When the two teams last met, stakes were never higher in the history of Mid-American Conference football.
Kent State and Northern Illinois, two red-hot squads riding double-digit winning streaks and ranked among the nation's top 25, were pitted against one another in the 2012 MAC Championship Game at Ford Field in Detroit. The winner would ultimately receive the MAC's first-ever BCS bowl bid, a date with Florida State in the Orange Bowl.
That winner proved to be the Huskies, but not before a dramatic fourth-quarter rally by the resilient Golden Flashes forced the game into two overtimes before they fell 44-37.
On Homecoming Saturday at Dix Stadium, the two programs that produced the most thrilling title game matchup in MAC history will collide once again. And while the stakes in college football are never as high in early October as they are in early December, this is still a monumental game for both football programs.
"I think it's huge," said first-year KSU coach Paul Haynes. "Every game in the conference is big, but we just happen to have Northern (Illinois) this week for Homecoming. Our guys will be super excited. We finally get back home (after three straight road games), and our guys will be excited to get back in front of our home crowd and play. We hope to fill the stadium. It'll be an exciting game and a fun game."
The names are the same, but the teams are different this time around.
While Kent State has opened the season 2-3 while struggling through injury issues and facing an extremely difficult early season schedule that featured back-to-back matchups at perennial national powers LSU and Penn State, Northern Illinois (4-0, 0-0) has picked up right where it left off a year ago.
The 23rd-ranked Huskies have increased their regular season winning streak to 15 by reeling off four straight victories to start the season. Last week, they became the first MAC squad to ever defeat two Big Ten teams in one season (Iowa, Purdue) by trouncing the Boilermakers -- coached by last year's KSU mentor Darrell Hazell -- 55-24, tying the record margin of victory for a MAC team over a Big Ten foe.
Most outside observers thought Kent State had a chance to win last year's matchup with the Huskies, but no one outside the Flashes football family is giving them much of a shot in the rematch.
"They're a good football team. You look at the things that they have done this year and last year, and it's not like they're not deserving (of their national ranking)," said Haynes. "But that's why the game is played. If we all went off of the experts, they'd already have their name on the (MAC Championship) trophy. Our guys are hungry to go out there and compete. These are the fun games, when people don't give you a chance to win. You can just go out there and play. There is no pressure on us, just go play, compete and see what happens at the end."
To compete, the Flashes will have to find a way to slow down Huskies senior quarterback Jordan Lynch, which is tricky, to say the very least.
Lynch (6-foot, 216 pounds) is one of those pesky signal-callers that can beat you equally with his arm and his feet. He did just that a year ago in the MAC title game, when he rushed for 160 yards and three touchdowns, while throwing for 212 yards and another score as NIU rolled up 524 total yards against the Flashes.
The difference between Lynch and typical running quarterbacks is that he can actually run defenders over if necessary.
"You look at a lot of his big plays and they're in between the tackles, they're not outside runs," said Haynes. "Then of course he makes big plays by scrambling. They run (their receivers) off and you've gotta cover those guys -- it's not like you can't cover them -- so you have to drop guys (in coverage), and that just gives him a lot of space to make plays."
How difficult is it to prepare for the Lynch-led Huskies offense, which is averaging over 43 points and 487 yards per game this season?
"I think this is the toughest football team we have played," said Haynes. "And I know everybody says wait a minute, LSU. But with LSU, you knew it was gonna be a power team, two backs, they're not very complex. But this team is very complex. You've gotta be very, very sound on defense because they can expose you with a lot of different formations and a lot of different plays that they run."
Haynes believes Kent State's ability to defend the Huskies will start with his own offense's rushing attack, which churned out 276 yards last week at Western Michigan with healthy star speedster Dri Archer and senior guard Pat McShane back in the lineup.
"That's where it all starts for us, to be able to run the football," said Haynes. "The best defense is the one that's sitting on the sideline. Our ability to keep the clock moving and move the chains is gonna be big for us this week."
While the Huskies have the advantage in personnel on paper, the Flashes will be motivated to the hilt on Homecoming Saturday. They'd love nothing more than to reestablish themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the MAC by avenging last year's heartbreaking loss in the title game.
"We owe them from the MAC Championship last year, so this is a payback game," said Archer. "We're a different team this year, a lot of new faces, but we know what we're capable of. They're a great team, we're a great team. It's gonna be a dogfight."
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