Midweek MACtion took center stage of the college football world as the MAC East division leader and MAC West division leader faced off in a potential preview of December’s conference championship. The high-scoring battle lived up to its potential — and more.
The offensive record books were scorched in a 52-47 barnburner at Dix Stadium. Kent State (5-4, 4-1 MAC) emerged as the victor to hand Northern Illinois (6-3, 4-1 MAC) its first conference loss and snap the Huskies’ five-game win streak. Midweek games are no stranger to bizarre happenings and Wednesday night’s showdown provided plenty of dramatic fireworks between the top two teams in the conference.
“That’s MACtion. That’s football. You never know what’s gonna come. You can never plan anything,” Kent State running back Xavier Williams said. “All you gotta do is keep working, keep working, keep pushing, and follow the plan all the way.”
Quarterback Dustin Crum landed First Team All-MAC honors in 2020, and he proved on national television why he remains one of the conference’s elite playmakers. The senior rounded up his eighth consecutive game without an interception while firing for 322 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns through the air. On the ground, the dual threat quarterback was lethal in limited action. Crum fielded four rushes for 72 yards, fielding a handoff on a trick play for the Golden Flashes’ first touchdown and scampering 39 yards on a fake jet sweep for another score.
“We set up some things schematically to where he would run the ball a little bit more because this was a marquee game — we were committed to win this game so we pushed our chips in,” Kent State head coach Sean Lewis said. “We like to say that when we run our quarterback, we’re gonna run him for first downs or we’re gonna run him for touchdowns.”
Despite falling five points short in the shootout, Northern Illinois left the state of its Ohio with an offensive showcase for the ages. Quarterback Rocky Lombardi shattered a Huskies program record while passing for 532 yards, connecting for three touchdown throws Wednesday night.
“You figure if you’re throwing for 800 yards in two weeks, you’re doing something right,” Northern Illinois head coach Thomas Hammock said. “Rocky played phenomenal. He gave us a chance. We were down 18 and we came fighting back like we’ve down every other game and we can build off of that.”
Lombardi wasn’t the only name etched into the history books in the midweek thriller. His top wide receiver Trayvon Rudolph entered Wednesday night coming off a prosperous 160-yard performance against Central Michigan. Yet, Rudolph nearly doubled that mark in his stunning follow-up act. Amplifying his role due to the injury of Tyrice Richie, Rudolph captured 14 receptions for a program-record 309 yards and three touchdowns. He is the first FBS player to eclipse 300 receiving yards in a single game in 2021, and he nearly doubled his output from his first eight outings (330 yards) in one night.
“I’m a team player. I’m doing everything for the team. Just trying to get yards, help out the team in any way. With one man down, it’s always the next man up, but I’m just trying to help out the team, get the ‘W’ and keep it pushing,” Rudolph said. “It would have been great to come out with the win but I personally did what I had to do to help the team out. We just needed one more stop that we couldn’t get.”
The dynamics of Northern Illinois’ week-to-week offense can be puzzling. In a 34-26 win over Bowling Green in Week 7, Lombardi threw just eight passes for 38 yards while the Huskies elected to keep the ball grounded. All of a sudden, Northern Illinois flipped its style as Lombardi lit up the Kent State secondary with the MAC’s highest passing total of the season. But to make amends for allowing those absurd numbers, the Golden Flashes held the 10th ranked Huskie rushing attack to approximately 100 yards under its season average.
“We were committed to stopping the run,” Lewis said. “We believed that was the key to victory for us. They were averaging well over 200 yards coming into this thing and we held them to under 140 on 39 attempts, so we were forcing them to throw the football. They have talented players all over the yard and they showed that tonight.”
Two deep shots from Lombardi to Rudolph allowed Northern Illinois to jump to a quick 14-3 lead, yet the double-digit deficit could have been worse for the Golden Flashes. But Kent State ranks first in the country in turnover margin with a +15 and the lone takeaway of the night prevented another early Huskies score. Kent State strong safety Nico Bolden jarred the ball loose from Richie’s hands after a long reception positioned the Huskies in the red zone. Bolden recovered the fumble himself at his own 15-yard line to remove Northern Illinois from the doorstep of another end zone appearance.
“You gotta control the controllables and the ball is everything. It’s so important that they name the game after it — it’s football,” Lewis said. “You better go get it and you better protect it. Our defense knows it’s an emphasis for us and they play with relentless effort and relentless attitude to go get the ball out.”
Kent State responded to its scoreless opening quarter with a 31-point explosion in the second quarter to secure a 31-21 halftime lead. The near-perfect play of the offense in the frame allowed Kent State to attain its season-high 52 points against FBS competition. The Golden Flashes kept things relatively balanced in their high-tempo, RPO-based scheme by managing 360 yards on the ground and 322 through the air. Notable stalwarts in the rushing attack included Marquez Cooper and Xavier Williams, who produced 173 and 103 yards, respectively. In the receiving game, Dante Cephas delivered with 124 yards as one of three wideouts to surpass the 70-yard mark.
“We came out hot, got some stops, but they started scheming us up and they made adjustments and they executed those adjustments,” Northern Illinois inside linebacker Lance Deveaux Jr. said. “We knew they were a big RPO team and we were trying to stop the pass, but they gave us a lot more run than we were anticipating. That was probably a big adjustment for us.”
Tempo proved to be a major factor in Kent State’s offensive success. The unit lived up to its branding as the “FlashFAST” offense and attacked with emphatic speed. All eight scoring drives for the Golden Flashes were completed in less than two minutes of game time.
“To be honest, it’s just a repetition of practice,” Williams said of the tempo. “That’s what we’re doing every day, every time we get on the field in practice. It’s just being shown to the world now that everyone can see it who’s not at our practice.”
Crum connected downfield with Syracuse transfer Nykeim Johnson on a 36-yard pass from an RPO concept with 2:16 remaining in the third quarter. The touchdown handed Kent State a 45-27 advantage to signify its largest of the night. However, one week after erasing an 18-point deficit to win, Northern Illinois kept the same mentality in the midst of an intimidating deficit. The Huskies chipped in three rushing touchdowns in the fourth quarter to inch as close as five points. But Kent State’s typically quick offense deviated from its identity to preserve the victory. The Golden Flashes slowed their roll, grounded the ball, and hogged up the final 5:07 of clock to pry a chance of victory away from the Huskies.
“We were down and guys didn’t put their heads down,” Deveaux said. “Guys kept pushing and kept fighting, and that’s all we can do.”
After chaos in the form of 1,345 combined yards of offense and 99 points finally settled at Dix Stadium, both teams came to a realization. Kent State sits in first place in the MAC East, while Northern Illinois remains atop the MAC West despite the defeat. If both teams continue to handle business, Wednesday night’s meeting won’t be the last between the Huskies and Golden Flashes. A higher stakes visit in Detroit the first week of December could be in the works.
“We definitely want to see them again in the MAC Championship just to finish some unfinished business,” Rudolph said. “They did what they had to do today, and today they were just a better team.”
Meanwhile, Kent State will operate the rest of the season with a metaphorical target on its back after knocking off the conference’s top dog. As winners of four of their last five, the Golden Flashes fit the mold as the new frontrunner for their first conference title since 1972.
“Ain’t nothing like being at the top and everyone’s just chasing after you,” Williams said. “Never get too high, never get too low, just keep working no matter what happens.”