DETROIT: Orange Bowl officials were in the house.
Fans were prowling the concourse in Ford Field wearing hooded yellow sacks that made them look like bananas.
Kent State coach Darrell Hazell was bananas, or as close as he’s ever come to it, waving his arms to urge on the crowd as he led his team out of the tunnel and sprinted down the sideline.
The stage was set for an improbable KSU season to become the stuff of which movies are made.
After taking an early lead in Friday night’s Mid-American Conference Championship, No. 17 KSU ran into a buzz saw for two quarters. It found itself matched against a No. 21 Northern Illinois team that had a better running game, a quarterback who never saw a third down he couldn’t convert and a defense that became more ferocious with each snap.
But Kent State found its will in the fourth quarter. The dream of a BCS bowl was hanging in the balance, and the game lived up to its reward.
Northern Illinois escaped in a 44-37 in double-overtime thriller, the first time the MAC Championship has not ended in regulation. Cornerback Demetrius Stone picked off Spencer Keith’s pass on fourth-and-8 from the 9-yard line to snuff KSU’s hopes.
Kent State staged a stunning rally in the fourth quarter, scoring two touchdowns in a span of 15 seconds on a 5-yard run by Keith and a 22-yard fumble return by defensive end Zach Hitchens to tie the score. After a Jordan Lynch touchdown run, Keith threw a 22-yard scoring pass to tight end Tim Erjavec with 44 seconds remaining to force the extra time.
With its “One Team One Destiny” motto, Kent State wanted to be the one that brought the MAC an $8 million BCS bowl windfall. It was already assured of its first bowl appearance in 40 years, had won a school-record 11 games and carried a 10-game winning streak, which was snapped by the Huskies.
The outcome didn’t spoil the miraculous resurgence of Kent State, which started 1-6 in Hazell’s first season in 2011 before finishing 5-7. But it certainly put a damper on several seasons of dreams that were first ignited in Kent when the Golden Flashes made their first appearance in the College World Series earlier this year.
As they wait to learn their bowl destination, Hazell and the Golden Flashes will be haunted by the amazing plays made by NIU redshirt junior quarterback Jordan Lynch. With a laser arm and even better feet, Lynch repeatedly broke tackles and was virtually unstoppable. For most of the game, the Flashes’ defense also seemed to struggle against the Huskies’ hurry-up offense, KSU’s Achilles’ heel all season.
Lynch is a Tim Tebow who can throw. With a 43-yard run in the third quarter, Lynch broke the NCAA record for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a single season. He came in with 1,611 yards and added 160 more, surpassing Michigan’s Denard Robinson’s 1,702 in 2010. He also threw for 212 yards and a touchdown and ran for three scores.
Lynch also entered with a total of 4,361 yards total offense — 2,750 yards and 23 touchdowns passing, 16 touchdowns rushing. He extended his NCAA record for quarterbacks with his 11th consecutive 100-yard rushing game. It seems baffling that the Chicago native ended up at a MAC school.
And to think Lynch was sitting behind Chandler Harnish, an Indianapolis Colts rookie who was Mr. Irrelevant in the NFL Draft in April, the 253rd pick.
KSU’s halftime adjustments were fruitless against Lynch, the MAC’s offensive player of the year. Lynch exposed not only the KSU defense, but also the game plan.
But that shouldn’t tarnish the reputation of Hazell, one of the hottest coaching candidates on the planet. The outcome probably won’t keep him at Kent State, but he will find reasons from Friday night to tempt him. His team lost at NIU 40-10 last season. KSU came in ranked second in Division I with a plus-20 turnover margin and 35 takeaways and added three more, an interception by fifth-year senior safety Leon Green and a recovery on a fumbled punt by junior cornerback Darius Polk before Hitchens’ score.
But Keith struggled, his confidence seemingly deserting him along with his accuracy until he hit Dri Archer for a 60-yard gain in the fourth quarter. For the most part, the Huskies kept KSU’s talented running back duo of Archer and Trayion Durham in check, at least on the ground.
Kent State’s football program has been jump-started by Hazell. The future still looks bright, even if he departs. The Flashes weren’t the first team that had no answer for the league’s most dynamic offensive player.
Cinderella would have been nice, but KSU’s first bowl in four decades could still prompt dancing in the streets. Just not on this night.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.