Kent State is playing for more than its first MAC football championship when it faces Northern Illinois tonight in Detroit. The Golden Flashes are seeking the conference’s first BCS bid, the final step of an improbable run for a long downtrodden program.
Northern Illinois has been a benchmark of greatness in the conference over the last decade. The Huskies are headed to their seventh bowl since 2004; it would be an eighth bowl game, were it not for one of the most egregious omissions in recent memory. NIU’s outstanding decade began in 2003 with a 10-2 team that beat Maryland and Alabama, yet was inexplicably denied an invitation.
Well, maybe not inexplicably; the MAC was seen as something of a novelty in the early 2000s. Despite hosting some outstanding Marshall teams — including the undefeated 1999 Thundering Herd that generated some BCS discussion — the conference simply couldn’t gain much traction in the national conversation. A match-up of two top 25 teams, with a shot at the BCS on the line,
“It’s been an historic year just overall as a conference. To crown it off with the best team from that league going to a big game I think would be right,” said NIU head coach Dave Doeren. “We definitely earned national respect as a conference and it’s not like one team had a great year.”
I’ll never forget watching the 2001 and 2002 MAC championship games pitting Marshall against Toledo. The 41-36 and 49-45 final scores are less awe-inspiring in today’s grassketball style of explosive offenses, but a decade ago such offensive output was spectacular. There was a novelty to watching two teams I rarely, if ever, had the opportunity to see sling the ball around the field.
MAC football is no longer a novelty. It’s profile has grown largely because of its novelty aspect — the whole #MACtion movement has certainly brought focus on the conference it may not have otherwise received — but the conference features much more than high scores.
NIU is among the more consistent programs in all of college football, sporting a 79-46 record since 2003; that is a far more impressive 77-36 when withdrawing the 2-10 2007 season, the program’s last under Joe Novak. This year, the Huskies are in pursuit of their third straight season ending ranked in the top 25 and the program record for wins.
The Huskies could have taken a nosedive from last year’s 11-3, conference championship finish with the departure of do-everything quarterback Chandler Harnish. Instead, NIU is just as good — maybe better — with the emergence of Jordan Lynch. Harnish was hardly the first noteworthy Huskie to leave the program: NIU has produced NFL Draft picks like Larry English, Michael Turner and Doug Free yet continued on successfully. The loss of Harnish was no exception.
Lynch has been one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. In fact, his contributions to NIU’s success could be stacked up alongside those of Collin Klein to Kansas State or Johnny Manziel to Texas A&M. Lynch has 23 touchdown passes to just four interceptions with another 16 touchdown rushes; Manziel has 24 passing touchdowns (eight interceptions) and 19 on the ground. Klein has 14 passing (six interceptions) and 20 rushing touchdowns.
His production approaching a level that matches the most celebrated quarterbacks in the nation has produced some Heisman talk. NIU athletics launched a Heisman watch website for Lynch, and Doeren talked of his chances this week.
“He has done everything that he was supposed to do [for Heisman consideration],” Doeren said. “He did it in a big game on national television against Toledo. This is another opportunity for him to play, probably the best defense that he has to play against since Iowa, I would say collectively with what they do with their defensive front and the pressures they bring.”
Lynch and Doeren leading the Huskies to not only maintain its prior success, but actually build on it is the measure of what constitutes a great program — regardless of conference affiliation.
Kent State’s success might be an even more astounding development than NIU keeping its place as top dog. KSU football isn’t exactly synonymous with winning this, or any decade. The most famous professional to come out of the program is San Diego Charger tight end Antonio Gates, whose college career is more renowned for his contributions to the Elite Eight Golden Flash basketball team in 2002.
Kent State last played in a bowl game in 1972 when Nick Saban, today one of the elders patrolling an FBS sideline, was playing cornerback.
There wasn’t really much reason to project the Golden Flashes’ four decades of football futility to come to an end in 2012. MAC media certainly didn’t think so, voting Kent State fourth in the MAC…East. Ahead of the Golden Flashes were Ohio, Bowling Green and Miami. The latter two were wins No. 9 and 10 in KSU’s current 10-game win streak.
And in September, KSU did little to dispel voters’ lack of confidence. Though blasting a very good Towson team in the opener, the Golden Flashes were routed at Kentucky — a loss that has become a popular refrain for those dismissing the team’s 11-1 season.
But to assume the Kent State team that struggled against UK in Week 2 and Buffalo in its third game is the same team taking the field in Detroit is a great folly. KSU has undergone a transformation, perhaps one of the most striking in the nation this season.
Would the Kent State of September have beaten a Rutgers team playing for the Big East championship? Would the KSU of then dominate an Ohio team that topped Penn State? Examined through this context,
Dri Archer is the face of this team, a veritable Swiss Army knife who has done virtually everything on the offensive end. He’s rushed for over 1300 yards, received for 458, and set up the offense on some of the best average field position with his electric kick returning.
Archer’s exciting style has commanded much of the attention, but Trayion Durham has been outstanding out of the backfield as well. He’s rushed for just shy of 1200 yards, and that really makes for an under-appreciated facet of Kent State’s success: two of the nation’s top 33 rushers in the Bowl Subdivision share a backfield. In the MAC.
Such a capable dual rushing attack nicely complements a defense that has been more effective in forcing turnovers than any in college football but Oregon. Responsible for those takeaways is a linebacker corps that ranks among the most productive anywhere.
In a conference that’s gained attention in recent years for its offensive proficiency, the trio of Luke Batton, Luke Wollet and C.J. Malauulu have been catalysts for a historic run in the conference. The three have combined for 284 tackles, four forced fumbles and six interceptions.
Tonight’s MAC championship may come down to Lynch’s play making ability against the Golden Flash linebackers. It may not match the shootouts of a decade ago that put the conference on the map, but that’s part of the league’s evolution — and the MAC championship stakes have never been higher.