Utah State 21, Northern Illinois 14
Basically … Utah State battered and bruised its way to a tough win, getting up early on two Nick Diaz field goals and overcoming a 7-6 halftime deficit after Jordan Lynch gave NIU the lead on a one-yard touchdown run. The Aggies took advantage of a break to take the lead back on a five-yard Brandon Swindall catch, but they didn't control the game until the fourth quarter following a missed Mathew Sims field goal, going on a 16-play, 80-yard drive finishing up with a Joey DeMartino touchdown run with just over four minutes to play. NIU forced a takeaway and scored on a 15-yard touchdown catch from Juwan Brescacin in the final minutes, but failed to recover the onside kick.
- Rushing yards: Utah State 168 – NIU 99
- Utah State RB Joey DeMartino ran 23 times for 143 yards and a score
- Northern Illinois QB Jordan Lynch completed 20-of-35 passes for 216 yards and a score with a pick, and ran 18 times for 39 yards and a touchdown
- Northern Illinois PK Mathew Sims was 0-2 on field goals missing from 37 and 29 yards out
- Utah State LB Nick Vigil made seven tackles with 1.5 sacks
- Utah State SS Brian Suite made a game-leading 11 tackles with a pick
Utah State (8-5) vs. Northern Illinois (12-1) Dec. 26, 9:30, ESPN
Here's The Deal … It might not be a BCS game, but compared to where Bowling Green is – Detroit – as the MAC champion – going to San Diego in late December isn't all that bad.
Northern Illinois certainly hoped for more, though, with a fantastic regular season going 12-0 and being front-and-center in the BCS buster debate all year long. The Huskies beat Iowa, whacked Purdue and rolled through the slate with Jordan Lynch and the offense destroying everything in their path. And then came the MAC title game against a strong and worthy Bowling Green team, and off to the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl it is.
So how good is this NIU team? Is it as strong as Oklahoma and Clemson, two of the BCS at-large teams? Talent-wise, no, but the offense is strong enough to give just about anyone without a devastating defense problems. Is it as good as Fresno State, the other non-BCS team that hung around the chase all year? Defensively, it's better, but it doesn't have the same sort of offensive firepower. That's just fine with a Utah State team that did a great job of keeping Derek Carr and the Bulldogs in check.
Utah State had every excuse to be mediocre. It's not like the program is Alabama and just reloads every year; losing a coach like Gary Andersen hurts, and the injury to star quarterback Chuckie Keeton was a tough blow to get over. But the Aggies kept on pressing, fought through some inconsistencies and tough, close losses to Utah and USC to do what they needed to get done in the Mountain West to win the Mountain Division.
The defense might be perfect to challenge Lynch and the NIU O, while the offense has just enough toughness to potentially keep up if this somehow gets into any sort of a shootout.
This is eighth bowl appearance for the Aggies and just the third since 1997, going to the Famous Idaho Potato each of the last two years, blasting Toledo last season and losing 24-23 to Ohio two years ago. Utah State just 2-5, while NIU is 4-4 all-time, going bowling for the sixth year in a row and winning two of the last three with the loss coming last year in the Orange to Florida State.
The Poinsettia has been hit-or-miss over its eight year existence. BYU and Kyle Van Noy stomped all over San Diego State last season for the game's third blowout in four years, but TCU and Boise State played a 17-16 thriller in 2008 and Utah beat Navy in a 35-32 classic in 2007. If nothing else, this matchup is even and should be intriguing, even if the final score doesn't reflect it.
Players to Watch: Northern Illinois' Heisman finalist Jordan Lynch really is that good. He's not an NFL quarterback – he doesn't have the passing arm or the size – but he's an incredible athlete and an elusive, quick runner who slips his way through the hole and around the edge. Able to take a pounding, he carried the ball 20 times or more eight times and over 101 times in the last four games. 119 yards away from the 2,000-yard season, he hit the mark in each of his last five games and hit the 300-yard mark against both Central Michigan and Western Michigan. However, he'll have to loosen up the Utah State defense a bit with the passing game, and while he doesn't stretch the field deep, he's sharp at taking advantage of safeties cheating up to try stopping him from taking off.
The Utah State linebackers are disciplined enough and sound enough to keep Lynch and the NIU running game in check – at least that's their hope. Senior Jake Doughty is a big, physical veteran with great strength and a nose for the ball, The two-time all-star followed up a 109-tackle season with 140 stops with ten or more in each of his last four games and a 19-tackle effort in the middle of the year against Boise State. While he's not used much as a pass rusher, he's great at getting into the backfield. Running mate Zach Vigil will take over as the leader of the defense next year, but for now, he does a little of everything with 116 tackles and 12.5 tackles for loss. These two don't miss tackles and need to keep Lynch from breaking free for big, back-breaking runs.
The NIU offense could take on a whole other look than it did against Bowling Green if Da'Ron Brown can get healthy. While he was out for the MAC championship with a hamstring injury that was a problem late in the year catching just one pass in the final three games, he came up big in the vital win over Ball State with eight catches for 209 yards and two touchdowns. Lynch's go-to receiver, he led the team with 42 catches for 689 yards and nine scores – he has to stretch the field.
Northern Illinois will win if … it makes Utah State throw the ball. The Aggies aren't a juggernaut on the ground, but they're at their best when they can control the game and the clock. Darell Garretson filled in for an injured Chuckie Keeton and directed a great second half of the year, highlighted by a 370-yard passing day against Hawaii and a 288-yard performance against UNLV. However, he's a bit inconsistent and struggled in a huge way in the Mountain West title game against Fresno State, completing just 12-of-26 passes for 198 yards and a pick before getting nailed on a huge hit. He's good, but NIU will take its chances against his passing arm; it doesn't want to give up big yards to the backs.
To make sure that Garretson doesn't control the game, the Huskies have to sell out a bit to make things happen behind the line. That's easier said than done for a defense that doesn't generate enough pressure from the front, but it has to take advantage of a leaky Utah State offensive line. The Aggie front five is great overall, but gives up way, way too many big plays in the backfield.
Utah State will win if … it keeps Mr. Lynch and the offense on the sidelines, and it doesn't make a slew of mistakes. It hasn't been a hard and fast rule this season that Utah State loses when it screws up, but the errors don't help the cause. The Aggies committed eight penalties or more five times and lost three of those games with the 11 flags against USC and eight against Fresno State playing a key role in the defeats. NIU hasn't had problems with penalties over the second half of the season and has only been on the wrong side of the turnover margin twice – once was the close call to Eastern Illinois, and the other the loss to Bowling Green.
More importantly, Utah State needs to go on long, sustained drives. NIU doesn't really seem to care about time of possession, and the Aggies have to take advantage. Ninth in the nation and first in the Mountain West in third down conversions, the USU offense has the potential to make Lynch have to hustle a bit more when he's on the field – the Huskie O might not get enough chances.
What Will Happen: Can Northern Illinois make amends for the poor showing against Bowling Green? This isn't a great matchup for NIU against the defensive front that allowed over 100 yards just once in the last five games. The Aggie linebackers will be better than the Huskie backfield.
Prediction: Utah State 27 … Northern Illinois 24
Line: Northern Illinois -1.5 … o/u: 58
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