By Allen Moff | Staff writer
DETROIT — Destiny met its match Friday night at Ford Field. But it didn't go down without a truly incredible fight.
Kent State overcame a 14-point deficit in the final 4:53 of regulation against defending champion Northern Illinois to send the 2012 MAC Championship Game into overtime, and came within inches of winning it in the first extra session before falling 44-37 in double overtime in front of 18,132 riveted fans from both sides in Detroit.
"What a great football game. A tough one for us to swallow," said second-year Flashes coach Darrell Hazell, who created the Golden Flashes' 'One Team, One Destiny' motto before the start of this record-shattering season. "That's a great football team we played. I was proud of our football team for battling back. We just needed to make a couple of more plays at the end on both sides of the ball.
"I love our guys in the locker room. They are all in their hurting. This will take a couple of days to get over this one," Hazell said.
The loss ends a stunning attempted title run for the Flashes (11-2), who were seeking their first MAC crown since 1972. They entered the game riding a school-record 10-game winning streak, and had won 15 of their last 17 overall after starting 1-6 in Hazell's rookie season last year.
The setback also dashes Kent State's dreams of a BCS berth, which would have been alive and well with a win thanks to Stanford's victory over UCLA in Friday night's PAC-12 Championship Game.
Somehow the Flashes managed to force overtime, even though their vaunted rushing attack was held to 70 yards on 42 carries, including just 15 yards on 12 attempts by junior sensation Dri Archer.
Senior Freddy Cortez's third field goal of the game, a 33-yarder in the first extra session, gave the Golden Flashes a 37-34 lead. Northern Illinois (12-1) then went nowhere on its possession, forcing Mathew Sims to boot a 40-yard field goal that just snuck inside the left upright to send the game into a second OT.
The Huskies then scored in just two plays, a 22-yard jaunt by Akeem Daniels followed by a 3-yard TD run by star senior quarterback Jordan Lynch.
Kent State attempted to answer, advancing to the NIU 11 after a pass interference penalty. But senior quarterback Spencer Keith, who had led the Flashes to three consecutive scoring drives, threw two incompletions before his desperation lob into the end zone -- while rolling right on fourth-and-8 -- was picked off by Huskies strong safety Demetrius Stone to end the game.
In reality, heart and guts were all that kept this contest close. Northern Illinois thoroughly outplayed Kent State for most of the game, especially in the middle two quarters, which it won 24-3. The Huskies completely dominated the statistics, rolling up a 524-260 advantage in total yards, but simply couldn't break the will of a driven group of Flashes.
Kent State used superior special teams play to grab a quick 10-0 lead, but things steadily slipped away as the first half progressed.
Huge plays by a pair of No. 1s ignited KSU. Junior Darius Polk, who wears No. 1 on defense, made the first game-changer when he chased down a 54-yard punt by Anthony Melchiori, stripped Huskies return man A.J. Sebastiano, and recovered the fumble himself at the NIU 22-yard line.
Three plays later, the No. 1 Flashes fans all know and love, Archer, took an inside handoff following a fake up the middle to sophomore tailback Trayion Durham and made his patented explosion through a small crease on the right side for a 15-yard touchdown that gave Kent State a 7-0 lead.
Polk then forced a punt by sacking Lynch, and the boot bounced backward while covering only 18 yards before getting downed at the Northern Illinois 36. A 20-yard pass from Keith to Chris Humphrey moved the ball to NIU's 21 before the drive stalled, and the Flashes had to settle for a 37-yard Cortez field goal that made it 10-0 with 5:06 left in the first quarter.
Polk wound up winning the MAC East Division Player of the Game award after piling up 10 tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
After a slow start, Lynch and the Northern Illinois offense quickly gained steam, using an uptempo attack to keep the Flashes on their heels. The Huskies' first successful drive of the night covered 65 yards in 14 plays and produced a 27-yard field goal just before the end of the first quarter that brought NIU within 10-3.
But the Huskies were just getting warmed up.
The Flashes were forced to punt after three plays on their next drive, and a long, but low, boot by Melchiori was returned 30 yards by Sebastiano into KSU territory. Up to that point, the Flashes had allowed only 29 punt return yards all season long.
Six plays later the game was tied, when Huskies star senior receiver Martel Moore shook Polk's coverage and broke wide open in the middle of the end zone, snaring a 14-yard TD pass that knotted the game at 10-10.
