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2021 MAC Championship Game: Kent State Golden Flashes storylines

Kent State seeks its first MAC title since 1972. In order to achieve that, the Golden Flashes must beat a familiar opponent for the second time in 2021.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 03 NIU at Kent State Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Kent State Golden Flashes are MAC Championship bound. After posting a 7-5 record and winning six out of eight conference games, Kent State is back to Detroit for the first time in nine seasons. Standing in the way of the Golden Flashes’ first conference championship since 1972 is Northern Illinois, which finished 6-2 in conference play en route to an 8-4 overall record.

It’s been a long time since Kent State bore the crown of the conference — even head coach Sean Lewis was born over 13 years after the Golden Flashes’ most recent 1972 title. With the 48-year championship drought serving as the headliner, below are several storylines to watch in Saturday’s MAC Championship Game which is broadcast on ESPN at 12 pm ET.

Feels like ‘72

Jack Lambert won Super Bowls IX, X, XIII, and XIV as an integral member of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty. In 1990, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His entire legendary NFL career, his Hall of Fame speech, and the ensuing 31 years have all occurred in the time since Kent State won its only MAC championship.

In 1972, the Golden Flashes were led by Lambert, who was showered with MAC Defensive Player of the Year honors that season. One member of the defense who shared the field with the Hall of Famer is another name associated with winning championships — Nick Saban. Long before he was guiding Alabama to regular National Championship visits, Saban was contributing to a Golden Flashes defense which limited opponents to 16.3 points per game.

Kent State University Golden Flashes
Jack Lambert’s No. 99 is retired by Kent State. The Hall of Fame inside linebacker led the Golden Flashes to their only MAC championship in 1972.
Photo by Kent State/Collegiate Images via Getty Images

The 1972 Kent State team finished 6-5-1, but the Golden Flashes were declared MAC champions after defeating Ohio, Bowling Green, Miami (OH), and Toledo, while dropping just one conference game to Western Michigan. Despite winning the MAC championship, Kent State could not complete its season with a postseason victory and fell 21-18 to the Tampa Spartans in the Tangerine Bowl. Tampa dropped its football program two seasons later.

The first bowl victory in program history was finally checked off in 2019. Now, Sean Lewis’ next objective as head coach is to bring the first MAC title back to Kent in 49 years. This will be Kent State’s second appearance in Detroit since the dawn of the MAC Championship Game in 1997. The Golden Flashes also played in the conference title game in 2012, and the opponent was none other than Northern Illinois — in the highest-stakes MAC Championship Game to date.

One specific rule rewarded the highest ranked non-AQ (automatic qualifying) team in the top 16 of the BCS standings an automatic bid to a BCS bowl. Thus, a feasible Orange Bowl berth was on the line for No. 17 Kent State and No. 21 Northern Illinois alike. However, the Golden Flashes couldn’t make history. Northern Illinois prevailed 44-37 in double overtime fashion and sunk Kent State’s hopes of snapping its 40-year MAC title drought.

That drought still prolongs, and with a victory Saturday, Kent State can finally put a clamp on it and clinch three consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1972-74.

Riveting rematch

Of the 10 conference championship games this weekend, the MAC is one of five to feature a rematch. Kent State and Northern Illinois met in midweek MACtion earlier in November, and the Golden Flashes emerged victorious in a 52-47 shootout.

Round one of the matchup delivered an offensive masterpiece. Kent State rushed for 360 yards and passed for 360, while Northern Illinois obtained 131 rushing yards and a school-record 532 passing yards. Huskies quarterback Rocky Lombardi was the architect behind the best passing performance in program history, and wide receiver Trayvon Rudolph also shattered a school-record with 309 receiving yards. Meanwhile, Kent State saw an offensive explosion on the ground, where Xavier Williams crossed the century mark, as did Marquez Cooper — who racked up a season-high 173 yards in the win.

First Team All-MAC quarterback Dustin Crum accounted for 322 passing yards, 72 rushing yards, and four total touchdowns in the November win over NIU.
Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After a scoreless first quarter, Kent State picked up its slack offensively and exploded for 31 second quarter points. The Golden Flashes were able to score in an instant all night, finishing with eight scoring drives that all consumed under two minutes of clock. Kent State remained free of a turnover throughout the contest and Northern Illinois’ lone red zone fumble in the first quarter proved costly in a game decided by five points.

For the first time since 2017, the MAC Championship Game will showcase a rematch of a regular season game. In conference championship rematches from 2017-20, teams that won the first matchup went 13-7 with its league title on the line. The last MAC team to win the first meeting and lose the rematch was Miami (OH) in 2004, which won in November but fell to Toledo at Ford Field. Thus, recent history is on the side of Kent State in Detroit this Saturday.

Avoiding the upset

No conference championship game produces upsets on a regular basis more than the MAC. Ford Field has cultivated a slew of underdog stories in recent years, and the betting favorite has lost three consecutive MAC Championship Games.

  • 2020 Buffalo was a 12.5-point favorite over Ball State and lost, 38-28
  • 2019 Central Michigan was a 6.5-point favorite over Miami (OH) and lost, 26-21
  • 2018 Buffalo was a 3-point favorite over Northern Illinois and lost, 30-29

Kent State is currently favored by 3.5 points over Northern Illinois in neutral site action. That is the same spread utilized for the Golden Flashes’ 52-47 regular season win over the Huskies at Dix Stadium. Kent State has excelled as the Vegas favorite in 2021, posting a 5-0 record against FBS competition in such games.

Statistics to watch

  • Dustin Crum is already Kent State’s single-season leading passer with 2,794 yards this season. If he attains 206 yards this Saturday, Crum becomes the first 3,000-yard passer in Kent State history.
  • Dante Cephas posted the third 1,000-yard receiving season in Kent State history. While it would involve setting a new career-high, Cephas is 193 yards away from tying Eugene Baker’s 1996 season for the second most prolific wide receiver campaign in the program’s record books.
  • Kent State is 7-1 this season when Marquez Cooper rushes for a touchdown. The Golden Flashes are 0-4 in games when he does not reach the end zone.
  • Kent State is 5-0 in games decided by 10 or fewer points in 2021. The Golden Flashes’ five losses all occurred by 21 points or greater.
  • Kent State ranks second in the FBS in turnover margin at a +15. With a +2 against Northern Illinois, the Golden Flashes can pass No. 1 ranked Nevada, which sits at a +16. Four of the top five teams in turnover margin (Kent State, Iowa, Houston, and Louisiana) are all playing in their conference championship games.
  • Ten players are currently tied atop the FBS with five interceptions this season. Kent State cornerback Montre Miller can join this exclusive club with one more interception this Saturday and become the nation’s overall leader with two picks.
  • Kent State has the opportunity to win consecutive games over Northern Illinois for the first time since winning the first four meetings in series history (1949, 1950, 1966, 1967). Prior to this November, the Huskies rode a 10-game winning streak over the Golden Flashes. The all-time series leans in favor of NIU, 21-8.

The 2021 MAC Championship Game is slated to kick off at Ford Field in Detroit at 12 pm ET and will be broadcast on ESPN.