This years Poinsettia Bowl features two of the top mid-majors of the past three years. The (#23) Northern Illinois Huskies (12-1, 8-1 MAC) take on the Utah State Aggies (8-5, 7-2 Mountain West). The Huskies missed out on a BCS birth when they lost to Bowling Green in the MAC Championship, while the Aggies had won five in a row until Fresno State beat them in the first ever Mountain West Championship game. Now both teams look to rebound and finish the season off with a win.
By the Numbers:
And even though the bowl season is just beginning, we find ourselves talking about the penultimate MAC game of the year (only Ball State plays after this game). And just like the MAC Championship game, the offensive juggernaut of Lynch and the Huskies take on another top-10 defense, this time in Utah State.
The Utah State Aggies have been an emerging team for the past few years now and, if not for a slew of injuries, are much better than their 8-5 record may suggest. Offensively, the Aggies are a middle of the road team...but that does not mean they aren't good or effective. They average 32.6 points on 421 yards per game. But they have suffered many injuries, including their leading receiver Travis Reynolds and starting quarterback Chuckie Keaton. In relief duty, quarterback Darell Garretson has played well - passing for 1325 yards and nine touchdowns in six games. Both quarterbacks have spread the ball around incredibly well. In fact, they have three receivers with over 50 receptions and 12 players have caught a TD pass. They also have a halfback, Joey DeMartino, that became the Aggies third straight 1000-yard rusher, with 1078 yards on 198 carries and 12 touchdowns.
However, for the Aggies this year it has been all about defense. In fact, they boast the seventh best scoring defense in the NCAA, allowing just 17.3 points per contest. It's not that they just stop teams from scoring...they stop them from moving the football altogether. Utah State has the 14th best total defense in the country - allowing a scarce 322 yards per game (that's just about what NIU averages on the ground each game). And it starts with their linebackers. Utah State uses a 3-4 base defense, which means they have three down linemen and four linebackers on most plays. Those four linebackers (Jake Doughty, Zach Vigil, Nick Vigil, and Kyler Fackrell) have done a terrific job this season - especially against the run (something NIU does very well). In fact, through their first 13 games, they have only allowed two runningbacks to reach the 100-yard mark and have only given up eight rushing touchdowns...none longer than 8-yards. Utah State has 102 tackles for a loss on the year...second most in the FBS. If the Huskies want to win, Lynch will have to beat them through the air.
The Northern Illinois Huskies are known mostly for the offense...and by offense we mean Jordan Lynch. Lynch is responsible for 65.7% of all yards the Huskies have gained this year and for 46 of their 66 offensive touchdowns. The second runner-up in this year's Heisman voting has passed for 2676 yards and 23 touchdowns, with only seven interceptions. He has then ran for 1881 yards and added 22 more touchdown. But he has help in Cameron Stingily, NIU's other 1000-yard rusher. Stingily is a powerful, 244 pound tailback that achieved most of his 1081 yards and nine scores after first contact. The offense also uses Tommylee Lewis as a great weapon outside, and it shows. Lewis, who also has over 1000 yards of total offense, leads the team in receptions and has 660 receiving yards along with being the teams third leading rusher (with 356 yards, and a 12.7 average per carry).
The defense for the Huskies is led by Jimmie Ward, a third team All-American who has six picks and 89 tackles on the year. The Huskie defense has forced 28 turnovers this season (10th most in the FBS) and is now in the top-45 of total defense. They have a great front four that have tailed 65 tackles in the back field and have 17 picks and 13 fumble recoveries. The Huskies also get after the quarterback a lot...having 29 QB hurries and averaging 2.46 sacks per game, tied for 35th in the country (with none other than Utah State).
Four Things to Know
Normally, we do a four names to know section, but instead we have a whole article with the five players from each school that you should know. You can find that article here. Instead, here are four piece of information you should know before the Huskies and Aggies square off.
1. This is the second ever meeting between the Aggies and Huskies. They first met in 1995 when both schools were part of the Big West Conference. The Aggies routed the Huskies 42-7.
2. Utah State is making it's first appearance in the Poinsettia Bowl while this is the Huskies second (they lost 37-7 to #25 TCU back in 2006). This is also the Aggies third straight bowl game, a school record. NIU is playing in it's sixth straight bowl game - a school, and MAC, record.
3. If Lynch can get 119 rushing yards (a tough, tough task), he would become the first player to throw and pass for 2000 yards in a season EVER. And if he can hit 192 rushing yards, he will break the record for most rushing yards by a quarterback EVER (in just two seasons)...take that Denard Robinson!
4. The Aggies rank in the top-21 of every major defensive category, and are in the top-10 in five: Rushing defense (10th), 3rd down defense (9th), tackles for a loss (8th) scoring defense (7th), red zone defense (6th)
How To Watch:
TV: ESPN or WatchESPN (online only), Thursday, December 26th, 8:30 P.M. CT (7:30 Mountain)