The big boys can finally rest easy.
Jordan Lynch rushed for 160 yards and three touchdowns while adding a passing score as 19th-ranked Northern Illinois captured its second straight MAC Championship with an action-packed 44-37 double-overtime victory over No. 18 Kent State in the conference title game, spoiling the Golden Flashes' hopes of crashing the BCS party in the process.
Lynch added 212 yards with one interception on 19-of-34 passing in addition to his 36 rushing attempts, with Akeem Daniels finishing with 128 yards on 17 totes for Northern Illinois (12-1), which extended its program-record winning streak to 12 games after withstanding a furious fourth-quarter rally from the Golden Flashes.
"Everybody believed," Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren said. "I think that's what we do. We've been in tough places before and I'm just really proud of the resolve and the leadership and the instinctiveness our team has."
The loss was costly for Kent State (11-2) -- and the MAC as well. A victory would have given the Golden Flashes a good chance of cracking the top-16 of the BCS standings and thereby automatically qualifying for a berth in one of the major bowls.
Kent State entered the game ranked 17th in the latest BCS poll.
The Huskies will have a harder time earning a place in what would likely be the Orange Bowl, as Northern Illinois was listed 21st in the most recent rankings.
Kent State fought back from a 27-13 fourth-quarter deficit with two touchdowns within an 15-second span, then later forced overtime on Spencer Keith's 19- yard pass to Tim Erjavec with 44 seconds in regulation that tied the score at 34-34.
Keith also had a rushing touchdown for the Golden Flashes, but completed just 15-of-36 throws for 190 yards and was intercepted twice.
"Well, what a great football game," said Kent State head coach Darrell Hazell. "It's a tough one for us to swallow right now. That's a great football team we played and they did an excellent job, and I was proud of our football team for keep battling back after being down by 14 points. We just needed to make a couple more plays at the end on both sides of the ball."
What was billed as the biggest game in MAC history had little drama heading into the final stages of regulation, with Northern Illinois owning a 14-point lead with under five minutes to go in regulation. However, the Golden Flashes drew even in a flash, putting up a pair of touchdowns on back-to-back plays from scrimmage to set up the frantic finish.
Dri Archer sparked the comeback by turning a short pass into a 60-yard gain deep into NIU territory, and Keith willed his way into the end zone from five yards out shortly afterward to pull Kent State within 27-20 with 4:53 remaining.
Kent's defense then rose to the occasion, with Lynch mishandling the exchange on the very next snap after the kickoff and Zack Hitchens scooping up the loose ball and racing 22 yards to tie the score.
The Huskies would have a quick response, however, needing only four plays to march 75 yards and go back ahead.
Lynch hit Daniels out of the backfield for a 43-yard scamper to the Kent 23, and Daniels ripped off a 14-yard run before Lynch scored his second TD of the night to put NIU in front by a 34-27 count with 3:12 to play.
Keith struggled throughout much of the evening, but came up with several big plays down the stretch to keep the Flashes' BCS dreams alive.
He completed an 11-yard pass to Matthew Hurdle on 3rd-and-10 to sustain the late drive, then later hit Chris Humphrey for seven yards on a 3rd-and-3 to the Huskies' 33.
Faced with another third down situation, Keith evaded a rush and fired a bullet to Erjavec in the end zone from 19 yards away with just 44 seconds showing on the clock. Freddy Cortez made the subsequent point-after try to knot the score at 34-34 and ultimately bring on an extra session.
"I always tell the guys to stay calm and take it one play at a time and that's what we did," said Keith. "Even when we got to third down and 10, that type of situation, we were just focused on the next play and tried to execute that. The quick passes were working, guys were getting open and the line did a great job protecting in the fourth quarter and in overtime, and we just got things rolling with that."
Both teams came up with stops in the first overtime, with an ill-fated reverse attempt to Erjavec resulting in an 11-yard loss that prompted Cortez's 33-yard field goal on Kent State's initial possession. The Huskies failed to net a first down on their chance, but Mathew Sims delivered a clutch 40-yard kick to induce a second OT.
Northern Illinois would get the ball first, and Daniels broke through for a 23-yard run to the Kent State 2 to begin the series. Lynch barreled across the goal line on the next snap for a 44-37 Huskies' advantage.
With help from a defensive pass interference penalty, the Flashes got inside the NIU 10 on their opportunity. However, Keith misfired on two straight passes to force fourth down, then was picked off by Demetrius Stone in the end zone to have its school-record 10-game win streak come to an end.
Kent State started out strongly, opening up a 10-0 first-quarter lead after taking advantage of two special-teams blunders by the Huskies.
Darius Polk recovered a fumbled punt by the Huskies' Angelo Sebastiano on the NIU 22-yard line, leading to Archer's 15-yard touchdown run for the game's first points. An 18-yard punt by Northern Illinois' Ryan Neir later put the Golden Flashes in position for Cortez's 37-yard field goal that extended the differential to 10 points.
Lynch and the NIU offense got untracked afterward, however, with the MAC Player of the Year directing three straight scoring possessions to put his team ahead.
Sims capped a 14-play, 65-yard march with a 27-yard field goal to get the Huskies on the board in the final minute of the first quarter, and Lynch led a 6-play, 59-yard sequence on Northern Illinois' next series that ended with his 14-yard strike to Martel Moore.
After Dechante Durante's interception of Keith on Kent State's ensuing touch again provided the Huskies with good field position, NIU went 58 yards in 12 plays to reach the end zone again on Daniels' 1-yard plunge, giving the Huskies their first lead at 17-10 with 5:53 to go before halftime.
Northern Illinois would maintain a 7-point edge at the break, but Kent State drew closer on Cortez's 24-yard field goal on the opening drive of the third quarter, a score set up by Trayion Durham's 22-yard gain on a screen pass.
The Huskies would come up with points on their next two possessions, however, to take a seemingly comfortable 27-13 margin into the fourth quarter.
Lynch burst through for a 44-yard run off right tackle on 4th-and-1 to highlight the first drive, which he ended with a 1-yard touchdown midway through the third quarter. After the NIU defense caused a quick three-and-out, the Huskies moved into the red zone before eventually settling for Sims' 29- yard field goal.
The aforementioned 44-yard run gave Lynch an FBS single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback, surpassing Michigan's Denard Robinson's 1,702 yards in 2010.
Lynch now has 1,771 rushing yards on the season and extended his FBS record of consecutive 100-yard rushing games by a quarterback to 11 ... The Huskies finished with a 312-70 advantage in yards gained on the ground and outgained Kent State by a 524-260 margin in total yards ... Northern Illinois became the first repeat MAC champion since Central Michigan did so in 2006 and 2007 ... The West division champion has now prevailed in five of the last seven MAC title games ... The contest marked the first MAC Championship to feature two nationally ranked programs since Miami-Ohio and Bowling Green squared off in 2003.