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NCAA Football: MAC Championship-Kent State vs Northern Illinois Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

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NIU defeats Kent State 41-23, claims 2021 MAC Football Championship

NIU leans on the running game to prosper in a game which was never much in doubt over Kent State, completing the winless-to-champion cycle on Saturday afternoon.

In what can only be described as a dominant performance to defy all expectations, the Northern Illinois Huskies (9-4, 7-2 MAC) completed their climb up the ladder from the winless basement to conference title glory on Saturday afternoon in Detroit, Michigan, taking down the Kent State Golden Flashes (7-6, 5-4 MAC) by a final score of 41-23 to claim their fifth MAC title in the last 11 seasons.

It was a foundational win for coach Thomas Hammock and his staff in their third year together, as they led a roster with over which had 15 players who started as walk-ons and played 18 true freshman throughout the season pulling out nine victories despite being chosen to finish last in the West division by a wide margin in the preseason polls.

The win secured NIU’s sixth MAC championship overall, and their fifth in 11 seasons, while Hammock became the fifth NIU coach in a row to win the division and appear in the MAC title game, following Joe Novak, Jerry Kill, Dave Doeren and Rod Carey. Hammock, in his third season at the helm, signed a mid-season extension to stay on at NIU until the 2026-27 academic season.

For Kent State, a MAC title continues to elude them, as they continue to hold the MAC’s second-longest streak between championships, having not accomplished the feat since 1972.

NIU set to establish the run and dominate from the onset of play, taking the opening possession 41 yards over 10 plays and 5:10 of game time to set up John Richardson to kick a 37-yard field goal, converting a short fourth-and-three conversion from around the KSU 40-yard line to keep the drive alive early.

Kent State, meanwhile, seemed to rely on trying to get the deep play early, something which had worked to great success in their prior game back in November. On the first play from scrimmage, Dustin Crum uncorked a pass down the near sideline towards a streaking Dante Cephas for what would likely have been a 75-yard touchdown had Cephas not tripped up en route. Kent State went right back to the pass game seeing a matchup they liked, with Ja’Shaun Poke nabbing a slant ball on the run-pass option look for a 75-yard score— but it was called back due to an ineligible man downfield, negating the score. The drive would eventually stall out on their own 47-yard line after Crum took a sack on third-and-12, forcing the punt.

It proved to be a very important stop early on, as NIU would take the ball and this time, came out firing after a handful of runs up the middle, with a third-and-two toss to Cole Tucker for 23 yards followed up with an incompletion, a four-yard run by Jay Ducker, and an incompletion on third-and-six. But Elvis Hines Jr. was called for a pass interference penalty to extend the drive, giving NIU new life. They’d cash in the score with four straight runs after another incomplete pass, as Clint Ratkovich took the jet sweep for the two-yard touchdown run to put NIU up 10-0.

On the ensuing drive, Kent State once again tried to kick up the big play machine, with a Dustin Crum scramble earning them 11 yards and a first down. It was for naught though, as Crum badly underthrew his intended receiver Nykeim Johnoon, who was well behind the coverage and gunning towards the endzone, and NIU “rover” Dillon Thomas was able to pinpoint the ball and haul in the interception to give NIU the ball right back with a double-digit lead.

NIU would take possession at their own 24-yard line and take the game by the throat over the next 7:52 of game time, running on 13 of 15 plays over 81 yards on the scoring drive, with Rocky Lombardi ending it with aplomb on a one-yard sneak touchdown run to push the margin to 17-0 with 8:33 remaining in the first half.

Looking for answers, Kent State went to the run option look, finding some initial success on a 24-yard run and a 15-yard run by Xavier Williams, getting to as far as the NIU 24-yard line before NIU stopped Williams for a three-yard loss on second down and got to Dustin Crum for a five-yard sack on third down to stall the drive.

Down 17 in the first half, Sean Lewis opted to go for the conversion on fourth-and-13 from the NIU 32, but Dustin Crum failed to connect with a wide-open Nykeim Johnson once again in the redzone, this time on an overthrow, to give NIU the ball in advantageous position once again.

NIU, as they had all game, milked the clock en route to the Kent State redzone, converting on fourth-and-one at the KSU 35-yard line thanks to a Rocky Lombardi run to get another chance to score a touchdown instead of kicking the field goal. They would draw a pass interference penalty on an attempted pass to the near sideline on defensive back Nico Bolden to get the ball at the KSU 18-yard line, Sensing a potential advantage, NIU opted to keep passing, but found the very same Nico Bolden two plays later on a stared-down route. The play all but ended the half, as Kent State couldn’t get in points range on the next possession, going into the locker room down 17-0.

The Flashes retained possession to start the second half, managing to set themselves up for first-and-10 at the NIU 26-yard line, but an incomplete pass, a false start penalty and a sack on consecutive plays turned it into third-and-16. Crum salvaged eight yards on a scramble run to set up the Andrew Glass field goal from 41 yards out to get KSU on the scoreboard, down 17-3.

