For the second straight year, Northern Illinois won the Mid-American Conference Championship “The Hard Way,” as the Huskies won a battle of ranked teams with a 44-37 double overtime win over Kent State at Ford Field in Detroit.
NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch capped a Heisman-worthy performance with his third touchdown run of the game in the second overtime, and Demetrius Stone intercepted Kent State quarterback Spencer Keith to end the game and give Northern Illinois its school record 12th win of 2012.
The Huskies, who entered the game ranked 19th by the Associated Press, 18th in the USA Today Coaches Poll and No. 21 in the BCS Rankings, won their 12th consecutive game to improve to 12-1 on the season, setting a school-record for wins in a season. No. 18 (AP)/No. 19 (USA Today)/No. 17 (BCS) Kent State dropped to 11-2 with the loss.
“Everybody believed,” said NIU head coach Dave Doeren, who won his second MAC title in as many seasons as the Huskies’ head man. “We had to resolve to battle back. We turned it over, they scored, and we just kept playing. Nobody flinched. I think that’s what we do. We’ve been in tough places before and I’m just really proud of the resolve and the leadership of our team.”
Lynch, who was named the West Division Most Valuable Player, ran for 160 yards on 36 carries with three touchdowns and completed 19-of-34 passes for 212 yards and a touchdown. He broke the NCAA FBS single season record for most rushing yards by a quarterback on a 44-yard run to the Kent State four-yard line in the third quarter. Lynch now has 1,771 yards on 271 carries, surpassing Michigan’s Denard Robinson, who collected 1,702 rushing yards in 2010.
“This was a total team win,” Lynch said. “Watching the defense at the end…we had each other’s backs all night. I’m just so happy and proud. I’m just happy to be a MAC Champion.”
Huskie tailback Akeem Daniels joined Lynch on the 100-yard rushing list with 128 yards on 17 carries with one score and caught four passes for 67 yards. Daniels gained 85 yards rushing in the final quarter and in overtime.
“I’m happy I was able to take advantage of my opportunity,” Daniels said. “The O-line did a great job blocking and creating holes for me and they were keying in on Jordan a lot, so I knew that would open up some holes and stuff for me. The wide receivers did a great job on the edge and if it wasn’t for the great team effort, who knows what would have happened.”
The Huskie defense more than did its part, not only with Stone’s interception on the final play, which came on fourth down and eight from the NIU nine-yard line, but throughout the contest.
NIU held Kent State to 70 rushing yards on 42 attempts and 260 total yards in the game. Flashes’ All-America candidate Dri Archer scored on a 15-yard run in the first quarter for the first touchdown of the game, then finished the contest with 15 net yards on 12 carries. He did not have a return and caught five passes for 81 yards.
Senior noseguard Nabal Jefferson and defensive tackles Ken Bishop and Anthony Wells were literally the first line of defense as Jefferson made a career-high nine tackles, including 1.5 for loss, and Bishop recorded eight tackles, three for loss, with a quarterback sack. Wells added 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack. As a team, Northern Illinois totaled four quarterback sacks and 12 tackles for loss.
Northern Illinois fell behind 10-0 as Archer scored on a 15-yard run after the Flashes recovered a fumble on a punt return and Freddy Cortez added a 37-yard field goal. The field goal came after an 18-yard punt by NIU.
The Huskies responded by out-scoring the Flashes 27-3 beginning at the five-minute mark of the first quarter through the second and third periods to take a 27-13 lead. After NIU punter Ryan Neir’s kick was downed by Daniels at the Kent State four-yard line, Keith used a 60-yard completion to Archer to advance to the Northern Illinois 22-yard line. Keith picked up the final 17 yards, scoring on a five-yard run to pull the Flashes within seven.
On the Huskies’ first play from scrimmage, Lynch fumbled and Kent State’s Zach Hitchens scooped up the ball and and ran 22 yards for the touchdown. Cortez’ PAT tied the score at 27 with 4:28 to play in the fourth quarter.
Northern Illinois responded with a four-play, 75-yard drive that took just 1:31. Daniels ran for 23 yards and caught a 43-yard pass down the right sideline to set up a nine-yard Lynch touchdown run and give NIU a 34-27 lead.
Kent State came back with an 11-play, 58-yard drive to tie the score at 34. Keith hit Tim Erjavec from 19-yards for the score and after NIU netted only two yards on a pair of plays, the MAC Championship game went into overtime for the first time in its history.
In the first overtime, the teams traded field goals. First, Cortez made a 33-yard three to put the Flashes ahead 37-34 for the first time since the first quarter. When NIU picked up just two yards on three plays, Huskie kicker Mathew Sims calmly booted a 40-yard three, the longest of his three field goals in the game.
Northern Illinois took just two plays to score in the second overtime. Daniels gained 23 yards to the two-yard line and Lynch dove over the pile and into the end zone on the next play to give Northern Illinois a 44-37 lead.
On its final chance, Kent State earned a first down on a pass interference penalty and Traylon Durham took the ball to the nine. Two Keith passes fell incomplete and Stone stepped in front of the third to send the Huskies streaming onto the field in celebration.
The Huskies three appearances in the MAC Championship game in 2010 (a 26-21 loss to Miami), 2011 (a 23-20 win over Ohio) and 2012 (a 44-37 double overtime win over Kent State), have all been decided in the last 33 seconds of regulation or on the last play of overtime.
With the win, which came in front of representatives from the Discover Orange and Allstate Sugar Bowl, Northern Illinois put itself into consideration for a Bowl Championship Series Bowl pending results of other games and a rise in the USA Today Coaches and Harris polls.
After the game, Doeren said he believed NIU was deserving of a BCS bowl berth.
“Absolutely,” Doeren said. “There are not many teams in the top 16 that can play as consistent as [we] have. There are no ups and downs, they win every game they’re supposed to win and they’ve won the big games. It’s a total three-phase football team.”
NIU will learn its rankings Sunday afternoon and its bowl destination Sunday evening.