- 1 of 1 Photos | View More Photos
One of the most improbable championship runs in the history of college football could be completed tonight in Detroit.
The No. 18 Kent State Golden Flashes (11-1, 8-0 MAC), fresh off a record-shattering 2012 regular season, will attempt to capture their first Mid-American Conference championship in 40 years when they battle defending champion and 19th-ranked Northern Illinois (11-1, 8-0) in the nationally televised MAC Championship Game at Ford Field.
The shot at the MAC crown caps one of the most astonishing and abrupt turnarounds ever executed in collegiate athletics. It follows a 40-year stretch of futility that includes more winless and one-win seasons (10) than winning seasons (6), only two winning campaigns since 1977, and a stretch of 10 consecutive seasons without a winning record before this year.
It also arrives after a 1-6 start to last season, and even after a 47-14 loss at Kentucky in Week 2 of the current campaign, when a chorus of 'here we go agains' could be heard echoing around campus.
"The loss to Kentucky was the turning point to our season," said junior speedster Dri Archer. "That loss hurt a lot of people on our team, and it brought us together. We came together as one big family, and we've taken it from there."
Instead of stumbling back into their familiar losing ways, the Flashes followed that defeat with a stunning 10-game winning streak that's vaulted them into tonight's title clash.
"Back in the fall you would never have imagined that we could accomplish what we have now," senior quarterback Spencer Keith said. "It is a great feeling to be preparing for the MAC Championship Game with my teammates."
Nothing has come easy for the Flashes over the past 40 years, and tonight's game will certainly be no different.
The Huskies will carry a school-record 11-game winning streak into tonight's battle. They feature the top dual-threat quarterback in the country in junior Jordan Lynch, and a big-play defense that's generated 86 tackles for loss and 36 sacks.
"The is a very good football team we're playing," said Flashes coach Darrell Hazell. "Their quarterback runs around and creates all kinds of plays all over the field. Their defensive ends are really good. They come off the edge and create all kinds of issues. This is going to be a great challenge for us."
The Flashes have faced several great quarterbacks this season, but none with the ability to both run and pass effectively like Lynch (6-foot, 216). The first-year starter is completing 64 percent of his passes (203-of-319) for 2,750 yards with 23 touchdowns compared to just four interceptions, and has also rushed for over 1,600 yards and 16 scores, averaging 6.9 yards per carry.
Lynch, who captured the Vern Smith Leadership Award as the MAC's top player, ranks third in the country in total offense, fifth in rushing and 12th in passing efficiency. He is only the second player in FBS history to rush for over 1,500 yards and pass for over 2,500 yards in a single season.
"That quarterback's phenomenal," said Hazell. "What he does with the ball in his hands, he's like a magician. He's the most complete quarterback in the league. And he's smart."
Lynch's favorite target is senior Martel Moore (6-0, 183), who has caught 67 passes for 1,015 yards and 11 touchdowns. He's protected by a solid offensive line anchored by sophomore left tackle Tyler Loos that's paving the way for an offense averaging over 40 points and 482 yards per game, even though not a single starting lineman returned from a year ago.
While the Huskies offense gets most of the ink, the defense has been equally dominant.
First Team All-MAC senior defensive ends Alan Baxter (6-0, 240) and Sean Progar (6-2, 254) have spent the majority of the 2012 season in opposing backfields, combining for 20.5 tackles for loss and 17.5 sacks. They anchor a unit that ranks second in the MAC in points allowed (17.5) and third in rushing defense (144.8 ypg).
"Their defensive ends are really good," said KSU offensive coordinator Brian Rock. "They're just really solid across the board on defense. They don't have any weak spots. They're very fundamentally sound, great tacklers, and play with great energy."
The Huskies are also used to winning. They've captured 16 straight games against MAC foes, and are one of only two schools in the country to win 11 or more games in each of the last three seasons along with Oregon.
While competing for titles is completely foreign territory for the Flashes, Northern Illinois will play in its third consecutive MAC Championship Game. The Huskies scored 16 points in the final quarter to rally for a 23-20 victory over Ohio last year, after falling to Miami 26-21 in 2010.
Hazell believes the toughness Kent State has built up while winning six of seven road games this season will offset any edge Northern Illinois may have in big-game experience.
"I don't know if they'll have an advantage or disadvantage from playing (in the MAC title game) for three straight years," said Hazell. "All I know is that our football team this year has been extremely mature when we jumped on the bus. Our preparation has been almost flawless in terms of understanding all the things that go into winning a tough football game on the road. Hopefully we can continue that one more time."
So the stage is set for arguably the biggest football game in MAC history, two top-20 teams colliding with a potential BCS bowl berth at stake. A perennial powerhouse in Northern Illinois against the stunning upstart Flashes, who could reach their goals and beyond with a win tonight.
"Everyone's excited. This is a huge, huge game for this university," said Hazell. "Two great teams will be on the football field. It will be one of those games that comes down to the last couple minutes."
We're praying for you Flashes; that you play your best, and that God guides you and equips you toward a victory that's within your reach. Give it your all, for your team, your school, your community, and for yourselves! We love you guys...