Northern Illinois’ quest for a second straight trip to a BCS bowl was derailed by Bowling Green in the MAC Championship Game. The 47–27 loss cost the Huskies a spot in the Fiesta Bowl and a shot at the school’s first undefeated season since 1963. But a week in San Diego is not a bad consolation prize — especially when you make DeKalb, Ill., home.
Northern Illinois opened the season with wins over two Big Ten schools (Iowa and Purdue) in September before sweeping through the MAC without a loss for the second consecutive year. The Huskies won their eight league games by an average of 22.3 points, with only one game decided by less than 14 points. Heisman finalist Jordan Lynch pilots an offense that leads the MAC and ranks fifth nationally with 535.5 yards per game. The Huskies’ defense is average (at best), but it didn’t matter for the majority of the 2013 season.
Defense is the specialty for NIU’s opponent in San Diego, the Utah State Aggies. Matt Wells, in his first season as the head coach, did a masterful job guiding his team — ravaged by injuries — to the Mountain West Championship Game. Chuckie Keeton, one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation, missed the final seven games, but Utah State still managed eight wins, including a 7–1 mark during the regular season in the MWC. The Aggies rank first in the league and 12th in the nation in total defense (332.2 ypg) and have held nine of their 13 opponents to 17 points or less.
Northern Illinois vs. Utah State
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 26 at 9:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Northern Illinois -1.5
Northern Illinois’ Key to Victory: Play some defense
In the biggest game on the season — with a berth in a BCS bowl on the line — the Northern Illinois defense was shredded by a good (but hardly great) Bowling Green offense for 574 total yards, including an alarming 393 through the air. The lack of defense was not an issue against teams like UMass, Kent State and Eastern Michigan, but NIU will have to be better on that side of the ball in the bowl game. Very few teams have rolled up a big number on Utah State — the Aggies held Fresno State to 24 in the MWC title game — so NIU can’t simply rely on Jordan Lynch & Co. to win this game. Utah State has had its issues on offense, but this team did score 40 points or more four times in the regular season. The Huskies could catch a break if quarterback Darell Garretson, who was knocked out of the Fresno State game with a helmet-to-helmet hit, is not able to play.
Utah State’s Key to Victory: Slow down Jordan Lynch
It’s a bit of stretch to say that Bowling Green shut down Jordan Lynch — he did throw for 219 and run for 126 — but the senior quarterback was clearly not at his best in the MAC Championship Game. He only completed 52.5 percent of his passes and threw two interceptions in the Huskies’ 20-point loss. Utah State has been outstanding against the pass for the majority of the season. The Aggies held their opponents to under 60 percent passing in all but two games and led the Mountain West by limiting opposing quarterback to 6.5 yards per passing attempt. Lynch will get his yards on the ground — he’s had at least 90 in all but three games — but it’s key for Utah State to limit his effectiveness throwing the ball. A one-dimensional Northern Illinois offense is much easier to contain.
Key Player: Darell Garretson, QB, Utah State
Things weren’t looking good for Utah State in early October. The Aggies were 3–3 overall and had just lost star quarterback Chuckie Keeton to a torn ACL. Wells was forced to turn to Garretson, and the true freshman from Arizona responded. Utah State lost his first start, 34–23 to Boise State, but proceeded to win five in a row to capture the Mountain Division title. Garretson has completed 60.6 percent of his passes for 1,325 yards with nine touchdowns and five interceptions. He isn’t as much of a threat on the ground as Keeton, but he does have a run for at least 10 yards in each of the last five games. Garretson was knocked out of the MWC title game with a concussion but is expected to be ready to go in the bowl game.
This is an intriguing matchup between two of the top mid-major programs in the country. With a BCS trip last year and a Heisman finalist this season, Northern Illinois is more known nationally, but Utah State has been very good in recent years. The Aggies broke through in 2011 with a 7–6 record — the first winning season at the school since 1996 — and then won 11 games in ’12, Gary Andersen’s final season. Wells, in his first season as a head coach, carries an 8–5 record into the postseason.
The key for Utah State will be on defense. Assuming Garretson plays, the Aggies should be able to score some points on the NIU defense. But it will be difficult for USU to shut down Lynch, who should be motivated in his final game in college.
Prediction: Northern Illinois 27, Utah State 24