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Kent St. strives for first conference title in 40 years against NIU

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Northern Illinois has been the class of the Mid-American Conference the past few years.

The Huskies have captured three consecutive MAC West titles, including a win in the MAC Championship Game last season. NIU has been to four consecutive bowl games, with a fifth on the way.

While NIU has gotten used to celebrating victories and championships, Kent State had been on the other end.

The Golden Flashes, who will meet NIU in Friday’s MAC title game in Detroit, have won just one conference title as a major conference program. Kent’s lone league crown came in 1972, when the Golden Flashes went just 6-5-1. That team, which included Pro Football Hall of Famer Jack Lambert, Alabama head coach Nick Saban and Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel, went to the Tangerine Bowl, losing to Tampa.

Kent State hasn’t competed in a bowl game since then, but will finally be able to compete in one this season, as the Golden Flashes have done a complete 180 under second-year coach Darrell Hazell.

Hazell, who came to Kent after spending seven seasons as an assistant at Ohio State, now has his team in line for a possible BCS berth with a win at Ford Field.

“I think any time that you go into a program that’s struggled so long, the hardest and biggest thing you have to change is the mindset,” Hazell said. “They are winners, and here’s the formula how to win.

“It took a little time, but I think we figured it out.”

Kent St. junior defensive tackle Roosevelt Nix was a big-time player even through the rough times, earning first team All-MAC honors his freshman and sophomore years. This season, Nix has been at it again. He’s been a thorn in the side of opposing offenses, with 5.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss.

Nix played for former Kent State head coach Doug Martin in 2010. Martin resigned after Nix’s freshman season, and in came Hazell.

Nix said Hazell really changed the attitude of the team when he left Columbus for Kent.

“He made it clear that we were going to be family. We were going to need the people that were in the room with us,” Nix said. “Attitudes and stuff like that, he really wasn’t going with that. So he changed it up. He changed it up quick.”

While the two programs that will face off Friday have been completely different throughout the past decade or so, these teams are similar.

Both teams score consistently, and each team plays great defense, as the Huskies rank second in the MAC in scoring defense (17.5 points per game), while the Golden Flashes are third (23.5 ppg). NIU and Kent each have a dynamic playmaker on offense, with quarterback Jordan Lynch and Kent State do-it-all running back Dri Archer. Both have young second-year coaches who could be in line for lucrative BCS jobs soon.

The best two teams in the conference are playing for the league championship, which can’t always be said. Just look at Saturday’s ACC title game, which features a 6-6 Georgia Tech team. Or the Pac-12 or Big Ten Championship contests.

“Sometimes you don’t get to see the best two teams play each other in the conference championship. It just doesn’t work out that way,” NIU head coach Dave Doeren said. “For the MAC to have that on the national stage I think is outstanding for our conference and the players.”

Notes from Monday’s news conference:

• Going to a BCS bowl game could be huge when it comes to recruiting. Doeren said NIU’s recent success has already benefited his team in that area. It also helps that the Huskies are the highest-ranked team in Illinois.

“It’s opened a lot of doors for conversation. I can’t tell you how many positive comments we get from the high school coaches in the state,” he said. “Just how impressed they are with not just our play but how we recruit, how we treat them, the access they get here. We’ve never not allowed a high school coach to come in here and watch tape or come to practice, bring their teams. We give them open access to everything on our campus from a football standpoint.

“To back it up with the production from the players that we have here from the state of Illinois that are on our team are playing well, are doing well, are representing their programs well. There’s some good vibes right now in-state, but it’s still an uphill grind as always. There’s competition for all these guys. But the way we’re playing definitely helps.”

• With Leighton Settle and Keith Harris Jr. out for the MAC Championship due to ankle injuries, junior tailback Akeem Daniels will get his share of carries once again.

Daniels had career-highs in yards (112) and touchdowns (4) in Friday’s 49-7 win over Eastern Michigan.

“Akeem’s a warrior. He wanted this,” Doeren said. “He wanted to be the guy all year, and he wanted it last year.”

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