This Black Friday, the Northern Illinois Huskies and Kent State Golden Flashes will be shopping for a final victory in the 2016 season.
Four years ago, the two opponents squared off in the MAC Championship Game. This matchup was actually the last time two ranked opponents (No. 19 Northern Illinois vs. No. 18 Kent State, AP poll) faced each other in the conference, with the Huskies victorious 44-37.
However, with changing times come changing records. The six-time defending MAC West champion Huskies enter the game at 4-7, ending their successful run in the conference. Unlike Kent State (3-8), bowl hopes remain possible, but slim for Northern Illinois.
Last year, three 5-7 teams entered bowl season: Nebraska, Minnesota, and San Jose State. Once all 6-6 slots are filled in postseason games, the 5-7 teams with the highest Academic Progress Rate (APR) will be selected.
Out of all potential 5-7 teams, Northern Illinois has the 14th-highest APR. Some of these teams will go 6-6, but programs such as Vanderbilt, UCLA, and North Texas would all get the nod over the Huskies. However, Northern Illinois can sneak in only with a victory in Kent, OH on Friday.
The Huskies roared back from a 21-0 halftime deficit in The Factory last Wednesday night to defeat Eastern Michigan 31-24 in overtime. The injury bug bit Northern Illinois once again, losing quarterback Ryan Graham in the process. Without Drew Hare, Anthony Maddie, and potentially Graham, redshirt freshman Daniel Santacaterina looks to make his first career start. He is not the first in his family to start for the Huskies — his brother Michael started at outside linebacker for the 2014 MAC Championship team.
In his first college game, the quarterback shined on the ground but struggled through the air. His 91 rushing yards helped complete the comeback over the Eagles, but he only completed 5-of-15 passes in the process. With college experience under his belt and an additional long week of practice, Santacaterina could improve upon these aspects as a starting quarterback.
The Huskies are making additional changes to the running game, playing junior Jordan Huff in favor of the injured senior Joel Bouagnon at running back. Huff had a career-day in Ypsilanti, rushing for a career-high 173 yards and three touchdowns.
One week after challenging Western Michigan, Kent State’s offense was absent in a 42-7 loss to Bowling Green. The Golden Flashes, who have played three ranked (and two undefeated) teams, suffered their second-greatest defeat of the season to the 3-8 Falcons.
The Golden Flashes amassed 254 total yards of offense, less than half the output of Bowling Green. Worst of all, Kent State obtained nine total rushing yards in the blowout. The defense didn’t help the cause either, yielding 420 rushing yards to the Falcons.
It was an uncharacteristic performance by the defense, a unit that actually ranks 44th in the nation in fewest yards per game allowed.
Offensively, Kent State struggles when limiting Nick Holley’s running game. The junior quarterback prefers to keep the ball on the ground, but was held to four rushing yards last week.
His playing style is very similar to that of Santacaterina as a run-first quarterback. Likewise, Holley has been less-than-accurate in recent weeks, completing fewer than 50 percent of passes in three of four games. He has only thrown for over 100 yards in three of six games, focusing more on option plays in Kent State’s mixed offensive scheme.
A great portion of the Northern Illinois defense has suffered injuries this season, especially in recent weeks. Star cornerback and former All-American Shawun Lurry left Wednesday’s game late with an ankle injury, joining outside linebacker Sean Folliard in the Huskies’ long list of injuries.
Defensive end Josh Corcoran missed last game and outside linebacker Bobby Jones IV has missed four-straight games, completely altering Northern Illinois’ defensive lineup in 2016.
But if the defense can sustain its play from the second half of the Eastern Michigan game, the Huskies should be able to pull off the win in Kent. With a win, Northern Illinois would claim four of five games to improve upon a nightmare 1-6 start.
For Kent State, defense is also the key. The Huskies will likely keep the ball on the ground as well, so keying Santacaterina and Huff could suppress Rod Carey’s offense.
Both teams may also need to expand upon passing games if the running option does not work out. Northern Illinois has the advantage here, with the best receiver on the field. Senior Kenny Golladay ranks third in the MAC in receiving yards and owns eight touchdowns this season. While the offense will not be centered on him, he could make the impact that separates Northern Illinois from Kent State.
Kickoff is scheduled for noon EST on Friday. The game is viewable on CBS Sports Network, one of three college football games in the time slot. Oddsmakers have Northern Illinois favored by five points on the road in the final regular season game of the year for both teams.