While there were dozens of breathtaking, mind-boggling, momentum-changing plays that transpired throughout Saturday's Homecoming showdown between defending Mid-American Conference division champions Kent State and Northern Illinois, the most basic play of them all proved to be the difference.
Cameron Stingily up the middle.
The Huskies' 6-foot-1, 244-pound junior battering ram for a running back celebrated his birthday by rushing for 263 yards on 34 carries, mostly on muscle runs right up the gut of the defense, to lead No. 23 Northern Illinois (5-0, 1-0 MAC) past the Golden Flashes (2-4, 1-2) 38-24 at Dix Stadium.
Of course, no play is simple when it involves Huskies senior quarterback Jordan Lynch, whose ability to break down defenses with both his arm and legs over the last two years has now helped NIU roll up a nation-leading 18 consecutive conference wins and 12 straight triumphs on the road.
"(Stingily) is a big guy. But I think the thing that makes them effective, how they run the ball very well, is because you've gotta account for (Lynch)," said KSU coach Paul Haynes. "We made a couple plays on Stingily in the middle, then Lynch runs outside. That's what makes them so effective on offense, they have so many playmakers."
Stingily started his career as a linebacker before switching to running back last year, but only played on special teams in 2012. He entered the year as NIU's No. 2 back behind returnee Akeem Daniels, who has missed the entire season due to foot injury.
Stingily nearly doubled his rushing output during the first four games of the season (310 yards) against the Flashes.
Thanks to Stingily's effort Lynch didn't need to dominate this game statistically like he did last year, when he accounted for 372 yards and four scores in Northern Illinois' thrilling 44-37 double-overtime triumph over Kent State in the MAC Championship Game, but he somewhat quietly piled up 338 yards (14 carries for 94 yards, 21-of-35 passing for 244 yards) in the rematch.
With Stingily and Lynch leading the way, the Huskies amassed 454 yards rushing on 63 carries. Those were numbers the Flashes simply could not overcome, although they did make Northern Illinois go the distance despite getting outgained 698-392 overall and giving up 36 first downs - including 28 on the ground.
Kent State was forced to defend 98 plays against one of the top offenses in the country, as the Huskies kept the ball for nearly 36 minutes by going no-huddle the whole way and converting 10-of-17 third-downs.
Despite these staggering numbers, Kent State actually led 24-21 early in the second half thanks in huge part to its own senior star, speedster Dri Archer.
Archer was only the centerpiece of two big plays on Saturday, but boy were they big.
After Northern Illinois waltzed 69 yards on 11 plays through pouring rain with its first possession to take a quick 7-0 lead on a 17-yard run by Stingily, the Huskies made one of those decisions that make you scratch your head in disbelief.
They booted the ensuing kickoff directly to Archer.
"We knew that their arrogance was gonna get to them a little bit coming into the game," said Haynes. "I knew they were gonna try to set the tone and kick it to him and make a point, and it didn't work."
Archer actually caught the opening kickoff, but was too deep in the end zone to bring it out. This time he snagged it about two yards deep, sprinted up the middle through a huge hole, then cut right and exploded past a couple defenders that seemed to have angles on him before stepped through the last tackle attempt to complete what is officially considered a school record-tying 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown - the fourth of his career.
"When I caught it I ran about three yards and I just saw the hole open," said Archer. "(Fellow returner Ernest Calhoun) ended up blocking somebody, and it was just off to the races."
Archer would not see another kickoff land anywhere near him. But he did produce another huge play when the Flashes desperately needed it.
After the rain suddenly stopped Lynch hooked up with Da'Ron Brown for a 53-yard touchdown that put Northern Illinois back on top 14-7 in the second quarter, the Flashes faced a third-and-16 deep in their own end. But Archer got behind NIU free safety Dechane Durante, who went for the interception and missed. Archer grabbed the toss from Kent State redshirt freshman quarterback Colin Reardon and practically jogged into the end zone for a 66-yard score that evened the contest at 14-14.
"I got past the safety, and Colin made a great throw," said Archer. "The safety had a good break on it, but I guess he just overplayed the ball and it landed right in my hands."
Archer was relatively quiet from that point on, finishing with 13 yards rushing on four carries and four catches for 80 yards.
The Huskies regained the lead on a 1-yard run by Stingily, but Anthony Melchiori (Aurora) kicked a 24-yard field goal in the closing seconds of the half to send Kent State to the locker room trailing 21-17 - even though NIU had already produced over 200 yards rushing while running 54 plays overall.
The Flashes actually left seven points on the field in the first half. Melchiori missed a 44-yard field-goal attemp after freshman lineman Wayne Scott was flagged for a false start, and senior wide receiver Tyshon Goode let a sure touchdown pass from Reardon go through his hands after beating his defender badly, forcing KSU to settle for Melchiori's field goal.
Goode quickly atoned for his mistake.
After Kent State forced a three-and-out by Northern Illinois to open the second half, Goode snared a 28-yard TD toss from Reardon to give the Flashes a 24-21 lead with 11:37 to play in the third quarter.
The Huskies countered with a 10-play, 84-yard drive culminated by James Spencer's 22-yard touchdown run that gave them the lead for good at 28-24 with 7:25 to play in quarter No. 3. Then Northern Illinois took control with a 15-play, 94-yard march that ended with a Lynch screen pass to Spencer for an 11-yard score that increased the cushion to 35-24 with 13:08 to play.
Kent State's offense failed to respond, and the Huskies used their ground attack to chew up huge chunks of yardage and clock. However, the Flashes did make a stop to force a 31-yard Mathew Sims field goal that kept them in the game, trailing 38-24 with 7:28 to play.
"I give (NIU) credit for sitting there and pounding it and running the clock," said Haynes. "We knew if they were gonna get up to 80-90 plays it was gonna be tough. We just couldn't get off the field in the second half. Still even at the end you're just down 14, and there's a lot of times (left). It was kind of like a bend but don't break."
A 34-yard screen pass from Reardon to junior running back Trayion Durham helped the Flashes move the ball to the NIU 9-yard line on their next possession, but the drive stalled when Reardon was hit and his pass was deflected on a fourth-and-seven play.
Despite taking several hard shots throughout the game, Reardon completed 16-of-35 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. Durham led Kent State with 72 yards rushing on 14 carries.
The Flashes have now lost four of their past five games to teams that have combined for just four total losses. And things certainly will not get any easier next Saturday, when they visit a 5-1 Ball State squad that just blasted Virginia 48-27.
"I'm proud of the guys. l love this locker room, love this football team," said Haynes. "We're gonna finish this thing the right way, like champions."