has been 49 years since the Kent State football team won its first and only MAC Championship. 

The Flashes came close in 2012, winning their first East Division title and advancing to the MAC Championship Game before falling short to Northern Illinois in a thrilling double-overtime defeat. 

Now KSU is at the doorstep of another championship, as it prepares to take on NIU Saturday in a rematch of the 2012 championship game. 

“The core group of guys who have been here are the heart and soul of our team,” coach Sean Lewis said. “If you wanna win the big one, you need a team of high resolve and high character. That’s what these guys have done. It’s the reason why we are here.”

Lewis was hired in 2018, and he has quickly taken the Flashes from the basement of the MAC to the very top. KSU had only seven winning seasons after its 1972 MAC Championship, including that 2012 season. 

After a 2-10 inaugural season, Lewis led the team to its first bowl victory in program history, a 51-41 win over Utah State in the Frisco Bowl. 

In a COVID-19 shortened 2021 season, KSU was one of the best offenses in all of college football. They scored the most points per game (49.8) in the FBS and were a top 10 offense in both passing and rushing. 

And less than two years after leading the team to its first bowl victory, Lewis will look to give the team its first MAC title.

The Huskies have a similar coach in Thomas Hammock, though they have been more successful than KSU in the past 50 years. 

NIU went 5-7 in 2019, Hammock’s first season as head coach, before faltering to an 0-6 shortened 2020 season. The Huskies were picked to finish last this season in the MAC Football Preseason Media Poll. 

Northern Illinois instead upset Power Five team Georgia Tech in the season opener, nearly upset Wyoming in week two (50-43), won six of its eight conference games, and won the MAC West Division title. 

Oh, and this is an NIU team made up of 77 freshmen.

Lewis said that the team playing so well with such a young team speaks to who they are.

“Coach Hammock has gotten them prepared to play at a very high level very early in their careers,” he said. “They’re young and we’re old, but there’s not a whole lot of guys who are going to step in between those white lines on a very big stage who have never been there before. For a lot of them it’s going to be that competitive maturity, emotional maturity of who can step out there because they’ve prepared the right way and can handle this moment the way they’ve handled the rest of the year. That they don’t do too much just because it’s the MAC Championship Game.”

The Huskies have had multiple close games, with seven of its wins coming by seven points or less. 

One of the two MAC teams that Northern Illinois didn’t beat was Kent State, which won in a barnburner 57-42 on Nov. 3. 

The Flashes high-powered offense managed to overcome a record-setting day for the Huskies. Redshirt junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi threw for a school-record 532 yards and three touchdowns. Freshman wide receiver Trayvon Rudolph broke a MAC record with his 309 receiving yards. 

“Both teams are going to be more than eager, more than excited with all that’s on the line,” Lewis said. “There’s a lot we can learn from the first matchup. We need to do a good job controlling the running game, and we have to do a great job controlling Rudolph and the weapons they have around him. They’re going to throw it at us.” 

Lewis said a key to stopping Rudolph from having another monster game is limiting his touches.

“We have to make sure that we have people around [Rudolph] that are giving him the attention that he’s warranted,” Lewis said. “But they are dominant in the run game, and that poses the tough problem that you have to sell out to stop the run, and that is going to create one-on-one matchups on the edge. They’re going to have some plays, but we’ve got to make sure we get enough stops to get off the field so we don’t put a ton of stress in any one phase of the game.”

A key win for Kent State in that game was holding NIU, which entered the game first in the MAC in rushing with an average of 232 yards per game, to 131 yards. 

The Flashes’ offense exploded for 360 rushing yards and 322 passing yards. 

In total, the two teams combined for 99 points and 1,345 yards. 

KSU and Northern Illinois both head into the game with a top-five offense and a bottom-three defense in the MAC. 

Kent State’s offense is first in yards (488.3 per game) and second in points (33.4). The Huskies are fifth in yards (426.6) and tied for fifth in points (30.8).

NIU’s defense is 10th in yards (452.8) and points (33.5). KSU is 12th in yards (475) and 11th in points (34.6). 

“We want to find a way to move the ball,” Lewis said. “Against a good front, against talented people who are going to give us multiple looks. We have to have all of our guys step up and be ready to play.”

It will be a battle of the runners in the championship. 

KSU has the best rushing offense in the MAC, and it is third in the FBS in rushing yards (247.3 per game).

Northern Illinois is second in the MAC and fifth in the FBS (231.5). 

KSU’s sophomore running back Marquez Cooper is third in the MAC with 1,075 rushing yards and has 11 touchdowns.

Lewis said that the O-Line has boosted the run game, but their tight ends have particularly stood out. 

