Dominated in the second and third quarters, Kent State put on a furious fourth quarter rally, scoring two touchdowns in a 15-second span.
But the No. 17-ranked Golden Flashes fell to No. 21 Northern Illinois 44-37 in double overtime Friday night in the Mid-American Conference Championship at Detroit’s Ford Field.
The teams with matching 11-1 records were battling for a possible BCS bowl berth.
"What a great football game, but a tuff one for us to swallow,” Kent State coach Darrell Hazell said. “That's a great football team we played and I’m proud of our football team for keeping battling back. We just needed to make a couple of more plays at the end on both sides of the ball.
“Their quarterback is an exceptional player. We had a hard time tackling him all day. I love our guys in the locker room. They are all in there hurting. It will take a couple of days to get over one."
Kent State had the ball last in the second extra period, but Flashes quarterback Spencer Keith’s pass was intercepted by cornerback Demetrius Stone on fourth-and-8 from the 9-yard line.
Northern Illinois’ redshirt junior quarterback Jordan Lynch, the MAC offensive player of the year, was virtually unstoppable. He rushed for 160 yards on 36 carries and scored three touchdowns - including the game-winner on a 2-yard run - and completed 19-of-34 passes for 212 yards and a touchdown with an interception.
Of his game-winning run Lynch said, “We gave it to Akeem (Daniels), he got us down there. It was a play we were running on them that scored I think three times on them. The offensive line had a great push.”
Keith was erratic at best until he hit receiver Dri Archer for a 60-yard gain in the fourth quarter that sparked the late rally. After a slow start, Keith went on to complete 15-of-36 passes for 190 yards and a TD with two interceptions.
Hazell, one of the hottest young coaching candidates in the nation after two seasons at the KSU helm, may find himself second-guessed after the Golden Flashes botched a trick play in the first overtime.
On third-and-1 from the NIU 5-yard line, tight end Tim Erjavec kicked the ball and the Flashes lost 11 yards - forcing them to settle for a 33-yard field goal by senior kicker Freddy Cortez.
Erjavec had sent the game into overtime with a 19-yard touchdown catch with 44 seconds remaining in regulation.
The Huskies, which won their second consecutive title game, endured a huge gaffe of their own. Lynch botched a handoff for a fumble that KSU defensive end Zach Hitchens recovered and returned 22 yards for a touchdown with 4:38 remaining. The score came just 15 seconds after a 5-yard touchdown run by Keith to put the Flashes back in the game.
“When you run the option, I call it white knuckles,” Lynch said. “You’ve got to squeeze the ball whenever the rush is charging you. I didn’t squeeze the ball and they hit us. It was a good play by them. I’ve got to be smarter in that situation.”
Both Lynch and Daniels took the blame for the fumbled exchange.
NIU coach Dave Doeren praised Kent State, which still qualified for its first bowl appearance in 40 years.
“Kent State played a great game,” Doeren said. “Both teams wanted it really bad. Both teams fought. They jumped out to a lead and we fought back. The second half was back and forth. We had a chance to put them away and they had a great 99-yard drive against our defense - nobody’s done that. We had the resolve to battle back. We turned it over and they scored and we kept playing. Nobody flinched. Everybody believed.”
Lynch seemed unfazed after Kent State jumped out to a 10-0 lead on Archer’s 15-yard scoring run and a 37-yard Cortez field goal.
“They did a good job coming out, we just had to get a feel for them,” Lynch said. “I missed a few throws early and it was hurting us until we started getting a little bit of a rhythm. Akeem starting taking over and made my job a lot easier.”
Kent State, which came into the game with 32 takeaways, added three more Friday. Senior linebacker Luke Batton (Nordonia) led the Flashes with 13 tackles (six solo), while junior cornerback Darius Polk added 10 tackles (nine solo), a sack, a tackle for loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Here’s some key comparative stats from the game:
* NIU QB Lynch was named Game MVP and combined for 372 yards of offense. He ran the ball 36 times for 160 yards and three touchdowns and completed 19-for-34 passes for 212 yards and 1 touchdown.
* KSU QB Keith completed 15-of-36 passes for 190 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. He also rushed for a 5-yard touchdown in the fourth-quarter.
* KSU’s Archer caught five passes for 81 yards and rushed 12 times for 15 yards and a touchdown. He did not return a kick.
* KSU was out gained on the ground 312 yards to 70…The Huskies passed for 212 yards to the Flashes 190…NIU doubled KSU’s output in total offense, the Huskies totaling 524 yards to the Flashes 260…NIU went 7-for-7 on red zone scores, while KSU was 6-for-8.