DETROIT: Kent State’s improbable season was nearly capped by an improbable comeback in the Mid-American Conference Championship Game on Friday night at Ford Field.
With a possible BCS bowl berth on the line, the Golden Flashes erased a 14-point deficit in 15 seconds in the fourth quarter and rallied again to score a game-tying touchdown with 44 seconds to go to force overtime. But KSU could not finish the job, losing to Northern Illinois 44-37 in double overtime.
Kent State (11-2) had the ball second-and-1 at the NIU 5-yard line in the first overtime but a failed running play and a botched reverse made the Flashes settle for a field goal by Freddy Cortez and a 37-34 lead.
The Huskies (12-1) responded with a tying field goal by Mathew Sims to send the game to a second overtime.
Following a 23-yard run by Akeem Daniels, quarterback Jordan Lynch scored the deciding touchdown.
The game ended when KSU quarterback Spencer Keith’s fourth-down pass from the 9-yard line was intercepted in the end zone.
The loss snapped the Flashes’ 10-game winning streak and knocked them out of contention for a dream trip to a BCS bowl.
“Yeah, it’s hard,” KSU coach Darrell Hazell said in describing the gut-wrenching defeat.
If not for a fourth-quarter rally by the Flashes, the game wouldn’t have been close. Kent State trailed 27-13 midway through the fourth quarter before rallying for two touchdowns in a 15-second span.
The Flashes capped a 96-yard drive with a 5-yard run by Keith to make it 27-20. Keith hit Dri Archer for a 60-yard completion to set up the touchdown.
On the first play after the kickoff, defensive end Zach Hitchens recovered a fumble and ran 22 yards for a touchdown that tied the score.
“It was huge. It put us right back in it late,” Hazell said. “That was a big play for us.”
Mirroring a heavyweight fight, the two teams traded touchdowns again before regulation came to a close.
The Huskies took a 34-27 lead on a scoring drive that took just 1:26 off the clock, leaving the Flashes three minutes to keep their dream season alive.
They did just that, with Keith capping the improbable, 11-play drive with a touchdown pass to tight end Tim Erjavec with 44 seconds to go that sent it into overtime at 34-34.
Hazell had praise for Keith, who bounced back from a tough stretch in the second and third quarters to make the plays to keep the Flashes alive. Keith completed 15-of-36 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown and two interceptions.
“He’s a tough-minded kid who’s been though a lot,” Hazell said. “He was able to make some plays for us down the stretch.”
NIU coach Dave Doeren complimented the Flashes and marveled at the resolve of the Huskies.
“Kent State played a great game,” NIU coach Dave 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.”
It seemed to be Kent State’s night in the first quarter.
The No. 17 Flashes raced out to a 10-0 lead before the game’s momentum flipped over to No. 21 Northern Illinois’ side late in the first quarter.
KSU took advantage of a fumbled punt on the NIU 22, and junior Dri Archer scored on a 15-yard run to make it 7-0.
A 37-yard field goal by Cortez increased the lead to 10-0 with 5:06 to go in the first quarter.
Led by Lynch, who rolled up 372 total yards in the game, NIU quickly made up lost ground and scored 17 unanswered points to take a 17-10 lead at the half.
“He’s so strong,” Hazell said of Lynch. “He plays with such great power and quickness and it’s hard to bring him down. He’s a really good player.”
The Huskies scored on a 27-yard field goal by Mathew Sims and tied the score on a 14-yard pass from Lynch to Martel Moore.
A 1-yard touchdown by Akeem Daniels gave the Huskies a 17-10 halftime lead.
The Huskies led by just seven but were dominating the game in the trenches both offensively and defensively.
The Flashes opened the second half with a drive that made it all the way to the 7-yard line before they had to settle for a 24-yard field goal by Cortez that trimmed the deficit to 17-13.
But the Huskies responded with a field goal and a touchdown drive to make it 27-13. During the touchdown drive, Lynch passed Michigan’s Denard Robinson for the most rushing yards by a FBS quarterback in a single season. Lynch finished the game with 160 yards on 36 carries to give him his 11th consecutive 100-yard rushing game.
Kent State will still be making its first trip to a bowl game since 1972 and will find out its destination on Sunday night.
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Kent State blog at http://www.ohio.com/flashes. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.