San Diego, CA—For a team that just a month ago seemed poised to crash the BCS for the second consecutive season, the wheels came off the bus for 23rd ranked Northern Illinois Thursday night in the Poinsettia Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.
Utah State, the 8-5 representative from the MWC, got on the board first with a 31 yard field goal from Nick Diaz eight minutes into the first quarter. From there the Aggies never relinquished the lead, scoring a 21-14 victory over the Mid-American Conference runner up.
The game marked the final college appearance for Huskies quarterback Jordan Lynch. After finishing third in Heisman voting, Lynch struggled mightily against Utah State, rushing for just 2.2 yards a carry, his lowest of the season. For the game the dual threat completed 20 of 35 passes for 216 yards, had a touchdown, and an interception. On the ground Lynch carried the ball 18 times for just 39 yards, ultimately falling 80 yards short of becoming the first college player to throw for 2,000 yards, and rush for 2,000 yards, in the same season.
"He is a big part of the run game, so we were able to eliminate him, make him one-dimensional and then we were able to actually find a way to run the football, which makes them one-dimensional, and the ballgame is ours," USU head coach Matt Wells said.
The Aggies beat the Huskies at their own game. Joey DeMartino, who attended high school and junior college in the San Diego area, gashed the NIU defense for 143 yards on 23 carries. The game's offensive MVP found the end zone on a 1 yard carry with just over four minutes remaining to push the USU lead to 21-7. The play was an exclamation point on a 16 play 80 yard drive that ate up more than seven minutes of the clock.
"The feeling's unreal," DeMartino said. "I couldn't ask for a better senior game to go out on and to be in front of my hometown, my family, my friends and everyone who supported me out here."
Staples of the NIU 2013 season, Utah State controlled the ground game and led the Huskies in time of possession.
"We had to find a way to keep wearing them down, and I'm going to tell you what we imposed our will on them at the end of the game," Wells said.
Northern Illinois struggled to get much going offensively the entire game. Lynch was responsible for a fumble and interception, and Huskies kicker Mathew Sims missed field goal attempts of 37 and 29 yards.
"We weren't able to move it like we normally do," Northern Illinois head coach Rod Carey said.
Lynch, the record holder for rushing yards in a season for a quarterback, pushed his total to 1,920. Utah State stymied the rushing attack on Thursday night though, and NIU was unable to produce in the red zone.
"We had our chances," Lynch said. "We had our chances to make some plays and score some points. We were in the red zone three times or so and we didn't come away with points. We just didn't capitalize on it."
The game featured a pair of stand out defensive performances. Northern Illinois senior safety Jimmie Ward concluded his sparkling Huskie career with an interception of Utah State quarterback Darrell Garretson. Ward, who has been selected to participate in the 2014 Senior Bowl, also deflected two passes.
For the Aggies, Brian Suite created havoc all over the field. The junior safety from Honolulu picked off Lynch, recovered his fumble, and totaled 11 tackles. Senior Jake Doughty also found himself in the Huskies backfield all evening.
"It's all about mentality. In the whole second half, we wanted to prove to everybody in the nation that we've got one of the top defenses," said Doughty, who was named the defensive MVP. "It's times like that, that true defenses come to play and come to produce. That mentality is what we've tried to cement into our players, and into everybody else."
Utah State notched back to back bowl wins for the first time in school history.
"That's another ceiling Utah State just broke. To beat a team like that on the national stage was big time for these kids," Wells said. "The way they did it was typical fashion, just blue collar and toughness and tremendous defense the whole game."
The loss drops the Mid-American Conference to 0-4 for the 2013-14 bowl season. They'll have one more shot at a victory when Ball State meets Arkansas State January 5th in the Go Daddy Bowl.