- Time and date: Saturday, November 25 at 12:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN+
- Location: Dix Stadium — Kent, OH
- Spread: Northern Illinois (-19.5)
- Over/under: 43.5
- All-time series: Miami (OH) leads, 16-9
- Last meeting: Northern Illinois 41, Kent State 23 — December 4, 2021 (MAC Championship Game)
- Current streak: Northern Illinois, 1 (2021)
Setting the scene
Northern Illinois and Kent State last crossed paths in December 2021 to decide the MAC Championship Game in Detroit. The underdog Huskies claimed the crown of the conference that day with a decisive 41-23 victory over the favored Golden Flashes — claiming their fifth MAC title since 2010.
This is the first meeting since that fateful Saturday afternoon and the programs are both in different places two years later. Northern Illinois (5-6, 4-3 MAC) can clinch bowl eligibility for the second time in the five years of the Thomas Hammock era with a victory, while Kent State (1-10, 0-7 MAC) seeks its first FBS win under first-year head coach Kenni Burns.
Northern Illinois Huskies outlook
Northern Illinois was thrust into a do-or-die situation last week against Western Michigan where the loser was automatically disqualified from bowl eligibility. Not only did the Huskies survive — they recorded a shutout against a Bronco team which had been playing its best football. It was Northern Illinois’ first shutout since 2019 and stands as one of just 21 FBS shutouts on the season.
The Huskies’ 2023 season has been filled with ups and downs, but the defense has been one reliable factor throughout it all. Northern Illinois only surrendered more than 23 points in regulation in three contests this year and its scoring defense ranks 34th nationally at 20.6 points per game.
Teams have been unable to establish an aerial attack on the Huskies, picking up 156.5 yards on average on a 57 percent completion rate — the fourth-lowest allotment in the FBS, only trailing Ohio State, Michigan, and Notre Dame. Strong safety Nate Valcarcel has been one of the engines behind this passing game success as the premier ballhawk in the secondary. The breakout junior exhibits a team-high three interceptions on the year to go along with 39 tackles. Another standout in the secondary is Devin Lafayette, who operates in the versatile “husky” position. A mix between linebacker and safety, he is one of the most consistent tacklers on this unit. With six takedowns Saturday, the longtime Huskie can shatter his career-high in the category and help NIU attain bowl eligibility.
While the passing defense was stellar against Western Michigan, it was primarily defensive tackle James Ester and the front seven stifling the Broncos from making a mark on the scoreboard. NIU registered four sacks and seven tackles for loss in that matchup, limiting Western Michigan to 24 rushing yards on 18 attempts.
The offense hasn’t displayed the same consistency, however. Despite winning three of the last five, Northern Illinois has only eclipsed 24 points once in that timeframe, and that game happened to be a 37-31 loss to Central Michigan. The lack of offensive production makes the Huskies susceptible to upsets at times, and that’s exactly what transpired in early November. Inopportune turnovers led to a disastrous defeat to Ball State, but the team demonstrated stronger ball security and avoided such critical errors against Western Michigan.
Rocky Lombardi remains the starting quarterback and the seventh-year senior hopes to extend his career by one more game with a bowl eligibility clinching win. Lombardi hasn’t been tasked with too much as a passer in recent weeks, but his rushing numbers have significantly ramped up in November. The longtime veteran is a physical football player unafraid of contact and the few veteran defenders on this Kent State team are aware of his capabilities in both the rushing and passing departments. In the 2021 MAC Championship Game, he rushed for three touchdowns on the Golden Flashes and in the 2021 regular season matchup, he posted 532 passing yards and three touchdowns at Dix Stadium.
Trayvon Rudolph was the main recipient of Lombardi’s during the programs’ last meeting in Kent, OH, totaling 309 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Two years later, Rudolph remains a preferred option of Lombardi in the passing attack with 26 receptions across the past four weeks. But NIU is expected to lean more heavily on the run game where Antario Brown has recorded 150-yard games this season.
