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Poinsettia Bowl recap: Utah State win over No. 23 Northern Illinois was no upset

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Don't call it an upset for the Utah State Aggies football team at the Poinsettia Bowl on Thursday, Deecember 24 -- because it wasn't. It was a gripping motion picture with a Hollywood ending, because Utah State's 21-14 win over the No. 23 Northern Illinois Huskies had the Aggie defense acting like they were priests in "The Exorcist", coming to the aid of tow-haired USU freshman quarterback Darell Garretson who had unwillingly had the recesses of his mind tormented by demons for most of the game.

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Sure, the great Max Von Sydow came back to reprise the starring role he had in 1973, requesting that his assistant drive him down to San Diego in his Bentley and with this top-ranked Ag D in the bowels of Qualcomm Stadium's locker room he exorcised those stupid demons -- and Utah State did come back from a 7-6 hafltime deficit.

But, that's because the Aggies couldn't score a touchdown in the first 30 minutes of play if its life depended on it -- which it did, because Satan, Lucifer and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man all seemed to be stuck in Garretson's brain.

Garretson was as scattered as advertised, throwing the ball all over the field as if he was playing "Hot Potato" with his receivers, diving for safety when he didn't need to and generally avoiding being hit at all costs -- because his mind was already scrambled from the helmet sandwich he got in the Mountain West championship game against Fresno State that knocked him into the middle of the next week, and into this game.

Garretson's 17-for-28-for-not-much-yardage-at-all passing performance Thursday night in San Diego will neither be remembered for accuracy, nor lauded over time as a Dan Fouts-to-Charlie Joiner highlight reel while "San Diego...Super Chargers!" plays over the PA system. It was none of that -- and besides, NIU All-America free safety Jimmie Ward WAS as good as advertised, roaming around the field like he was playing all 11 positions.

To be painfully honest, it's a win for Garretson to remember his name, where he was and what he ate last night -- probably chicken and pasta to goop up the holes that Bulldog players left behind on that fateful December night in Fresno. But I digress: the boy WAS good enough to help the Aggies win this game. Kind of.

It wasn't really Garretson who made the game-changing play; it was that top-ranked Utah State defense rescuing their damsel-in-distress. On NIU's first play to start the second half quarterback Jordan "Heisman" Lynch had USU safety Brian Suite snatch the football-sized pebble from mid-air, at the Huskies 31-yard-line. Master Po would have bowed, and clanged the gong for his Aggie "grasshoppers" -- who along with that all-important interception, allowed the Huskies to gain just 315 yards of total offense.

Then with ball in hand, the freshman Garretson did his herky-jerky magic that one can only perfect when they've had the daylights smacked out of their ever-loving mind. He completed one pass -- then threw an incomplete pass, up and down and up and down until you, Aggie fan, wanted to rip your hair out and make a nest out of it for the mice who inhabit your dairy farm this time of year.

But then, as you, the Aggie fan, sat in the La-Z-Boy recliner you bought at R.C. Willey O.A.C., Garretson threw a pass -- completing it. Senior running back Joey De Martino took the rock to the NIU 5, and moments later, Garretson shook the cobwebs loose, reared back and fired a pass into the end zone, which wide receiver Brandon Swindall caught for a touchdown.

Then Utah State did what it has done in every game it won this season. The big uglies up front opened holes for De Martino, who proceeded to run all over Qualcomm Stadium's turf -- and Huskies defenders -- to 143 yards and a touchdown to give the Aggies a 21-7 lead. De Martino finished with 1,221 yards and 13 touchdowns in his final season, not bad for a guy who wasn't even starting at the beginning of the year.

Eventually, after NIU stormed back behind the arm of the once-canonized Jordan Heisman The Third to score a touchdown to trim the Ags lead to 21-14 and provide this game played in front of a scant 23,000 people with its final score -- De Martino had even earned the game's Most Valuable Player award in his hometown.

Utah State also lifted the most important trophy of all, the championship kind, raising its record to 9-5 overall, this magical moment occurring on a team that everyone seemed to want to leave for dead after quarterback Chuckie Keeton was down and out with a torn ACL.

It was the second straight bowl win for an Aggies program (USU won the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl last year over Toledo) and a curtain call for a top-10 ranked Aggie defense that deserved a Heisman Trophy third-place finish for holding Jordan Lynch to 39 yards rushing.

Above all, Utah State silenced its critics who thought that when five OTHER starters on offense got hurt, the season was all but over.

In many ways it's hard to believe these Aggies overcame so much -- but they did, all the credit in the world to the Von Sydow analogy, and seriously, to head coach Matt Wells who got a program to believe in him even when he inserted a freshman quarterback, installed five other backups into starting roles and made you, Aggie fan, believe there is life after Gary Andersen.



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