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Northern Illinois clinches bowl eligibility with 37-27 win over Kent State

NIU attains bowl eligibility for the second time in five years under head coach Thomas Hammock.

Northern Illinois v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Last time the Northern Illinois Huskies and Kent State Golden Flashes settled things on the gridiron, the right to a MAC championship was on the line.

It’s been two years since Northern Illinois and Kent State squared off on the conference’s grandest stage in Detroit, but even though the teams aren’t chasing MAC titles in 2023, plenty was at stake in Saturday’s regular season finale.

Northern Illinois entered one win away from bowl eligibility, while Kent State remained the only FBS team without a victory over another FBS opponent in 2023. But the Huskies accomplished their goal while sustaining the Golden Flashes’ streak of futility in an eventful 37-27 result.

The Huskies utilized a powerful run game to gain the upper hand over the Golden Flashes in the cross-divisional MAC contest. Northern Illinois out-gained its opponent on the ground, 243-113, roughly doubling the average yards per carry output produced by Kent State. The Huskies didn’t consult the air too much in the victory, but when they did, the passes traveled extraordinary distances. Seventh-year senior Rocky Lombardi amassed 183 passing yards on nine completions, and all but two his completions traveled at least 10 yards.

Kent State hadn’t been accustomed to operating with leads this year. Prior to Saturday’s finale, the only time the Golden Flashes led an FBS team by at least seven points was in the Wagon Wheel rivalry against Akron. But Kent State manufactured a 7-point halftime advantage thanks to a stellar second quarter. The Golden Flashes trailed 10-0 entering the frame but posted 17 unanswered before the break, thanks to a pair of touchdowns by wide receiver Luke Floriea — one which was a Philly Special design where Floriea opted not to throw it after handling the reverse. The 17-point barrage was the most Kent State posted in a single quarter against FBS competition all season.

Northern Illinois stormed back with touchdowns on each of its first two second half possessions. Kent State coughed up the ball on the opening kickoff of the third quarter, providing the Huskies incredibly short field position to score. They capitalized on a 16-yard pass from Rocky Lombardi to Grayson Barnes to knot the game at 17 apiece.

After a Kent State field goal, Northern Illinois maneuvered downfield on a long drive thanks to the running back duo of Antario Brown and Gavin Williams. Brown totaled 89 yards and a touchdown on the afternoon while Williams set a new career-high with 103. Lombardi contributed to the ground game as well, punching in one of his two rushing touchdowns to claim a 24-20 lead.

Kent State didn’t bow out quite then. Quarterback Devin Kargman made his first start of the season and delivered a slant to wide receiver Jameel Gardner, who cut upfield for a 50-yard go-ahead touchdown with 10:23 remaining. But Kent State never received an opportunity to build on its 27-24 fourth quarter lead as the Huskies strung together a long series which concluded in Lombardi’s second rushing touchdown of the game.

The 37-27 result did not tell the full story of the game, however, as Northern Illinois chipped in an extra touchdown on a Kent State desperation lateral play as clock expired.

Kent State (1-11, 0-8 MAC) concludes year one of the Kenni Burns era without a single win over a MAC team, or in a broader lens, an FBS opponent. After their roster and coaching staff were significantly overhauled in the 2023 offseason, the Golden Flashes look toward 2024 to get the pieces in place for a proper rebuild under Burns.

Northern Illinois (6-6, 4-4 MAC) is not finished yet. The Huskies qualified for bowl eligibility for the second time in the five seasons under head coach Thomas Hammock and the 12th time in the last 16 seasons overall. NIU will discover its bowl location and opponent on Sunday, Dec. 3.