DETROIT -The social media term "MACtion" has taken on a life of its own during the 2012 college football season and despite a slow start, the MAC Championship game delivered plenty of highlights and a double overtime thriller that saw Northern Illinois outlast Kent State in double overtime, 44-37 at Ford Field.
Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch rushed for 160 yards and three touchdowns and passed for 212 yards and passed for a touchdown in a winning effort while his counterpart, Spencer Keith, threw for 190 yards and accounted for two scores in a losing effort.
The loss by Kent State likely knocks the MAC out of BCS bowl (Orange Bowl) consideration with the conference needing to have a representative finishing in the BCS top-16. Kent State started the night as the No. 17 team while Northern Illinois started at No. 21 and has to leapfrog several teams.
The Golden Flashes battled back from a 14 point deficit in the 3rd quarter to score with less than a minute left when Keith hooked up with Tim Erjavec on a 19 yards touchdown pass with 44 seconds left to knot the game up at 34 and send it to overtime.
"Well that's what this team has been about all year," Kent State head coach Darrell Hazell said after the game. "They have had tremendous resolve. We have been down quite a few times this year in the second half and found a way to scrap back and make enough plays to win the football game. That's the character of this team, it's been amazing all season long. Obviously we didn't get it done tonight but it's been like that all season."
The win for Northern Illinois gives the Huskies back-to-back MAC Championships and has made head coach Dave Doeren a hot commodity for coaching vacancies and has had him linked to the open job at Purdue.
"I think both teams wanted (the win) really bad," Doeren said. "Both teams fought, they jumped out to a lead and we fought back and the second half was back and forth and we had a chance to put them away and they had a great 99-yard drive against our defense, which nobody has done that. We had the resolve to battle back."
Kent State got things going after Darius Polk forced and recovered a fumble by A.J. Sebastiano after a Kent State punt. The Golden Flashes picked up the ball on the NIU 22 yard line and only needed three plays to get to the end zone after Archer took an end around the right side for a 15-yard TD run.
The Golden Flashes started in NIU territory on their next drive, starting on the 36-yard line and this time the big play was a 20 yard screen pass to Chris Humphrey that moved the ball to the 21 yards line (after a sack of Keith). Kent State couldn't move it any further and that forced Kent State to attempt and convert a 37-yard FG by Freddy Cortez and Kent State took a 10-0 lead in the 1st quarter.
While the 1st quarter was far from perfect for Kent State, the second was a nightmare. Kent State scored ten points on 48 yards in the first quarter... in the second quarter Kent State scored zero points on two yards of total offense. By comparison the Huskies of Northern Illinois ran for 156 yards in the 2nd quarter and turned a seven point deficit into a seven point lead going to the halftime locker room.
After a first quarter field goal the Huskies tied the game up with a Lynch to Martel Moore touchdown strike from 14 yards out to tie the game up at 10-all. NIU would strike again in the half with a one yard TD run by Akeem Daniels who had a big night with 128 yards and an average of 7.5 yards per carry. It was obvious that Kent State was making an effort to taken Lynch out of the rushing game and that left opportunities for Daniels to strike.
"We just had to get a feel for them and see what they were doing," Lynch said. "I missed a few throws early and it was hurting us but soon we started getting a little bit of rhythm, Akeem started taking over and it made my job a lot easier."
Conversely the Golden Flashes had 21 yards on the ground in the first half with Trayion Durham carrying the load with 30 net yards, Dri Archer had 11 of his own and Keith was credited with minus-20 due to sack yardage.
"We had trouble running the ball in the first half and we just thought we had to live and die by the zone," Hazell said.
Kent State started with the ball in the second half put up points on its first drive after a big kickoff return by Josh Boyle who got the Golden Flashes out close to midfield. Aided by a defensive pass interference call, Kent State got as close as the 7-yard line but could go no further and settled for a 24 yard Cortez field goal to cut the lead to four.
Northern Illinois would march right back and convert on its sixth straight 3rd down conversion to extend a drive and come up short by inches on its seventh. Doeren would go for it on 4th-and-inches and Lynch would make Kent State pay for it with a 43-yard run around the right end to the Kent State four yard line. Lynch would punch it in on 3rd down for the touchdown and during that drive would break Denard Robinson's 2010 (Division 1- FBS) record of single season rushing yards by a QB (Robinson - 1,702).
The Huskies would tack on another field goal to make it a 27-13 game and it appeared that Kent State's dreams were going to come up short. But the Golden Flashes had something left in the tank in the fourth quarter after being held to a grand total of 92 yards of total offense through three quarters.
Keith hooked up with Archer on the longest play of the game for Kent State in the fourth quarter on a 60-yard strike that moved Kent State just to the edge of the Northern Illinois red zone and four plays later Keith ran it in from five yard out to cut the lead to seven points.
Kent State's defense would answer the next call on the following series and on the first play from scrimmage for Northern Illinois, disaster would strike for the road team with Lynch fumbling the ball and Zack Hitchens picking up the loose ball and scrambling in from 22 yards for the 'scoop and score' and the game would be tied at 27-all.
It didn't take long for the aforementioned "MACtion" to kick in for Northern Illinois and the Huskies would retake the lead after a four play drive that was a steady done of Daniels. He hauled in a 43-yard strike to move the ball into Kent State territory and then set up Lynch with another double digit run before the NIU QB knocked it in from nine yards out.
It wouldn't be right for the MAC Championship game to end without some late heroics however and Kent State had a trick left for regulation and after an 11 play, 58 yard drive the Golden Flashes would score in the final minute with Keith hitting Erjavec from 19 yards out to tie things up at 34.
Kent State won the toss in overtime and got the ball first and had the ball on the 5-yard line with a 3rd-and-1 call. After pounding the inside run all night long the Kent State coaches got fancy and went for a trick play that resulted in near disaster. Erjavec was supposed to end up with the ball and a full head of steam running to the right side but never had a firm grasp on the ball and Kent State ended up taking an 11 yard loss and knocked itself into field goal range after falling on the ball. Kent State would convert on the field goal but it proved to be costly as NIU was held to two yards on its first OT series and had to settle for a FG to send it to double overtime at 37-all.
"We have been practicing it for three weeks and it was the 3rd-and-1 call that we thought we would score on it, that is why we called it," Hazell said of the ill-fated play.
In double overtime the Kent State defense finally broke and it only took two plays for the Huskies to take the lead on a Lynch two yard TD run, his third of the night.
Kent State had a final shot to send it to a third overtime but the drive was thwarted on a 4th-and-8 when Keith was intercepted in the end zone to end the game.
Now Kent State (and Northern Illinois) will wait to see how the bowls shake out. The Orange Bowl had representatives at the game but it appears that both of these teams will be relegated to the primary bowls of the MAC which include the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, GoDaddy.com Bowl and the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. That didn't stop Northern Illinois from campaigning for a crack at the BCS and somewhere between an additional eight to nine million dollars for the conference.
"I don't know how many of your guys have watched us play week-in and week-out but there's not many teams in the top-16 that can play as consistent as these guys have," Doeren said. "They win every game they're supposed to win and they've won the big games and it's different guys doing it."