Jon Coffey

Poinsettia Bowl Primer: Utah State vs. Northern Illinois

Created on Dec. 24, 2013 8:11 PM EST

Utah State Aggies (8-5) vs. Northern Illinois Huskies (12-1)

It’s hard to imagine any team in college football going 24-3 in a two-year span resulting in said team preparing to play the Mountain West Conference runner-up in the postseason. 

But such is the life of a Mid-American Conference school — more specifically the Northern Illinois Huskies — who face Utah State in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl at 9:30 p.m. ET Thursday.

After the Huskies (12-1) went undefeated in the regular season and climbed as high as No. 14 in the BCS standings, Bowling Green outplayed them in the MAC championship game, 47-27.

With the lone loss of the season, Northern Illinois waved goodbye to any hopes of a return to a BCS bowl game and any real chance (if there ever was one) of standout quarterback Jordan Lynch winning the Heisman Trophy.

Conversely, if I told you that a team that started 3-3 and lost its starting quarterback for the year would even receive a bid to postseason game, you might be a bit surprised.

Because the Aggies live and die with their quarterback, right? Well, we’re not talking about those Aggies.

These are the Utah State Aggies, and while they might not be as flashy as their namesake, first-year head coach Matt Wells has his team exceeding expectations and quietly preparing to be an annual contender in the MWC.

When Utah State (8-5) lost star quarterback Chuckie Keeton for the season against BYU, the Aggies turned to true freshmen Darrell Garretson and relied heavily on their No. 7 ranked defense in the country. Utah State went 5-1 down the stretch and earned an appearance in the MWC championship opposite Fresno State.

The Aggies lost the game 24-17, but flexed their defensive muscles against one of the nation’s most high-powered offenses.

Northern Illinois

Motivation: 12-1 can hardly be counted as a disappointing season by any standard, but the near-perfect Huskies are trying to build a reputation here. The team has to remember last year's embarrassing blowout to Florida State in the Orange Bowl, and another loss in a lesser game wouldn't help. Quarterback Jordan Lynch has a great shot at landing somewhere in the NFL. After putting up video-game numbers during his NIU career, his team will be all-in to help boost his draft stock. First-year head coach Rod Carey also wants to add a bowl win to his resume.

If You’ve Never Seen Them: Lynch is the one to watch. Throughout the year the Huskies have averaged 312.5 rushing yards per game — good for fourth in the country. Lynch rushed for 1,881 yards, 800 more than running back Cameron Stingily, the team's next leading rusher. Lynch has accounted for a mind-boggling 46 touchdowns, including 23 passing, 22 rushing and one as a receiver. TommyLee Lewis and Da’ron Brown are talented playmakers, but benefit mostly from the stellar play of their quarterback and the attention he gets from opposing defenses.

Weakness: If there’s one thing with which the Huskies struggle, it’s stopping opposing teams from scoring. The offense puts up ridiculous numbers, but it has to in order to win games. The NIU defense can slow teams down, but they’ve allowed an average of 25.4 points per game. On the offensive side of the ball, it’s hard to find any statistics that would tell you there’s anything wrong with this unit, save one. The offense lives and dies with the play of Lynch. If a defense can break up his rhythm and get him to make a few bad decisions (see NIU vs. Bowling Green) the offense has trouble finding another source of production.

Utah State

Motivation: For the Aggies, it’s all about proving themselves as a program that should be taken seriously as a mid-major. Utah State benefited from the gutsy play of stand-in quarterback Darrell Garretson and the nation’s seventh-ranked defense. The Aggies likely will see Chuckie Keeton under center once again in 2014, but for now Garretson is the guy and he wants to leave a good impression. As is the case with the Huskies, Utah State is under the helm of a first-year head coach, and he too will be looking to add a bowl win to his list of accomplishments that have already exceeded expectations.

If You’ve Never Seen Them: This team wins games with defense. Matt Wells has coached this unit to be one of the stingiest in the country. The Aggies have held their opponent under 20 points in nine of 13 games. Senior running back Joey DeMartino is a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time in his career and leads the team with 12 rushing scores.

Weakness: With Keeton going down midway through the season, the Aggies have been fortunate to find a viable backup in Garretson. But with less than seven games under his belt, he’s still working out the kinks. Inexperience at key positions is always a roll of the dice. When the defense gets beat early, this team has a tough time coming back. In losses this year, Utah State was outscored a combined 44-10 in the first quarter.     

Las Vegas Hilton Line: Pick.

Related: Scouting The Poinsettia Bowl

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