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2021 MAC Championship Game Preview: NIU Huskies vs Kent State Golden Flashes

These two teams just met a month ago and played in a they’re battling again for the title of MAC Champions.

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

The Northern Illinois Huskies and Kent State Golden Flashes met just 30 days ago on November 3rd.

The thrilling contest saw both school tear it up offensively, as the game ended with over 1300 total yards, nearly 100 points, and featured both school and conference records getting broken along the way. When all was said and done, the game ended with a narrow 52-47 Kent State victory.

Now NIU (8-4, 6-2 MAC) will meet up with Kent State (7-5, 6-2 MAC) once again but this time with much more on the line...this time they’re fighting for title of MAC Champions.

Game Info

When: Saturday, December 4th at 12 p.m. (11 a.m. CST)
Where: Ford Field — Detroit, MI
Watch: ESPN
Weather: Perfect weather inside the dome, 35 and sunny outside
Odds: Kent State is favored by 3.5 points and has a 50.2% chance of winning according to ESPN’s FPI

The Golden Flashes

Kent State has one of the most prolific offenses in the FBS this season, netting 488.3 yards per game - eighth best in the NCAA. And they do it with a very balanced attack. The Flash offense averages 241.0 yard passing and 247.3 yards rushing per game (third most in the nation) en route to 33.4 points per game.

Quarterback Dustin Crum, who just won the Vern Smith Leadership Award (MAC’s MVP award), can hurt teams with his arm as well as his legs. He has completed a stellar 65% of his throws and now has 2,794 yards, 15 touchdowns, to just four interceptions. He has been sacked 29 times but has still managed to run for 565 yards (third most on KSU) and eleven touchdowns (t-first on the team).

Crum has a trio of talented receivers - Dante Cephas, Nykeim Johnson, and Keshunn Abram - that have big play ability. Cephas is one of three MAC receivers to reach 1,000 yads on the season and, as Crum’s go-to wide out, has caught 71 passes for 1,022 yards, and eight touchdowns. Johnson has 47 catches for 508 yards and a pair of scores while Abram’s 42 receptions have gone for 621 yards and three TDs.

On the ground, Marquez Cooper gets the bulk of the carries but chances are NIU will also see Xavier Williams get a few touches as well. Cooper leads the team, and is third in the MAC, with 1,075 rushing yards and has scored eleven times. Williams nets over six yards per carry and has 719 yards and three TDs on his 117 carries.

For as good as the offense has been, the Kent defense has given up just as many yards/points but found ways to get stops when needed most.

Opponents are averaging 34.6 points and 475.3 yards per game, with most of those yardage coming via the pass as KSU’s secondary is giving up 291.3 passing yards to just 184.1 rushing yards per game.

However, while the Flashes are allowing teams to move the ball, the defense has been stellar at forcing turnovers. They have 15 interceptions on the season, which is tied for sixth best in the NCAA, and have forced 11 and recovered nine fumbles. Their 24 total turnovers is ninth best in the FBS and their turnover margin of +15 is second best in the NCAA.

The secondary is led by cornerback Elvis Hines. Hines is fifth on the team in tackles, with 57, but has a team-leading ten pass break ups, three interceptions, 1.5 TFL, and a forced fumble.

Linebacker A.J. Musolino has been all over the field. He’s third on the team in tackles, with 71 stops, and leads the team with 10.5 TFLs. In addition to that he has added three sacks, an interception, a fumble recovery, and a QB hurry.

The Huskies

After years of mediocre offenses under Rod Carey, the Huskies have finally found their stride. NIU is averaging 426.7 yards per game (195.0 passing and 231.7 rushing) and scoring 30.8 points per game. The 231.7 rushing yards per game is fifth best in the NCAA and they are one of four schools to have five different players reach 300+ rushing yards.

The Huskies use a variety of halfbacks but Jay Ducker has been getting most of the carries as of late. Ducker now leads the team with 892 rushing yards and has added three scores as well. Senior fullback Clint Ratkovich will also see time. The big man now has 424 yards on 89 carries for a team-leading eleven touchdowns...including a massive 96-yard run last week against WMU. Antario Brown will also likely get a few carries. Brown has 358 yards and four TDs on his 55 rushes. And finally, quarterback Rocky Lombardi isn’t afraid to run it either. He has 389 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.

Lombardi mostly uses his arm though and became the first Huskie quarterback to throw for 2,300 yards since 2014. He has amassed 2,314 yards and 13 TDs while completing 58.6% of his passes. He has thrown seven interceptions (three of which came in a single game) but has been able to avoid the rush pretty well this season, only being sacked eight times.

After wide receiver Tyrice Richie got injured in the last game against Kent State, Lombardi turned to freshman Trayvon Rudolph. Rudolph put on a show a month ago, breaking the single game MAC record (and NIU record) for receiving yards in a game when he hauled in 309 against KSU. On the season he has 46 catches for 827 yards and seven touchdowns. Cole Tucker will be the other main option for Lombardi. Tucker has now snagged 33 passes for 458 yards and a pair of TDs.

Defensively the Huskies are a lot like Kent State - they will give up yards and points early on but make stops when needed. The Huskies are giving up 33.5 points and 452.5 yards (235.1 passing and 217.4 rushing) per game.

Safety C.J. Brown leads the team in tackles and sits just six stops away from triple digits (96 total tackles). He also has 2.5 TFL and a QB hurry. Fellow defensive back, Jordan Gandy has also been good for NIU. He has 45 tackles, ten pass break ups (team high), 3.5 TFL, and recovered a pair of fumbles.

NIU hasn’t been able to get much pressure in the backfield, finishing the regular season with just 14 sacks and 50 TFLs, so their men in the middle have to step up. And the Huskies have a trio of linebackers that do just that - Lance Deveaux Jr., Nick Rattin, and Dillon Thomas. The three sit at 2-3-4 in total tackles (with 64, 59, and 59 respectively) and have nearly have identical TFL numbers (6, 5, 5.5 respectively). Rattin leads the team in QB hurries, with six, and also has a PBU and forced fumble. Thomas is second on the team in sacks, with three, but has four QB hurries and three pass break ups as well.

This is sure to be another tight battle between two teams that mirror each other nicely. The offenses can move the ball and the defenses struggle to get stops but step up when required.

Kent State’s defense is better at forcing turnovers than the Huskies but NIU has continued to be one of the nation’s leaders in ball control and time of possession (ranked 11th in the NCAA in T.O.P.).

Kent State hasn’t won a MAC title since 1972 and will be looking to erase the memory of the 2OT loss to NIU in the 2012 MACCG that sent NIU to the Orange Bowl.

NIU wants revenge from the loss a few weeks ago and will be looking to make history; becoming the first team to go winless one season and then win the conference championship game the very next year.

This will be another dog fight between the two and likely come down to who has the ball last. Just the way #MACtion should be.