Worst to first! Huskies crowned MAC Champions with blowout win over Kent State

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DETROIT, MICHIGAN – DECEMBER 04: Rocky Lombardi #12 of the Northern Illinois Huskies celebrates after running in for a touchdown in the second half against the Kent State Golden Flashes at Ford Field on December 04, 2021 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images)

DETROIT – When no one believed, they did. From winter workouts, through spring practices, summer throwing sessions to fall camp, a third-year head coach and a transfer quarterback led the second-youngest team in the Football Bowl Subdivision to a championship no one predicted.

The 2021 Northern Illinois University Huskies completed a historic “worst to first” journey to the school’s sixth Mid-American Conference title all-time – and fifth win in the MAC Championship game since 2011 – with a 41-23 victory over Kent State Saturday at Ford Field in Detroit.

“We had a plan, we had a vision,” said NIU head coach Thomas Hammock. “I told them to buy the dip. We built this thing the right way with the right type of men in our program. They went out there and played phenomenal today. They gave us every opportunity to win the game and now they can say they’re MAC Champs.

“Not only did they do everything I asked, but they believed. Belief is the hardest thing you can get a team to buy into. A couple times I asked [QB] Rocky [Lombardi] in the offseason ‘do you think they believe?’ He said, ‘I don’t know but we’ll get ’em there.’ All we did was work together as a football team, as a staff, we became a team and I couldn’t be more proud of everybody involved.”

After earning seven of its eight wins by one-score margins, the Huskies’ ninth win of the season came without a hint of late-game suspense, especially after freshman safety C.J. Brown scored on a 20-yard interception return with 3:55 to play in the third quarter to give NIU a 24-3 lead.

Brown’s turning point play came with NIU leading 17-3 and Kent State on its own 20. He stepped in front of a Dustin Crum pass and went 26 yards untouched into the end zone for his first career interception.

Kent State narrowed the margin back to 14 with 27 seconds left in the third quarter when Crum hit Nykiem Johnson for a 17-yard score, but the Huskies sealed the win by scoring on each of its next two possessions. First, with an eight-play, 75-yard drive that took 4:33 off the clock and ended when Lombardi scored the second of his three touchdowns on the day, as he strolled into the end zone from five yards out on a naked bootleg. Wide receiver Trayvon Rudolph made the catch of the day when he kept his toes in bounds on a 32-yard reception from Lombardi to convert on third and 15.

Freshman Jay Ducker ran for 146 yards on 29 carries to lead a potent NIU rushing attack that chewed up yards and kept Kent State’s vaunted “FlashFast” offense off the field. The Huskies ran the ball 61 times for 266 yards and held the ball for 40 minutes (40:01). Lombardi scored three of NIU’s four rushing TDs with Clint Ratkovich giving NIU the early 10-0 lead with a two-yard run in the first quarter.

Ducker earned the game’s Offensive MVP honor, while Brown took the Defensive MVP trophy and kicker John Richardson was named the Special Teams MVP.

NIU built a 17-0 first half lead with three long, ball control drives. Richardson put the Huskies in front 3-0 on NIU’s opening drive after a 10-play, 41-yard drive that took 5:10 off the clock.  Jay Ducker’s 28-yard kickoff return put NIU on its 41-yard line to start the drive and a Lombardi to Tucker completion on fourth and three extended it. NIU reached the Kent State 19 and from there, Richardson connected on his 19th field goal of the season. He added a 20th, from 30 yards out, to complete the Huskies’ scoring with 2:01 remaining. 

NIU stopped Kent State on its own 42-yard line on the Golden Flashes’ first possession of the game – a scenario the Huskie defense repeated throughout the day – and the Huskies took a 10-0 lead with a 10-play, 78-yard drive that lasted 4:57. 

Junior rover Dillon Thomas stopped the next Kent State drive with a beautiful interception, just the Huskies’ second INT of the season. From its 19-yard line, NIU embarked on its longest scoring drive of the season, a 15-play, 81-yard march that lasted 7:52 and ended with a one-yard sneak by Lombardi for a 17-0 Huskie lead that they would take into halftime. 

The Huskie defense held an offense that gained 663 yards – 322 passing – and ran 96 plays in a 52-47 win on November 3, to 391 yards, including just 128 passing by Crum, and 62 plays.  NIU held Kent State to 20 plays for 104 yards and no points in the first half. 

“How about our defense,” Hammock said. “They stepped up, they played tremendous today. They have us a chance to win the game.  We changed up some things from the last time.  Our linebackers played downhill, they played aggressive and gave us a chance to keep them behind the sticks. Hats off to our defense. We played complementary football and got the win.”

With its fifth win in the MAC Championship game, NIU tied Marshall for the most by any league team. The Huskies’ nine wins are its most since 2014. NIU will learn its postseason bowl destination on Sunday afternoon.

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