Northern Illinois wins MAC and BCS lobbying begins


Northern Illinois wins MAC and BCS lobbying begins

DETROIT (AP) After two straight Mid-American Conference titles, Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren figures his team is worthy of a major reward.

The Huskies are hoping to play in a BCS bowl - and although their chances appear slim, Doeren wasted no time promoting his team's credentials.

``You look at the top 16 teams in the BCS, and you aren't going to find a team that plays as consistently as we do, wins every game they are supposed to win, and plays as well as we do in every phase of the game,'' Doeren said.

``We got big plays on offense when we needed them tonight, we got big plays on defense, and our kicker made every kick we needed. I don't know anyone else who brings all of that.''

Jordan Lynch ran for three touchdowns, including a 2-yarder in the second overtime, and Demetrius Stone's interception in the end zone gave No. 19 Northern Illinois a 44-37 victory over No. 18 Kent State in a stirring MAC championship game Friday night.

Both teams were hoping a win would boost them into the top 16 of the BCS rankings and give them a berth in one of college football's marquee bowls. Kent State was No. 17 in those standings coming in. The Huskies were No. 21 and need an unlikely jump.

Northern Illinois could pass Kent State and UCLA, which is 16th in the BCS rankings but lost the Pac-12 title game to Stanford on Friday night. Texas is 18th and plays at Kansas State on Saturday, while Boise State is 20th and plays at Nevada. But Michigan is 19th and doesn't play at all this weekend.

The Huskies (12-1) dominated for much of the night, but the Golden Flashes (11-2) tied it at 34 in the final minute of regulation.

Kent State trailed 27-13 earlier in the fourth before scoring two touchdowns in a 15-second span.

It was 34-all at the end of regulation, and after the teams traded field goals in the first overtime, Northern Illinois needed only two plays to reach the end zone. A 23-yard run by Akeem Daniels set up Lynch's final TD.

Kent State reached the 9, but on fourth down Spencer Keith had to scramble to his right and throw a desperation pass that was picked off by Stone in the end zone.

``That was a great football game, but it is going to be hard for us to swallow for a few days,'' Kent State coach Darrell Hazell said. ``Lynch is just an extraordinary football player, and we had a lot of trouble tackling him. We're not the first team he's done that against.''

Northern Illinois won its second straight MAC title, the first team to do that since Central Michigan in 2006-07.

Lynch threw for 212 yards and ran for 160, but it almost wasn't enough. Northern Illinois' three previous trips to the MAC title game were decided in the final minute, and this one took even longer.

Down by two touchdowns, Kent State rallied in stunning fashion. Keith's 5-yard touchdown run with 4:53 remaining in the fourth quarter capped a 96-yard drive. Then Lynch fumbled on what looked like a botched exchange with Daniels, and Zack Hitchens picked up the ball for the Golden Flashes and went 22 yards to the end zone.

``It was two great players making a mistake, and as soon as they got off the field, I told them that we were going right back to them on the next drive,'' Doeren said.

Lynch weaved his way to a 9-yard touchdown run with 3:12 remaining, but Kent State again had an answer. Keith scrambled to his left and threw a 19-yard scoring pass to Tim Erjavec with 44 seconds to play.

It was the first MAC championship game to go to overtime - a thrilling finish for a league that doesn't always get much attention. This year's title game had more at stake because of the BCS implications, and the league embraced a Twitter-friendly buzzword that seemed particularly appropriate Friday night.

``I love the word `MACtion' that everyone is using,'' Doeren said. ``You've got great teams and great coaches in this league - we prove that every year - and we just went out with a huge target on our backs and won every game. That's a great accomplishment.''

The Huskies haven't lost to a MAC opponent since Oct. 1, 2011. Their only defeat this season was against Iowa in the season opener.

With Northern Illinois leading 17-13 in the third quarter Friday, Lynch led the Huskies on a 10-play, 75-yard drive and capped it with a 1-yard touchdown run. The highlight of that drive was Lynch's 44-yard run to the Kent State 4. On the play, Lynch broke the major-college record for yards rushing by a quarterback in a single season. He finished the game with 1,771 yards. The previous mark was 1,702 by Michigan's Denard Robinson in 2010.

The Golden Flashes got off to the start they wanted, taking a 10-0 lead in the first quarter. But that was a bit deceiving. Kent State's touchdown came after A.J. Sebastiano fumbled on a punt return, giving the Golden Flashes the ball at the 22. Dri Archer's 15-yard scoring run made it 7-0.

Kent State took advantage of a short field again after a Northern Illinois punt bounced backward and was downed at the NIU 36. Freddy Cortez kicked a 37-yard field goal.

It was all Huskies for the rest of the half. They tied it at 10 on a 14-yard pass from Lynch to Martel Moore in the second quarter. Dechan Durante then made an acrobatic interception, reaching over receiver Chris Humphrey to pick off Keith's pass near the sideline.

Northern Illinois drove 58 yards in 12 plays and took a 17-10 lead on a 1-yard touchdown run by Daniels.

The Huskies outgained Kent State 245-50 in the half and 524-260 for the game.

