Four quarters of football were not enough. One overtime period was not enough. The prize was too big: a Mid-American Conference championship.
With the hard-fought score knotted at 37, the NIU Huskies and the Kent State Golden Flashes carried their perfect conference records into the second overtime – one more chance to claim victory.
Huskie QB Jordan Lynch, who’d already scampered into the end zone twice before that night, quickly made it a hat trick. Breathless moment later, and unable to answer, Kent State’s players could only look at the final score of 44-37 and wish for more time on the clock.
Those precious minutes will finally come Saturday as Kent State welcomes NIU for a rematch.
NIU (4-0, 0-0) and Kent State (2-3, 1-1) kick off at 2:30 p.m. CT. The game can be seen on TWC Sportschannel/EPSN 3 (available locally on WTVO-DT2) and heard on WSCR 670 AM and WLBK 1360 AM/98.9 FM.
For undefeated NIU, ranked No. 23 in the nation by USA Today, the game at Dix Stadium caps a slate of four road games in its first five contests and comes on the heels of a 55-24 manhandling of Purdue.
Although Lynch and Coach Rod Carey are happy about the squad’s second triumph over a Big Ten team this season, they’re focused exclusively on the Golden Flashes.
“Obviously we started out 4-0, and that’s good, but none of those games really matter now,” Lynch says. “It’s all about going for that MAC Championship now and we’re 0-0. That’s how we’re approaching this week and how we’re going to start approaching the season.”
“They’ve played LSU and Penn State in the middle there, two really tough teams. They’re 1-1 in conference, a good win at Western Michigan, which is always a hard place to win. They’re a good football team,” Carey says.
“I know (Dri) Archer is back, and I know they’ve got some other guys that are back healthy, so they’re kind of getting whole, and it will be Homecoming for them. It will be a great challenge for us,” he adds.
“To us though, it’s not a rematch of anything last year or anything like that – two brand new teams in a new venue with a different part of the season upon us, so it’s going to be a tough game. Coach Haynes has them going in the right direction. They’re going to be on cloud nine for us and ready to roll.”
Ready or not, it’s a tall order.
With 11 straight road wins, the Huskies own the second-longest road winning streak in the country. NIU has won 25 of its last 27 games dating back to Oct. 1, 2011, and is 38-8 since the start of the 2010 season. NIU has won a nation-leading 17 straight conference games, including the last two MAC Championship games. The Huskies’ last loss to a MAC team came Oct. 1, 2011, at Central Michigan.
Meanwhile, the team is firing on all three phases.
NIU’s defense ranks second in the country in quarterback sacks (4.25 per game) and is sixth in turnover margin. During the Purdue game, the Huskies intercepted four passes, forced five turnovers and scored on a kickoff return and an interception return.
Offensively, the Huskies are 14th in rushing offense and 27th overall. Lynch was named MAC West Offensive Player of the Week for the third time this season and seventh time in his career after throwing for three TDs and 207 yards on 18-of-25 passing.
For its part, Kent State has welcomed Archer back after a few weeks off to nurse an ankle injury.
Called “one of the nation’s most explosive players” this week by College Football 24/7, Archer put up 73 yards on the ground and caught four tosses for 48 yards and a touchdown against Western Michigan. Last season, his 23 trips to the end zone inked his name in the Kent State record book.
“He’s fast, really fast. Probably the fastest guy I’ve seen on film. I think he might be a little faster than last year,” Carey says.
“He’s got good wiggle and good vision too and he’s a tough kid. (We need to) get him on the ground any which way we can. You got to because, with him, if you give him a second chance or give him a crease, it’s over before you take a breath. They do a great job with moving him around. You just have to play your defensive rules.”
Linebacker Michael Santacaterina said he and his teammates will respect Archer.
“The key to stopping him is just to contain him. You can’t let him get running free, and we need to put ourselves in good situations where we can cup the football if he has it and not give him too much space,” Santacaterina says.
“I think we have to be pointing him out the whole time. Every time he comes out we’re going to say, ‘No. 1, No. 1’ and wherever he is lined up, whether it’s in the backfield or in the slot, it’s all about the scheme and how we’re going to defend it.”