NIU came out running once again on their first possession of the second half, but looked fairly shaky in the process, with a five-yard run initially stopped on third-and-nine was helped by the offensive line pushing the pile to get across midfield (which then had to be reviewed for a potential fumble recovery by Kent State), NIU getting tagged for holding on the next play, and then drawing a fairly unlucky unsportsmanlike conduct (on another potential fumble recovery by Kent State blown dead) on back-to-back plays to force NIU into second-and-35 deep in their own territory, eventually forcing them to punt.

All the grief of the previous drive, however, was quickly forgotten, as NIU’s CJ Brown read Dustin Crum’s eyes on a quick pass along the far sideline on the first play from scrimmage and picked up the underthrown ball for a pick-six from 25 yards out to get the NIU defense in on the scoring party, putting the Huskies up 24-3.

Kent State took the field once again on offense, now needing to score quickly, getting down the field in chunks with a 16-yard pass to Ja’Shaun Poke and two 10+-yard runs by Dustin Crum before drawing a defensive pass interference penalty on a shot towards the endzone to set up inside the NIU 15-yard line. NIU’s defense bowed up initially, getting a six-yard tackle-for-loss against Marquez Cooper, but were taken by surprise on a third-and-12 middle screen play, as Nykeim Johnson scored on a 17-yard touchdown untouched to get Kent State within two scores at 24-10.

NIU, still reeling from the previous offensive drive, came out slow once again, as Kent State keyed in on the run to prevent big gains and managed to draw a holding penalty to force third-and-15 from the NIU 15-yard line.

Once again, however, the Huskies found a way out of the mess they created, with Rocky Lombardi rolling right to evade pressure and making an off-platform throw on the run which fell neatly right into the hands of Trayvon Rudolph 32 yards downfield, who got both feet in-bounds and maintained possession despite close coverage along the sideline to gift a new set of downs to NIU. On the next play, Jay Ducker broke out for a 24-yard run— and 13 additional yards on a late hit by Nico Bolden at the end of the play— to give NIU the ball at the KSU 12-yard line.

Rocky Lombardi would see paydirt for the second time on a fake halfback handoff delay run, taking the ball five yards for the score to put NIU up 31-10 on the Golden Flashes.

From there, it was fairly elementary, as NIU forced a turnover-on-downs on fourth-and-eight from the KSU 29 and scored yet another touchdown on the same play as the previous drive to give Lombardi three scores on the day to push the margin up to 38-10. Special Teams Player of the Game John Richardson would pick up a short field goal to get NIU up to 41 points, and Kent State’s backup QB Collin Schlee would score two late touchdowns, including a seven-yard touchdown toss to Luke Floreia as time expired, to put the final tally at 41-23.

Rocky Lombardi finished 7-of-15 for 102 yards and an interception on the ground, but made most of his impact via the run game, scoring three short-yardage touchdowns to contribute to the box score. Offensive Player of the Game Jay Ducker led all halfbacks with 29 carries for 146 yards, while fellow backs Antario Brown (14 carries, 75 yards) and Clint Ratkovic (nine carries, 25 yards, one touchdown) also contributed.

Trayvon Rudolph gathered most of his 50 yards on the 32-yard catch which bailed NIU out on third-and-15, while Cole Tucker had two catches for 30 yards, one of which converted a fourth-down play.

CJ Brown collected Defensive Player of the Game honors, with 10 tackles, a tackle-for-loss, a sack, and a 25-yard pick-six to set up as the leading defensive performer for the Huskies. Jaden Dolphin tied for the team lead with 10 tackles, while also picking up two tackles-for-loss. The Huskies picked up four sacks on the day, with six players registering at least a half-sack, including Brown, Dolphin, Lance Deveaux and Nick Rattin. Dillon Thomas also had an interception for the Huskies in the first half.

Kent State’s normally efficient offense, which came into the contest ranked eighth in the NCAA, was stymied on Saturday, with Dustin Crum limited to 11-of-21 for 121 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in the air. Backup QB Collin Schlee went 5-of-5 for 68 yards and a touchdown on mop-up duty late.

Xavier Williams led the rushing effort with 93 yards on eight carries, while Crum had 68 yards on 15 carries. The normally dependable Marquez Cooper was keyed in on early, finishing with five yards on six carries. Schlee also had a rushing touchdown in a two-QB formation for Kent State, their only rushing score of the day. Dante Cephas led all receivers with 102 yards on seven receptions, with Keshunn Abrams the only other receiver to gain more than two receptions. Luke Floriea and Nykeim Johnson scored touchdowns on their lone receptions.

It was a busy day at the office for the Flashes defense, as four players finished in the double-digits in tackles, including AJ Musolino (15), Dean Clark (12), Zayin West (11) and Nico Bolden (11.) Matt Harmon collected the lone pass break-up, while Bolden collected the lone interception for the Flashes. Marvin Pierre picked up the lone tackle-for-loss, while West assisted on two tackles-for-loss and Pierre and Saivon Taylor-Davis racked up an assist.

Both teams now await their postseason bowl bids, having clinched bowl games during the regular season.

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