GAME NOTES: Jordan Lynch will play the final game of his collegiate career as the 24th-ranked Northern Illinois Huskies square off with the Utah State Aggies in the Poinsettia Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium.
Lynch finished third in the voting for the Heisman Trophy after leading NIU to a 12-0 regular season record that included victories over Iowa, Purdue, Ball State and Toledo. The Huskies looked like they were destined for another berth in a BCS bowl game, but their winning streak came to an end in the Mid- American Conference Championship where they were defeated, 47-27, by Bowling Green in Detroit. Rod Carey served as the interim head coach last season for the team's 31-10 loss to Florida State in the Orange Bowl before being hired to lead the program on a full-time basis over the offseason.
Utah State is playing in a bowl game for the third time in a row. The Aggies had their five-game winning streak snapped and dropped to 8-5 with a 24-17 loss at Fresno State in the Mountain West Conference Championship game. Matt Wells is also in his inaugural season with the program and needs just one more decision to set the school record for a first year head coach.
Although Utah State is 2-51 all-time against ranked opponents after its loss to Fresno State, the Aggies are 1-0 versus NIU thanks to their 42-7 win over the Huskies in Logan on Oct. 14, 1995.
USU had just the 10th most productive passing offense in the MWC at 241.3 yards per game. The Aggies had to play the second half of their season without senior QB Chuckie Keaton, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in October. Freshman Darell Garretson went 5-1 as a starter, although he connected on only 60.6 percent of his attempts for 189.3 ypg with nine TDs and five picks. The rookie went 12-of-26 for 198 yards and was intercepted once in the loss to FSU.
"Our team is going to keep fighting regardless what the scoreboard says," said junior wideout Ronald Butler after the loss to the Bulldogs. "With that being said, we come out with the mentality that we are never out of reach to win the game. That is something we will continue to do."
Butler set career-highs with five receptions and 145 yards in the conference championship game, but USU was held to 304 total yards, including a season-low 51 yards rushing. Senior halfback Joey DeMartino tallied only 54 yards on 18 carries. DeMartino racked up 1,078 yards and 12 TDs in 13 games this season. The Aggies have had 11 different players catch a pass for six points. Travis Reynolds paced USU with 832 receiving yards on 51 receptions in 11 games, but is questionable for the bowl game. Travis Van Leeuwen (638 yards, 50 rec.) and Butler will take on bigger roles if Reynolds is unable to play.
USU's defensive unit may be capable of slowing down the Huskies for the second game in a row. The Aggies are limiting their foes to only 332.2 total yards per game to rank 12th among FBS programs and nets 7.8 tackles for loss per tilt to place eighth nationally. USU allowed only two running backs to pick up 100 yards this season. The defense has a pair of outstanding linebackers in Jake Doughty and Zach Vigil, who tallied 140 and 115 stops to rank first and second on the team, respectively.
"Those inside linebackers to me epitomize the program and they are the face of that defense," said Wells on Doughty and Vigil. "They are blue-collar and have great work ethic. Really, I don't know if I have ever seen such football junkies, they are like quarterbacks they watch so much tape."
The Huskies' success this season came due to their unstoppable offensive attack led by Lynch. Entering the bowl season, NIU ranks in the top 10 nationally in both points per game (41.6) and total yards of offense per game (535.5). Since taking over the quarterback duties at the beginning of the 2012 season, Lynch has compiled a 24-3 record as a starter.
"I always set high expectations for myself," said Lynch. "When I filled in for Chandler [Harnish], I never looked at it as filling his shoes. I just always wanted to win games and that was it. If I give my team a chance in the fourth quarter, then that's all I can ask for. That's how I went into it and that's how I looked at the whole situation."
The senior signal caller has scored 22 touchdowns on the ground on the campaign, and finished second to only Boston College's Andre Williams in rushing yards with 1,881. Lynch has shown he is far from one-dimensional on multiple occasions this season and completed 63.1 percent of his throws for 2,676 yards with 23 TDs against seven picks. Lynch, who was named the MAC's Vern Smith Leadership Award winner as league MVP for the second season in a row, and will become the first player in FBS history with 2,000 yards passing and rushing if he manages to gain 119 more on the ground against Utah State.
NIU has plenty of weapons surrounding its star field general. Junior tailback Cameron Stingily was one of six players from the MAC to surpass the 1,000-yard mark in rushing and also ran for nine TDs.
"I think he was the fifth-string running back last year," said Lynch on Stingily's breakout campaign. "Thinking about quitting a few years ago and he comes out and has a 1,000-yard season. He made my job a lot easier back there handing it off and just watching him go to work. At times, he really helped our offense."
Tommylee Lewis and Da'Ron Brown are both used very often in NIU's passing game. Lewis made a team-best 80 catches for 660 yards, while Brown has 42 receptions for 689 yards and six scores.
Defensively, the Huskies showed improvement all season long before they were dismantled by the Falcons in the MAC Championship. BGSU amassed 574 yards of total offense with 393 yards coming through the air. Senior safety Jimmie Ward was recently picked to as a First-Team All-American after recording a team- high 89 tackles and a career-high six interceptions. Despite the strong play by Ward, NIU surrenders 273.8 passing yards per game to the opposition, which is the most allowed by any MAC school.
Lynch and the NIU offense will need some help from the Huskies' defensive unit if they hope to end the season on a positive note. Although the Aggies are being guided by a freshman quarterback, they will be able to move the ball down the field with success through the air. However, NIU could prosper if it manages to force a few turnovers.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Northern Illinois 31, Utah State 28