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Road ahead suggests a wild finish in Eastern Conference playoff race

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Road ahead suggests a wild finish in Eastern Conference playoff race

The Eastern Conference standings are so closely bunched as of today that the third-place Cleveland Cavaliers are only 1 1/2 games ahead of the sixth-place Philadelphia 76ers. With roughly a dozen games remaining for each NBA team, much can and likely will change over the next several weeks.

That is common for this time of the year, but a closer look suggests we could be in for some chaos in the final stretch. There are lopsided remaining schedules and impending personnel changes which could all contribute to one of the wildest regular season finishes in recent memory.

The Wizards are smack dab in the middle of the East playoff race and have their own circumstances to navigate. Let's take a team-by-team look at the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, knowing the top two seeds are all but locked up by the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics...


3. Cleveland Cavaliers (41-29, 12 games left)

Monday was a crazy day for the Cavaliers. First, they announced their head coach Tyronn Lue is taking a leave of absence to deal with an undiagnosed health issue. He will be replaced by associate head coach Larry Drew in the interim as he hopes to heal up before the playoffs.

Then, news broke they were getting Kevin Love back from a broken wrist after missing 21 games. Love returned to put up 18 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two blocks in a big win over the Milwaukee Bucks. 

The Cavaliers will be without their coach for an undefined period of time, but now have their second-best player back on the court. That makes their final part of the season extra fascinating.

The Cavs are the team to watch of this group. Even though this season has been filled with turmoil, they still have LeBron James. He and Love have helped form the core of the last three Eastern Conference champion teams. If they pick things up, it's not crazy to consider them among the favorites to get out of the East again.


4. Indiana Pacers (41-30, 11 games left)

The Pacers are mostly healthy as they only feature a slew of minor injuries to big men Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. But Indiana's remaining schedule is unusually tough and it could make the difference in where they end up.

With only 11 games remaining, the Pacers still have to play the first-place Toronto Raptors once and the Golden State Warriors twice. Six of their last eight games will be on the road. They also see the Heat, Pelicans, Nuggets and Clippers.

The Clippers are currently ninth in the West and battling to make the playoffs. The Pacers will play them twice.

Keep in mind the Wizards own the season series over Indiana and will have a playoff seeding tiebreaker if they end up with the same record. Also worth noting is the Pacers have been much better at home (24-13) than on the road (17-17) this season.


5. Washington Wizards (40-30, 12 games left)

Though the Wizards' schedule is finally letting up soon from the 13 straight playoff teams stretch they have had to endure dating back to February, they too have a tough road ahead. The Wizards still have to play the Spurs (twice), Rockets, Cavaliers, Celtics and Nuggets. Four of their last six games are on the road and they have three back-to-back sets in their final seven games.

That's brutal. They may not have to see the defending champions twice like Indiana does, but the Wizards don't exactly have it easy.

The Wizards will, however, get John Wall back at some point. The five-time All-Star is slowly but surely working his way back and could participate in a full practice by the end of the week. Ideally they will get some games under his belt before the playoffs, but any time an All-NBA player is coming back to your team it's a good thing.

The problem is that there is little room for error in the standings and head coach Scott Brooks will have to reinsert Wall into the lineup during a tough schedule and while Wall is on a minutes restriction. It will be a tricky task to balance his lineups. 


6. Philadelphia 76ers (39-30, 13 games left)

The Sixers may have the most ideal road ahead of these four teams, at least in terms of their schedule. They still have the Timberwolves, Nuggets, Cavs and Bucks. But none of those teams are the juggernauts that Golden State, Houston and Toronto are. And of their final 13 games, the Sixers will play nine against teams outside of the playoff picture.

Philly also does not have to reincorporate a major piece into their rotation, like the Cavs do with Love and the Wizards with Wall. Their biggest injury is to Markelle Fultz, the 2017 No. 1 overall pick. If he does return this season, it will likely be in a minimal role, at least to start.

What could work against the Sixers is their inexperience and recent struggles against good teams. The Sixers are relying on very young players who have never been here before to carry the way. And since Valentine's Day, Philly has just one win against a team above the .500 mark, when they beat the Cavs on March 1. During those 14 games since Feb. 14, they have beaten up on the bad teams but lost to the Wizards, Bucks, Pacers and Heat (twice), basically all the teams surrounding them in the standings. 

Philly also lost their season series against the Cavs and Pacers, tied with the Wizards and are down 2-1 against the Bucks with one game to go. They may go to the finish line without a playoff tiebreaker against all the teams they would want one against.

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Ryan Grant reportedly signing with Colts after failed physical with Ravens

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Ryan Grant reportedly signing with Colts after failed physical with Ravens

It looks like Ryant Grant has found his new home, again.

After a failed physical with the Ravens, James Jones of NFL Network reports Grant plans to sign with the Colts.


Grant originally agreed to a four-year, $29 million deal with the Ravens, before the team pulled the offer citing an ankle injury that dated to the Redskins' final regular-season game, according to reports.

Baltimore eventually signed Michael Crabtree to a three-year deal, while Grant had visits with the Colts and Raiders.

His agent, Rocky Arceneaux, says Grant has been working out, running routes, and his ankle had been cleared by Dr. Robert Anderson in a second opinion.

In 2017 with the Redskins, he appeared in all 16 games, with 45 receptions for 573 yards and four touchdowns.