The MAC Championship Game will be a rematch from the regular season when Kent State and Northern Illinois face off again, this time at Ford Field in Detroit. Kent State (7-6, 6-2) won the East Division thanks to a 48-47 thrilling overtime win over Miami (Ohio) in Saturday's regular-season finale. Northern Illinois (8-4, 6-2) wrapped up the West a week earlier and the Huskies are coming into this game after losing 42-21 to Western Michigan last Tuesday.
This season's MAC title game also is a rematch of an entertaining game that took place earlier this season. The Golden Flashes defeated NIU at home back on Nov. 3, winning 52-47 in a game that featured more than 1,300 yards of total offense and 14 touchdowns. The scoreboard operator should expect to be quite busy when the football gets kicked off at Ford Field on Saturday.
MAC Championship Game: Kent State vs. Northern Illinois
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 3 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Ford Field (Detroit)
Spread: Kent State -3
When Kent State Has the Ball
Kent State averages 30.8 points per game. The Golden Flashes are equally adept on the ground and through the air, averaging 241.0 passing yards (fifth in the MAC) and 247.4 rushing yards per game (first).
Dustin Crum leads the offense at quarterback, completing 65.0 percent of his passes for 2,813 yards with 15 touchdowns and four interceptions. Crum also is a running threat, having rushed for 565 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. In the first meeting against Northern Illinois, Crum threw for 322 yards and two touchdowns and added another 72 on the ground with two more scores.
Crum's top receiver is Dante Cephas, who leads the Golden Flashes with 71 receptions for 1,022 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 14 yards per reception. One of his five 100-yard games this season came in the win over the Huskies, when he recorded 124 yards on just five catches.
On the ground, Marquez Cooper leads the team with 1,075 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. He's averaging 5.1 yards per carry while Xavier Williams is gaining 6.1 yards per rushing attempt. He's second to Cooper with 719 yards on the ground. Both backs went over 100 yards in the first game against NIU and are coming off of an even bigger performance in last Saturday's division-clinching victory over Miami (Ohio). Against the RedHawks, Williams and Cooper combined for 294 yards and three touchdowns on 37 carries (7.9 ypc).
The Huskies rank near the bottom of the MAC in defensive categories, including giving up 34.6 points per game, which is 11th in the conference. Among the defensive leaders who figure to be around the ball frequently is safety CJ Brown, who leads NIU with 95 tackles.
When Northern Illinois Has the Ball
Northern Illinois averages 30.8 points per game. While not as nearly balanced as Kent State, Northern Illinois is formidable offensively, as the Huskies average 195.0 yards per game through the air (11th in the MAC), while being more run-oriented with 231.5 yards per game on the ground (second).
Michigan State transfer Rocky Lombardi leads the Northern Illinois passing game, having completed 58.6 of his passes for 2,314 yards with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He missed the regular-season finale against Western Michigan due to a minor injury, but will be back under center to face Kent State a second time. In the first meeting with Kent State, Lombardi set a school record with 532 passing yards (33 of 57 attempts). He also had three touchdowns and no interceptions.
In that same game, Trayvon Rudolph set a new MAC record with 309 receiving yards on 14 catches, meaning he averaged 22.1 yards per reception. He also caught all three of Lombardi's TDs. For the season, Rudolph is second in the MAC at 18 yards per catch, and he leads the Huskies in receptions (46), yards (827), and touchdowns (seven). Tyrice Richie (44 rec., 540 yds., TD) has been a nice complementary target but he's missed the last three games due to injury and is not listed on this week's depth chart, so he's unlikely to play.
NIU has stayed grounded for the most part on offense with freshman Jay Ducker leading the way. He's gone over 100 rushing yards in five of the last six games (892 for the season) and he's averaging 5.4 yards per carry. Clint Ratkovich has considerably fewer carries (89) than Ducker (165), but he leads the team and is tied for fourth in the conference with 11 rushing touchdowns. Lombardi also is a threat to run, averaging five yards per carry with five ground scores.
As mentioned earlier, Northern Illinois ranks near the bottom of the MAC in defensive categories. Among the teams ranked below the Huskies are the Kent State Golden Flashes. Kent State's defensive leaders are in the secondary, with Montre Miller (13) and Elvis Hines (12) ranking among the MAC leaders in passes defended. Miller also is tied for the MAC lead with four interceptions this season.
The game on Nov. 3 was a back-and-forth affair, with the Golden Flashes coming out on top in the shootout. That game was at Kent State, but this one will be at Ford Field, negating any home-field advantage for either team. The Golden Flashes outlasted Miami in their last game and may have the battle psyche ready to go the distance with Northern Illinois to claim the MAC championship. And don't be surprised if it's another close contest. Nine of the Huskies' games this season have been one-score outcomes. NIU is 7-2 in those games but one of those losses came against, you guessed it, Kent State.
Prediction: Kent State 56, Northern Illinois 49
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— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He also is podcasting for Buckeye Scoop. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.