“What gets lost in the shuffle is our tight ends,” he said. “[Graduate student] Kris Leach and [graduate student] Aaron Hackett don’t have the sexy stat lines, but what we’re able to do is because of the attitude and the physicality that they bring. The nastiness and demeanor they played the game with on Saturday was everything.”

Graduate student quarterback Dustin Crum is first among QBs in rushing yards with 565 yards and 11 touchdowns. Graduate student running back Xavier Williams is coming off a career game where he rushed for 168 yards, and he is 10th in the conference with 719 yards. 

Lewis said that Williams committed to being football first in the offseason, after he spent past offseason training for Kent State’s track and field team, which he competes for in the spring.

“He really invested in everything,” Lewis said. “It’s no surprise that in these moments of the big stage, he’s prepared and he shows up. He leans into his physical gifts, his GPS device hit 21.5 miles per hour on one of those long runs”

“His growth in terms of the details of the position, of knowing where he needs to be. Some of those runs aren’t blocked perfectly, but he’s where he needs to be and [he trusts] the integrity of the play and he’s having great results with it.” 

Freshman running back Jay Ducker leads NIU and is sixth in the MAC with 892 rushing yards. Redshirt senior running back Clint Ratkovich has 424 yards, including a 96-yard touchdown run last week against Western Michigan. 

Northern Illinois has a stout offensive line, and Lombardi has only been sacked nine times this season, the least among MAC QBs. 

KSU is sixth in passing among conference teams. 

Crum is third in the MAC in passing with 2,794 yards. He has 15 touchdowns and only four interceptions. 

“[Crum’s] overall performance is indicative of who we know him to be,” Lewis said. “He is just so flatlined, never too high and never too low. He makes big time play after big time play. He’s really efficient at disrupting the football. And what he brings to the game with his legs is an element that you have to prepare for.” 

Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Dante Cephas has been Crum’s favorite target this season, he is third in the MAC with 1,022 yards and eight touchdowns. 

Lewis said that the entire receiving room is a threat. 

“[We’re] distributing the ball to a lot of different people,” Lewis said. “It’s one of the deals of who are you going to take away? How are you going to roll coverage? If you roll right, we’re going to throw left. There’s no weak hand.”

Lombardi, who missed the regular season finale with a lingering injury, has 2,314 passing yards with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions. 

The Huskies are a run-first team, but have a dynamic receiver in freshman Trayvon Rudolph, who is seventh in the MAC with 827 yards and 7 touchdowns.

518 of those yards were against non-KSU opponents. 

The Flashes’ secondary, which ranks 127th out of 130 FBS teams in receiving yards per game (290.8), will need to find a way to step up to give Kent State a more comfortable chance of victory.

Redshirt junior cornerback Montre Miller is a key player on KSU’s defense. He had one his best career games against Miami, recording an interception and three passes defended. 

Miller is tied for 12th in the FBS for passes defended with 13. He was also the Kent State player that knocked the ball down on Miami’s two-point conversion attempt, which would have won the game. 

“We knew it was going to be one of those games where our corners were going to be tested,” Lewis said. “And they were. They gave up some plays and had some calls against them. But [Miller and fifth-year cornerback Elvis Hines] were just resilient. Our core belief of toughness, to go hard longer regardless of the circumstances, I thought [Miller] embodied that.” 

The Flashes’ defense has proven it can stop NIU’s high-powered rushing attack, and it is sixth in the MAC in rushing yards allowed per game (183.8). It has held opponents to under 200 yards rushing in four of its last five games. 

KSU’s defense has also stepped up its red zone stops in recent weeks, with several goal line stands against Akron and Miami. 

Kent State’s defense stopped Miami from scoring a touchdown after the Redhawks had great field position following a rare Crum interception, and they held Miami to a field goal on the last possession of the game to force overtime.

Lewis said the defense’s red zone ability was one of the things that stuck out to him.

“You get to that spot, and it’s on [the defense],” Lewis said. “You have to trust them, and you know they’re going to be accountable to the family. And they rose to the occasion. Those big red zone stops, limiting those possessions just to field goals, were everything.” 

The 2021 MAC Championship Game is sure to be a high-scoring affair between two of the best offenses in the conference. 

Lewis said the locker room has been awesome about the opportunity. 

“There’s an infectious energy of great positivity,” Lewis said. “I don’t want to ratchet down the energy or excitement, I just want to focus it in a compelling way so it becomes a compelled, focused energy source because when it’s all aligned together, great things can happen.” 

The game will be played at Forbes Field in Detroit on Saturday at noon. The game will be broadcasted on ESPN.

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