By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
While no one from either team will admit it, Saturday's showdown between defending Mid-American Conference East Division champion Kent State and two-time defending MAC champ Northern Illinois will likely be decided by one particularly intriguing matchup.
Jordan Lynch vs. Dri Archer.
Yes, football is a team game. And no, NIU senior quarterback Lynch and KSU senior speedster Archer will most likely never be on the field at the same time. But whichever team's prime-time player makes the most huge plays and has the best overall game will almost assuredly walk off the field a winner on Saturday.
That was certainly the case in last year's MAC Championship Game, an instant classic that the Huskies survived to win 44-37 in double-overtime. Lynch basically won the game single-handedly, rushing for 160 yards and three scores while passing for 212 yards another touchdown as NIU rolled up 524 yards of total offense.
Meanwhile Archer had his moments, scoring the game's first touchdown on a 15-yard run and grabbing a 60-yard bomb from quarterback Spencer Keith in the fourth quarter that helped the Golden Flashes get back in the game. But Archer finished with just 15 yards rushing on 12 attempts and five catches for 81 yards, and never handled a kickoff return as NIU continually booted the ball away from him.
So matchup No. 1 definitely went to Lynch.
Fast-forward to preseason 2013, when Lynch and Archer were widely considered the top two returning players in the MAC, and their respective schools both unleashed Heisman Trophy campaigns for their beloved stars.
Lynch has lived up to the hype and then some, leading the 23rd-ranked Huskies to a 4-0 record that includes victories over Big Ten teams Iowa and Purdue. He is averaging 327 yards of total offense per game (109.8 rushing, 217.2 passing), and is responsible for 13 of NIU's 19 offensive touchdowns.
Archer's season has not gone nearly as smoothly. He suffered an ankle injury in the first quarter of Kent State's season opener against Liberty, sat out the following game against Bowling Green, then tried to come back for game three at LSU but failed to make it through the first quarter once again - forcing his Heisman Trophy campaign that featured a comic strip entitled 'The Archer' to be scrapped.
Archer also missed game four at Penn State, but returned last week at Western Michigan and showed flashes of the player that filled highlight reels with scintillating plays a year ago. Archer produced 121 total yards on just 10 touches, and scored his first touchdown of the season on a 31-yard pass from redshirt freshman quarterback Colin Reardon.
With Archer health and Lynch looking virtually unstoppable, the stage is set for a duel between the two most explosive weapons in the MAC on Homecoming Saturday at Dix Stadium.
MISSION IMPOSSIBLE PART I: DEFENDING LYNCH
There are many quarterbacks in college football that are capable of producing big plays with both their arm and legs, but no one does it quite like Lynch. The 6-foot-1, 220-pound senior is extremely quick and athletic, but what sets him apart is his strength. Unlike the vast majority of signal-callers that run the ball in the open field only, Lynch is just as likely to go through a defender as go around him.
The reigning MAC Player of the Year finished second in the nation in total offense yards (4,953) and fourth in rushing yards (1,815) last year, when he became the first player in NCAA FBS history to run for more than 1,500 yards and pass for more than 3,000 (3,138) in a season.
Trust Kent State first-year head coach Paul Haynes when he says that his coaches aren't game-planning ways to stop Lynch in his tracks.
"I don't think you can contain him. I really don't," said Haynes. "The things that happens is when you put so much emphasis on him, he's got a lot of playmakers around him. That's why I say I don't think you can contain him unless you put two or three guys on him, and that's just gonna open up another can of worms. I think you've gotta minimize his big plays. try to make them one-dimensional a little bit, try to do some things with his reads. But he's a great player and they're great coaches, so they're gonna make some adjustments. That's gonna be the juggling match, giving them different looks and changing it up on them, too."
Haynes believes you give your defense a fighting chance against Lynch and the Huskies by limiting their effectiveness on first down.
"That's the most important down, cause you can get them in third-and-long situations and minimize what they can do if you win first down," said Haynes. "If we do a great job on first down and get them in those long situations, then we know what he likes to do and we've gotta minimize his ability to do it."
The Flashes defense has struggled through much of the 2013 season while battling injuries and an extremely difficult schedule, surrendering nearly 200 yards rushing and 29 points per game. But they have a feared weapon of their own in cat-quick senior tackle Roosevelt Nix, who is capable of disrupting an offense even as potent as the Lynch-led Huskies with his penchant for shedding multiple defenders and shooting gaps.
"I can't wait til he's graduated," said NIU coach Rod Carey. "He's such a good football player, probably has the best first step I've ever seen on film. He's disruptive, he's physical, he makes a lot of plays. It's funny to say about a d-lineman, but you've gotta try to give him some different looks. If you try to line up and single block him all day he's gonna have his way with you."
If the Flashes (2-3, 1-1 MAC) have any hope of slowing down Lynch and pulling off the upset, they'll need a dominant effort by Nix that produces negative plays and turnovers that Kent State turns into points.
MISSION IMPOSSIBLE II: DEFENDING ARCHER
You won't see Carey kicking around any plans to stop Archer cold, either. His pure speed and incredible acceleration through cuts simply can't be completely harnessed.
"It's not a situation where you're gonna stop him," said Carey. "You've just gotta get him on the ground."
Injuries are the only thing that's been able to slow down the 5-8, 175-pound Florida native, who was either sidelined or failed to play past the first quarter in five straight games before last Saturday. He looked healthy against the Broncos, easily beating his defender on a go-route for the 31-yard touchdown and seemingly gliding through the secondary on several double-figure runs before getting angled out of bounds.
Carey certainly believes the Huskies will get Archer's best on Saturday.
"He's really fast, probably the fastest guy I've ever seen on film. And I think he might even be a little faster than he was last year," said Carey. "He's got good wiggle and good vision too, and he's a tough kid. You get him on the ground any which way we can, cause with him if you don't get him on the ground and you give him a second chance, give him too big of a crease, it's over before you take a breath."
Archer should get some chances to make big plays against a Huskies defense that's struggled this season, at least statistically. Northern Illinois is allowing over 330 yards passing and just under 500 total yards per game, but those numbers are deceiving according to Haynes.
"They've given up a lot of points, but they've also forced a lot of turnovers (13) and they've played well in the key moments of the game," said Haynes. "They've got some young guys in the middle and at the middle linebacker spot, but they're pretty experienced everywhere else. They're gonna play hard, they're gonna play fast."
Those Huskies will see Archer used in every way imaginable on Saturday - in the backfield, in the slot, flanked wide, in the return game, and any other creative methods the Flashes coaches can muster as they attempt to get him the ball in space.
"They do a great job of moving him around," said Carey. "You've just gotta play by your defensive rules."
RULE NO. 1 FOR FANS: DON'T BLINK
With Lynch and Archer taking turns with the ball on Saturday, every play that takes place throughout the contest will have huge-play potential.
Since Lynch will literally handle the ball on every offensive play for Northern Illinois, he'll have the best shot at winning the statistical battle with Archer. But Archer can still have an impact on plays that he's not directly involved in just by drawing defenders, who have to account for his speed at all times.
In a sense, Lynch and Archer are like high-scoring point guards on a basketball team. Sure they'll score their fair share of points, but they use their athleticism to draw defenders and set up teammates as well.
So the winner of the Lynch vs. Archer matchup may or may not be decided on stats alone.
But if there's any debate about which player shined the brightest following Saturday's showdown, we'll let the two largest, brightest numbers on display at Dix Stadium decide the winner.
You'll find those numbers on the scoreboard.
Facebook: Allen Moff, Record-Courier