Kent State started its “second season” with a win a week ago but now faces its toughest challenge in Mid-American Conference play today.
Northern Illinois, which crushed Kent State’s dreams of making it to a BCS Bowl last season, rolls into Dix Stadium with an undefeated record and the same challenges that faced the Golden Flashes last season.
Kent State (2-3, 1-1) just hopes new coach Paul Haynes prepares for the Huskies more effectively than former head coach Darrell Hazell did last year.
Northern Illinois won the MAC Championship game over Hazell and KSU in a double-overtime thriller 44-37 in November. Last week, the Huskies crushed Hazell and his Purdue Boilermakers 55-24 to improve to 4-0 this year and earned a No. 23 ranking in the USA Today coaches poll.
It’s now up to Haynes to try to slow down NIU’s offense and dynamic quarterback Jordan Lynch. Lynch, as much of a threat as a runner as he is a passer, already has 869 passing yards and 10 touchdowns on 81-of-125 passing (64.8 percent) to go along with 439 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
Haynes said Monday that he doesn’t think teams can contain Lynch. He only wants to keep him from running wild.
“I think you’ve got to minimize his big plays,” Haynes said. “The thing that happens is when you put so much emphasis on him, he has so many playmakers around him. ... [So you] try to make him one dimensional a little bit. Try to do some things with his reads. ... This is going to be the juggling match, giving them different looks.”
Because of Lynch’s explosiveness, Haynes went as far as to say the Huskies are the “toughest football team we have played,” even tougher than SEC power Louisiana State.
“LSU you knew was going to be a power team, two backs,” Haynes said. “They’re not very complex. This team’s very complex. You have to be very sound on defense because they can expose you with a lot of different formations.”
Kent State welcomed the return of star back Dri Archer, who was dealing with a left ankle sprain, last week in a 32-14 win over Western Michigan. Archer had six carries for 73 yards and a 31-yard touchdown reception but could return to his full workload on Saturday. Archer was also sent back to return kicks and will continue to do so. Just the mere threat of his speed has been enough to impact a game.
“[It’s] huge, just because I think all teams know who he is and where he is on the field,” Haynes said. “You don’t have to give him the ball all the time to make things open up. But you can do some deceptive things to sit there and [make them] think you’re giving him the ball and it opens up some things in the run game and in the pass game.”
That means giving some breathing room for quarterback Colin Reardon, who has thrown for 824 yards on 85-of-143 passing (59.4 percent), six touchdowns and two interceptions. And it means no longer allowing defenses to key on Trayion Durham, who had a big game against the Broncos with 154 rushing yards and two touchdowns with Archer back.
Archer and Lynch are the two players to watch, after both had some fringe awareness as Heisman candidates. But Archer said there’s more to it than a mano-a-mano matchup.
“The thing about football is it’s not an individual game, it’s a team sport,” Archer said. “So I don’t really look at it as me against him. It’s really just a team effort.”
Either way, the Golden Flashes might need some explosive plays from their star. After being denied a BCS berth a year ago, Kent State has the chance to play spoiler to an undefeated Huskies team hungry to make it back to the big stage.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at email@example.com.