Midweek MACtion continues on Wednesday night, as Kent State hosts Northern Illinois in a potential preview of the conference championship game later this season. After Week 9, the Golden Flashes were tied with Miami (Ohio) with just one loss in conference play. On the other side of the conference, the Huskies are a perfect 4-0 in league play and have a significant edge over fellow contenders Toledo, Ball State and Western Michigan going into the month of November.
Northern Illinois is quietly one of the best storylines in the Group of 5 conferences this fall. The Huskies finished the abbreviated 2020 season at 0-6, which dropped Thomas Hammock to just 5-13 in his first two years at his alma mater. Headed into Wednesday’s game, Northern Illinois has stormed to a 6-2 record, which includes wins over Georgia Tech, Toledo, Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan. The Huskies are 4-0 in MAC games and hold a commanding two-game edge over the rest of the division. Key matchups remain against Ball State and Western Michigan, but Hammock’s squad could take a big step forward in its quest to win the West Division with a victory over Kent State.
After a 1-3 start to the season, Kent State has rebounded with three victories over its last four games. The Golden Flashes faced a tough slate with Texas A&M, Iowa and Maryland in non-conference play, but this team is starting to round into form in MAC play. Coach Sean Lewis’ squad defeated Bowling Green, Buffalo and Ohio and dropped a 64-31 game at Western Michigan to arrive at 3-1 in league matchups so far. Kent State still has a tough road trek to Central Michigan on tap and the finale versus Miami (Ohio) could decide the East Division.
Northern Illinois holds a 21-7 edge over Kent State in the all-time series. These two teams won't meet every season due to crossover scheduling within the conference, but the Golden Flashes have just one win over the Huskies (2001) since '00.
Northern Illinois at Kent State
Kickoff: Wednesday, Nov. 3 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Kent State -3.5
When Northern Illinois Has the Ball
There isn't a ton of mystery surrounding the offensive game plan for Northern Illinois. The Huskies are a run-first operation, leading the MAC in both rushing offense (232.5 ypg) and attempts per contest (47.4). This unit also ranks second in the conference in yards per carry (4.91) and paces the MAC in most runs of 20-plus yards (16). Additionally, in terms of play-calling, NIU leans to the run nearly 70 percent (68.4) of the time.
Production on the ground has remained consistent no matter which running back Hammock puts into the game. Harrison Waylee (574 yards) leads the team with Jay Ducker (478), Clint Ratkovich (231), and Antario Brown (205) also chipping in. Waylee has missed the last three games due to injury and is not on the depth chart for Wednesday's game. Assuming he's out, Brown and Ducker are likely to handle the bulk of the carries. Kent State's defensive front will be challenged to slow the Huskies on the ground, as this unit enters Wednesday night's game giving up 185.4 rushing yards per contest. The Golden Flashes allowed more than 300 yards on the ground against Buffalo and Western Michigan but limited Ohio to 135 in their last matchup.
Northern Illinois ranks last in the MAC in passing attempts (175) and production (165.5 ypg), but Michigan State transfer Rocky Lombardi has delivered when needed this year. Lombardi threw for 348 yards in the win over Central Michigan and connected on 11 of 17 passes in NIU's upset of Georgia Tech. For the season, Lombardi has connected on 57.8 percent of his throws for 1,321 yards and nine touchdowns to six picks. He's also another threat for Hammock on the ground, posting 323 yards and five scores over 55 attempts.
When Lombardi drops back to pass, Tyrice Richie (40 catches) has dominated the targets for the Huskies this year. Trayvon Rudolph (18) is the next option for Lombardi but no other receiver has grabbed more than 12 receptions.
Defense has been an issue for Kent State in recent seasons and remains a concern going into Wednesday night. The Golden Flashes have ranked ninth or worse in the MAC in scoring defense for each of the last five years and are surrendering 37.3 points in conference games this fall. This unit is giving up 6.2 yards per snap and has struggled to get off the field on third downs or getting to the quarterback (12 sacks). Kent State has fared a little better versus the pass, ranking fourth in the MAC in pass efficiency defense through eight games.
When Kent State Has the Ball
Kent State possesses one of the MAC’s top offenses, with the stat sheet skewed a bit after playing three Power 5 opponents in non-conference play. Lewis' group is averaging 35 points through four MAC contests and nearly six yards per snap (5.98). Also, the Golden Flashes lead the MAC in plays of 40-plus yards (14) and have lost just five turnovers. Although quarterback Dustin Crum is the catalyst for this unit, the Golden Flashes are balanced (220.1 rushing yards a game to 230.4 through the air).
Crum's overall production through the air is down a bit from last year, but the senior is still connecting on 62.3 percent of his passes for 1,770 yards and nine touchdowns to two picks. Also, Crum has rushed for 368 yards and six scores, including 93 in the Oct. 23 win over Ohio. Dante Cephas (50 catches) and Nykeim Johnson (35) are Crum's favorite targets, with Keshunn Abram (22) and Ja'Shaun Poke (eight) rounding out the secondary weapons. Northern Illinois ranks fifth in the MAC in pass efficiency defense but has been vulnerable to big plays downfield (11 completions of 40-plus yards allowed) and struggles to get to the quarterback (11 sacks).
If Northern Illinois manages to slow Crum and Kent State's receivers, Lewis could turn to the ground game a little more to test a defense allowing 31.5 points a contest. Marquez Cooper leads the Golden Flashes with 558 yards, with Xavier Williams (378) and Crum (368) contributing to an attack that averages 220.3 rushing yards a game. The Huskies are giving up 5.4 yards per carry and rank near the bottom of the MAC in runs of 40-plus yards allowed. Although Northern Illinois faced less than 30 rushing attempts in each of its last three games, opposing teams have rushed for at least 135 yards (and over 5.7 yards per carry) in each of those contests.
A couple of x-factors loom large in this matchup. Kent State is plus-14 in turnover margin, while Northern Illinois is minus-two. Also, the Huskies have been much better in the red zone (converting 96.8 attempts into scores), with the Golden Flashes checking in at 79.5 percent. The Huskies rank near the top of the MAC in time of possession, which isn’t necessarily a key stat on Wednesday night, but it also tells us a lot about how this game will play out. Northern Illinois wants to pound away with its strong ground attack, testing a struggling Kent State rush defense. If the Huskies can control the pace of the game and limit Crum's opportunities, that’s the best way to avoid a high-scoring shootout and tilt the game in NIU's favor. The Golden Flashes would like to speed up this game, forcing Northern Illinois to get out of its comfort zone and throw more than it would like.
Prediction: Northern Illinois 34, Kent State 31
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