Keith then tried to force a pass down the sideline into double coverage, and it was picked off by sophomore safety Dechane Durante at the NIU 42.
Lynch proceeded to methodically march the Huskies down the field. He converted a key third-and-7 with a eight-yard run to the KSU 34. Daniels later reached the football over a pile and across the goal line for a 1-yard touchdown that gave Northern Illinois a 17-10 lead.
By halftime, the Flashes were a prize fighter getting walloped on the ropes, waiting for the bell to ring before the knockout blow was delivered. They ducked a punch late in the first half when senior safety Leon Green pick off a Lynch pass at the Kent State 2 to keep the deficit at 17-10 entering halftime.
Still, the second quarter was a Northern Illinois annihilation. The Huskies defense kept Archer bottled up (20 total yards) and kept constant pressure on Keith, who was sacked three times in the first half. Kent State managed two total yards in the second quarter, including zero net yards rushing on 11 carries.
The Flashes showed some life to open the second half. A 28-yard kickoff return by Josh Boyle and a 22-yard swing pass from Keith to Durham moved the ball to the 11, but a third-down lob pass by Keith into the end zone was overthrown. Cortez nailed a 24-yard field goal to bring Kent State within 17-13.
But Northern Illinois delivered what seemed like the back-breaker on its next drive. Facing a fourth-and-1 from the KSU 47, Lynch bounced a keeper to the right then cut upfield and raced 44 yards to the KSU 4. Lynch then bounced outside for a 1-yard touchdown run that gave the Huskies a 24-13 cushion.
Following a three-and-out by Kent State, Sims added a 29-yard field goal to push the lead to 27-13 after three quarters.
The Flashes attempted to respond, but instead, seemed dead in the water after Archer was pushed out of bounds a yard short of a first down on a fourth-and-7 play at the NIU 12. Following a Huskies punt, Kent State's fortunes suddenly turned.
After Keith converted a crucial third-and-5 from his own 9 with a nine-yard pass the Humphrey, he heaved a perfect 60-yard bomb to Archer down the middle of the field to the NIU 22. Five plays later Keith scored on a 5-yard keeper, bringing Kent State within 27-20 at the 4:53 mark of regulation.
Then the defense did what it does best, force turnover No. 38 on the year and turning it into touchdown No. 5. This one the most shocking yet.
Lynch tried to fake a handoff then tried to keep the ball, but it popped loose. Kent State junior end Zach Hitchens scooped up the loose pigskin and sprinted 22 yards for the game-tying touchdown as Huskies fans watched in disbelief.
After two touchdowns in 15 seconds, the game was suddenly tied at 27 with 4:38 to play.
"That's what this team has been about all year," said Hazell. "They've had tremendous resolve. We've been down several times this year in the second half and found ways to scrap back and make enough plays to win the football game."
Northern Illinois proceeded to take the lead right back, marching 75 yards in a mere four plays. A 43-yard pass from Lynch to a wide open Daniels down the right sideline set up a 9-yard touchdown run by Lynch that put the Huskies back on top 34-27 with 3:12 to play.
Lynch wound up with 160 yards rushing on 36 carries with three touchdowns, and completed 19-of-34 passes for 212 yards and another score, along with an interception and a fumble.
"You know he is going to make his plays," said Hazell. "He breaks so many tackles. That's what makes him so special."
But Keith had plenty of time to operate. The senior converted three consecutive third downs, and the final one went for a score. Facing a third-and-7 from the NIU 19 with 52 seconds left in regulation, Keith looked to his left, then scrambled right and hit junior tight end Tim Erjavec in the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown that tied the game at 34 with 44 seconds left, forcing overtime.
In the first extra session, the Flashes had a chance to score a touchdown, but a gadget play on third-and-1 backfired. Erjavec dropped a handoff from Durham on a reverse and kicked it across the field, as Keith fortunately recovered to save the Flashes.
"It's a play we've been practicing for three weeks," said Hazell. "We thought we would score on it. That's why we called it."
Cortez kicked the 33-yard field goal that was later answered by Sims in the opening overtime before Northern Illinois won it in the second extra session.
The Flashes will now await their postseason fate, as bowl bids will be announced Sunday night.
"The players and the coaches in the locker room are what made this entire season so special. They have a tremendous belief system and a never-quit attitude," said Hazell. "I can't put into words how proud I am of this football team."