Kent State Golden Flashes outlook
This is Kent State’s final chance. No, the Golden Flashes aren’t going bowling in this rebuilding season, but they remain the only FBS team without a win over another FBS program in 2023. Kent State came excruciatingly close against Akron, squandering a three-score lead in a heated rivalry game, and the team has searched for answers since in blowout losses to Bowling Green and Ball State.
Kent State was put in a difficult position from the get-go this year with a severe lack of experience and this 2023 season has been about experimentation on the gridiron and building a winning culture off of it for first-time head coach Kenni Burns and the staff. Last Saturday’s 34-3 defeat to Ball State seemed like a step backward for a program which showed some strides since September, and Saturday is the last opportunity to demonstrate tangible improvement.
The Golden Flashes are dead last in scoring offense at 13.5 points per game and second to last in total offense at 262 yards per game. Kent State checks into the bottom 20 nationally in both rushing and passing offense and the Golden Flashes can’t afford another offensive performance like last week against a formidable NIU defense. They obtained just 97 yards of offense on Ball State, obtaining 68 through the air and 29 on the ground while allowing five sacks. Kent State has tested many different starting lineups on the offensive line this year, hoping to find one that clicks and prevent the 3.6 sacks allowed per game from sustaining.
Another year-long experimentation for the Golden Flashes has been the quarterback position. Tommy Ulatowski earned the last three starts after Michael Alaimo took first team reps the majority of the season. Against Ball State, Burns and his offensive staff mixed things up by testing Devin Kargman in the lineup, and all three quarterbacks are a possibility to see playing time in Saturday’s finale.
Efficiency is one attribute Kent State seeks in this department as the team completes 52 percent of its passes. Losing No. 1 wide receiver Chrishon McCray to a season-ending injury earlier in the month certainly didn’t help bolster the already-struggling passing attack, but Luke Floriea and Trell Harris have stepped up at receiver in McCray’s absence.
The Golden Flashes are more adept defensively, fielding a unit which ranks 83rd in yards allowed per game in the FBS. Three of Kent State’s MAC opponents scored under 30 points this year, and there’s been enough promise to build upon on this side of the ball. Senior defense tackle CJ West is one of the few longtime starters celebrating senior day Saturday, and he’s the anchor of it all. The third-year starter has six tackles for loss and a pair of sacks on the year, tallying 18.5 and seven, respectively, during a prolific tenure.
Kent State is extremely thin at linebacker right now due injuries, to the point walk-on freshmen have seen in-game reps at the position. But the linebacking corps is receiving strong support from the secondary at the moment, headlined by free safety Bryce Sheppert. Sheppert has served as one of the major playmakers in recent weeks, totaling at least seven tackles in four-straight weeks while recording his first career interception two outings ago. Sheppert also doubles as a kick returner, and special teams is one of the more successful facets of Kent State’s game. Kicker Andrew Glass is the team’s leading scorer in 2023, sinking 13-of-15 field goals as a reliable source of points.
Northern Illinois needs one win to claim bowl eligibility, and the Huskies’ path to attaining that feat is certainly a favorable one. Kent State is the only team without an FBS win this year, and the Golden Flashes are fresh off a 34-3 thrashing against Ball State, stumbling to the finish in a difficult rebuilding season.
Kent State hopes to close out with a win, but the Golden Flashes are missing some of their best players like wide receiver Chrishon McCray and outside linebacker Devin Nicholson due to injury. Besides a slew of backups in the lineup, there are other uncertainties for Kent State such as the ever-rotating quarterback carousel and offensive line play.
Northern Illinois’ defense has been stout throughout the month of November and should capitalize on its considerable advantages when Kent State possesses the ball. NIU holds the upper hand in the trenches on both sides of the ball, and that should make things difficult for Kent State’s offense and also pave a pathway for Antario Brown for another dominant rushing performance. Northern Illinois will pound the rock, control time of possession, and win a low-scoring bout on the road to reach bowl eligibility.
Prediction: Northern Illinois 27, Kent State 10