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2021 MAC Championship Game: Northern Illinois Huskies storylines

NIU is back in Detroit for the first time in three years, and for the eighth time since 2010.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 17 NIU at Buffalo Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Northern Illinois Huskies are back playing in their unofficial home away from home. After clinching the MAC West with a win against the Buffalo Bulls a few weeks ago, the Huskies secured their spot in the MAC Championship Game and another trip to Detroit.

However, they’ll face a dangerous Kent State team that has already handed NIU one of their two conference losses, and looking for their first MAC title since 1972. There is certainly no underestimating the emotional importance of KSU coming into this one.

A Familiar Site

Saturday’s game will be the ninth time that NIU has played at Ford Field since 2010, with eight MAC Championship Game appearances and one bowl game (2017 Quick Lane Bowl versus Duke) in that span, going 4-5 in Detroit over that span.

Since the MAC Championship Game’s inception back in 1997, no team has more appearances than NIU. This season will be the ninth time the Huskies have represented the MAC West, pulling further away from Toledo and Marshall, who are tied for second place in MAC title game appearances with six each.

NIU has been such a staple in Detroit since the title game moved to a neutral site, they have more wins in the title game than nine of the 12 member teams of the conferences have total appearances. And, if the Huskies win, it will be their fifth Conference Championship Game win, which would tie them with Marshall for most MACCG wins all-time.

NIU first made it to Detroit back in 2005, when they played the Akron Zips. Akron scored 21 fourth quarter points, including a 36-yard touchdown pass with 17 seconds remaining, to upset Garrett Wolfe and the Huskies by a final margin of 31-30.

From there, it would be five years until NIU made it back to Ford Field. And, once again they would lose the MACCG in dramatic fashion. In the 2010 game against Miami, the RedHawks would convert on 4th-and-20 when a batted pass that fell perfectly into a different, unintended Miami receiver’s hands and go for 31-yards. Then, with just 33 seconds left, the RedHawks scored the game winning TD on a 38-yard pass to upset the #25 Huskies, 26-20.

That 2010 game was the first of six straight MAC West titles for NIU. In 2011, the Huskies found themselves down to Ohio 20-0 at the half. However, Chandler Harnish and company manufactured a comeback and the Huskies kicked a game winning field goal as time expired to win 23-20.

The 2012 game featured this same match up - Kent State vs NIU. With both teams 11-1 and ranked in highly in the BCS, the winner would have a chance at a BCS Bowl. Jordan Lynch and the Huskies survived in double overtime, upsetting the #17 Flashes 44-37.

From 2013 to 2015, the Huskies played three straight MAC Championship Games against the Bowling Green Falcons. All three games were blowouts. Bowling Green took down the Huskies 47-27 in 2013. NIU got revenge in 2014, winning 51-17. The 34-point win is still the largest win in MACCG history. Then, in 2015, BG reclaimed the top spot when they beat NIU 34-14.

In 2017, NIU made it to Detroit to take on the Duke Blue Devils in the Quick Lane Bowl. The Blue Devils had no problem with Rod Carey’s Huskies and won 36-14.

Finally, the last time the Huskies were in Detroit was back in 2018 when they played the Buffalo Bulls. Buffalo jumped out to a 29-10 lead midway through the third quarter but quarterback Marcus Childers and defensive end Sutton Smith caught fire late. The duo led NIU to 20 unanswered points in the final 15:17 of the game and a 30-29 win over the ranked 10-2 Bulls.

The Rematch is On!

When the Huskies and Flashes meet in Detroit, it will be a rematch of a game played on November 3rd, just over a month prior to kickoff for Saturday’s game. It will be the first time the MAC Championship Game features a rematch of a regular season game since 2017.

In the game a few weeks ago, Kent State used a 31-point second quarter and held off a late Huskie comeback attempt en route to a 52-47 win over NIU.

However, NIU was able to set a few school and conference records in the process. While the Huskies are primarily a running team, ranking in the top-10 in the NCAA in yards per game, Kent was able to hold Northern to a season low of just 131 yards. So, instead, NIU turned to quarterback Rocky Lombardi and wide receiver Trayvon Rudolph.

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

Lombardi threw for a school record 532 yards and had three touchdowns and Rudolph was the recipient of most of his passes, catching 14 balls for, a MAC-record (and school record) 309 receiving yards and a trio of touchdowns.

Upset Alert!

The Huskies are once again underdogs in a game this season. However, the Huskies have thrived in that roll all season long.

NIU was a 19-point underdog to Georgia Tech in the season opener— and won 22-21.

The Huskies were underdogs massive underdogs against Toledo (+13). They controlled the whole game and, despite the Rockets keeping it close on big plays, won 22-20.

Central Michigan was favored over NIU (+6) but the Huskies erased an 18-point deficit and used their backup, true freshman kicker en route to a 39-38 win.

Ball State was expected to retain the Bronze Stalk but NIU (+3) had other plans, erasing Cardinal leads of 10-points and 9-points and went on to win 30-29.

Oh, and being the underdog in the MACCG has generally bode well for teams the past three seasons:

  • 2020: Buffalo favored by 12.5, Ball State won 38-28
  • 2019: CMU favored by 6.5, Miami won 26-21
  • 2018: Buffalo favored by 3, NIU won 30-29

Statistics to Watch

  • NIU can make history by becoming the first school to ever go winless one season (0-6 in 2020) and then win the conference title game the very next year. Miami and CMU have gone from 1-win to MACCG appearances but no FBS school has ever gone from no wins to conference champs in back-to-back seasons.
  • The Huskies love close games. Nine of their 12 games have been within one score, with NIU holding a 7-2 record in those games this season. They are truly the Heart Attack Huskies.
  • Northern Illinois is the only FBS school to have four running backs reach 300+ rushing yards, as Jay Ducker, Clint Ratkovich, Antario Brown, and Harrison Waylee have all hit the mark. They’re also one of four schools to have five players with 300 yards on the ground, as quarterback Rocky Lombardi has rushed for 390 yards this season as well.
  • Rocky Lombardi is the first Huskie to throw for over 2,300 yards in a season since 2014, when Drew Hare passed for 2,322 yards. Lombardi currently sits at 2,314 yards with 13 touchdowns, seven interceptions, and has a rating of 134.3, a career high dating back to Michigan State. The 2,314 passing yards is already ninth-most in a single season in school history. If Lombardi passes for 233 yards (getting to 2,545 yards on the season), he will have the fifth-best passing season in NIU history.
  • Jay Ducker is 108 yards away from becoming the 40th Huskie to ever reach 1,000 rushing yards. He sits at 892 yards and has two games to get there. It would be the first thousand-yard rusher at NIU since Tre Harbison did it in back-to-back years in 2018 and 2019.

The 2021 MAC Championship Game is slated to kick off at Ford Field in Detroit at 12 p.m. Eastern time, and will be broadcast on ESPN.