Utah State Aggies (8-5, 7-2 MW) vs No. 23 Northern Illinois Huskies (12-1, 8-1 MAC)
Qualcomm Stadium -- San Diego, CA
Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013 -- 8:30 CT (7:30 MT)
Television: ESPN, ESPN3 (streaming)
Jordan Lynch will make his final collegiate start in the San Diego Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl this Thursday when his Northern Illinois University Huskies take on the Utah State Aggies. Both teams are coming off of painful losses in their conference championship games. And for the Huskies, in bitter fashion. The Huskies were ranked #14 in the country and one win away from a second straight trip to the BCS. But in the MAC Championship game, against Bowling Green, the Huskies forgot how to play defense, losing badly, 47-27. In the Mountain West Championship game, the Aggies fell behind early but battled back against a talented Fresno State team. The Aggies scored the final 10 points but, in the end, couldn't complete the comeback - falling 24-17.
Utah State is playing in its third straight bowl game, a school record, and is taking on a third straight MAC opponent. The last two years they played in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, losing 24-23 to Ohio two years ago and then routing Toledo 41-15 last season. It was a rocky start to the season for the Aggies, as they were just 3-4 in their first seven games and lost player after player to injury, including their star quarterback Chuckie Keaton who has been out since early October. But the Aggies would ride to five straight wins, claiming the Mountain Division of the Mountain West, before falling to Fresno. And it would not be an easy ride as, besides losing Keaton, the injury bug also hit their leading receiver Travis Reynolds (who is questionable for the bowl game), third leading rusher Joe Hill, big tight end D.J. Tialavea, and even their backup quarterback, Darell Garretson, who injured against Fresno, but is probable for Thursday's game.
With their offense banged up (but still playing well), the Aggies looked to their defense to win games, and boy did they do their job. They have a slew of strong linebackers and a very talented safety that spearhead their top-notch defense. Lead by seniors Jake Doughty (ILB) and Nevin Lawson (CB), the Aggie defense has only given up 68 points in their last six games and are ranked seventh in the country in scoring defense, allowing a mere 17.3 points per game. Giving up just 332 total yards per game, the defensive unit is also ranked 12th in the FBS in total defense. But that's not all they have accomplished. They are in the top-20 of every major defensive category and top-10 in five. The Aggies don't allow many teams to run on them (something NIU prides itself on doing), as they allow just 107.3 rushing yards per game )10th in the NCAA) and have only allowed two 100-yard rushers so far this season and just eight rushing TDs (none from more than 8-yards out).
And that is very bad new for the Huskies. NIU, who is playing in it's MAC-record sixth straight bowl game, has ran for over 4050 yards on the season - ranked fourth in the NCAA - averaging 312.5 per contest. They are also fifth in total offense (netting over 535 yards per game) and ninth in scoring (putting up 41.6 points per game). The offense starts with Jordan Lynch, arguably the best dual-threat QB in the country (and possibly history), who finished third in this year's Heisman voting (the highest for a non-AQ player ever). All Lynch has done is amass 46 total touchdowns (23 passing, 22 rushing, one receiving), thrown for 2676 yards, ran for 1881 (a record for a QB), and complete over 63% of his passes. But on the rare play that Lynch doesn't keep the ball, he has a nice complement of halfbacks and wide outs that can also gain yards quickly. Cameron Stingily, NIU's main rusher not named Lynch, has rumbled for 1081 yards and nine scores of his own, while WR Tommylee Lewis has 356 rushing yards in addition to his 660 receiving yards on 80 catches. Besides Lewis, Da'Ron Brown and Juwan Brescacin are the other major targets for Lynch - posting a combined 72 grabs, 1158 yards, and 14 touchdowns.
Before their collapse against BGSU, the Huskie defense had been getting better and better with each game. After the MAC Championship it took a major step backwards though. Senior safety Jimmie Ward, an All-American and Thorpe Finalist, leads the defense unit and his 6 picks rank him in the top-10 in the country. The Huskies as a unit allow plenty of yards (and 25.5 points) per game, but have done some things very well. They are 12th in takeaways, forcing 28 turnovers this season (11 fumble recoveries and 17 INTs) and also get to the quarterback a lot, forcing 29 QB hurries and netting 32 sacks. They have also blocked four kicks.
The Huskies look to win their 13th game this season, which would be a school record. But just like the in MAC Championship game, the Huskies face a very talented defense...and NIU has, to say the least, struggled against top defenses for the past few years, But you can never count out the Huskies with Lynch at the helm. And with this being his final game in a Huskie uniform, it's not likely that he'll let his team go down with out a fight. This game is going to be a battle, as a top-10 defense faces a top-5 offense. But the game will hinge on how well NIU's defense is able to contain Garretson and the banged-up Aggie offense. If the defense can play like it did against Iowa or Purdue, the Huskies can take it. If they don't show up...it's going to be a long off-season for NIU fans. Don't expect a #MACtion type shootout, but there will be plenty of excitement none the less.
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