For the Utah State Aggies football team, the upcoming San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl is arguably the biggest stage they have ever played on. Add the No. 24 Northern Illinois Huskies, a legitimate BCS-buster at 12-1 to the mix, and you have a game for the ages. You have a team like the 8-5 Aggies that had to fight, scratch, and claw just to get here -- while the Huskies were expecting another BCS bowl trip with their Heisman Trophy finalist and came up short.
Utah State (8-5) at No. 24 Northern Illinois (12-1)
San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl
Thursday, December 26
Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego
7:30 p.m. EST (ESPN)
The Aggies come into Thursday's game in San Diego a field-goal underdog, having played the past seven games without star quarterback Chuckie Keeton -- as well as a host of other offensive starters. (The Aggies won six of their last seven.) Northern Illinois comes off of a devastating loss to Bowling Green in the Mid-American Conference championship game -- which ended its hopes of remaining unbeaten and busting the BCS for the second straight year.
Utah State will probably have early-game jitters playing in a place like 66,000-seat Qualcomm Stadium -- but NIU has played in big games before, most recently at the Orange Bowl where it lost rather badly to Florida State, 31-10. Perhaps playing at Auburn, at USC and at Utah -- as well as at BYU -- over the years will help settle Utah State's nerves because the Aggies have a very good chance to win this game in my opinion.
Players to Watch
Utah State has a stout defense, one of the best in the country, led by three linebackers. Senior linebacker Jake Doughty, junior Zach Vigil, his freshman brother Nick and sophomore Kyler Fackrell are all likely to play on Sundays, and Doughty is the leader with 140 tackles this season. That said, Zach Vigil is not too far behind at 115. Fackrell displays natural ability you rarely see around Logan, already having a 99-yard interception return to his credit -- as well as 5 sacks.
The Aggies 7th-ranked defense is also a defense-by-committee, not reliant upon one player in particular -- and all are capable of causing serious damage. Only one team has scored more than 24 points on this unit since October and even a high powered like Fresno State averaging over 50 points per game -- managed just 24 in its Mountain West title game win over the Aggies.
Northern Illinois has quarterback Jordan Lynch, a dual-threat who finished third overall in Heisman Trophy voting. Lynch is well known in the Midwest; not so much elsewhere, however. He is not a particularly great passer -- his NFL Draft stock, for example, is a mystery -- but he is a tremendously gifted, physical runner who scored 23 of his 45 touchdowns on the ground. If there was another player to compare him to, you would have to argue for Tim Tebow.
Lynch is as good as advertised, throwing for over 1,800 yards and 23 touchdowns -- versus just seven interceptions. But for as good as he is airing out the football, he's even better running it. He ran for as many yards on the ground (1,881 yards, 22 TD's), averaging 144 yards per game on his way to All-America honors and a trip to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
By The Numbers
Utah State offense vs. NIU defense: 32.6 points per game vs. 25.4 for NIU
NIU offense vs USU defense: 41.6 PPG vs. 17.3 for USU
The Two Travises vs NIU 1st team All-America safety Jimmie Ward
Utah State wide receivers Travis Reynolds and Travis Van Leeuwen will have their hands full when they try to catch balls against Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward -- who was recently named AP All-America. The last time the Aggie receivers had to line up against someone like Ward who was this good, they were at the L.A. Coliseum trying to run routes on USC's secondary.
Reynolds can flat out burn DB's and safeties, and Van Leeuwen has had his moments snagging some tough balls over the middle -- but Ward is special, having led his team in tackles, interceptions (6) and passes defended. Utah State will have quarterback Darell Garretson back from the concussion he took in the MWC championship game at Fresno State -- but Garretson has never tried to throw on a secondary, and a player like Ward.
Without question this is a tough assignment for Garretson -- who is likely to be more leery after taking a hit like he did against Fresno State. If the Aggies are successful throwing the football you have to like their chances Thursday night in what is arguably the biggest stage that Utah State has played on in decades.
How fired up will Northern Illinois be to have to play Utah State when the Huskies were expecting a trip to Arizona and the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl? That MAC championship game loss to Bowling Green may have either killed the Husky mojo -- or inspired them to finish out their 2013-14 campaign with a 13th win. We know the Aggies will come to play -- and try to win -- based on the fact that this team was once dead to rights, and has been resurrected under new head coach Matt Wells -- who replaced Gary Andersen when the former Aggie coach left for Wisconsin.
Wells is national coach-of-the-year material for having done what he has with Gary's kids -- and he already won the Mountain West Conference's coach of the year award. This is on a team that lost five offensive starters -- and has a redshirt freshman taking starter snaps. That the Aggies are even here is amazing in and of itself -- but Utah State didn't come here to play; it came here to San Diego, to win. Utah State's defense is simply too good, too physical and too strong for NIU to put up gobs of points Thursday. It's the difference in the ball game, Lynch's inability to throw on an experienced, physical Aggie defense -- and the Aggie D holding Lynch in check.
Utah State 31, Northern Illinois 20