Utah State's superior defense shuts down Northern Illinois in Poinsettia Bowl

December 27, 2013

Poinsettia Bowl 2013 / Tri Le The Daily Sports Herald

San Diego – The Utah State Aggies proved to be the more physical team at the Poinsettia Bowl on Thursday night, wearing down the Northern Illinois Huskies with a stout defense and a punishing ground attack en route to a 21-14 win.  The Aggies were led by senior running back and game MVP Joey DeMartino's 23-carry, 143-yard performance.

Just weeks ago, Northern Illinois was undefeated and looking at a potential BCS bowl bid behind star quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Jordan Lynch.

Lynch eventually landed up third in the Heisman voting, and the Huskies fell to Bowling Green along the way, but many experts nevertheless believed that Northern Illinois' prolific offense would overwhelm the Aggies and their top ten-ranked defense.

The Huskies, however, struggled almost immediately, as they made a series of mistakes that allowed Utah State to set the early tone in front of the 23,408 fans in attendance.

In the first quarter alone, Tyler Wedel's shanked punt, Jordan Lynch's fumble, and Mathew Sims' missed 37-yard field goal attempt, all helped give the Aggies a boost of momentum and an early 3-0 lead.

After a second Utah State field goal gave them a 6-0 lead, Lynch rebounded by using a no-huddle, hurry-up attack that put the Aggies' defense temporarily on its heels.

Brilliantly mixing some Lynch quarterback draws with several short throws into the flat, the Huskies put together a 15-play, 78-yard drive capped off by a Lynch 1-yard touchdown run to give them a 7-6 advantage with 8:17 remaining in the second quarter.

Poinsettia Bowl 2013 / Tri Le The Daily Sports Herald

The Huskies appeared ready to strike again when Lynch lobbed a beautiful 24-yard touch pass down the sidelines to Da'Ron Brown in Aggie territory.

However, Northern Illinois' momentum was halted when coach Rod Carey later decided to decline a 42-yard field goal attempt and run Lynch on a fourth-and-three.  He was stuffed, and the Huskies took a narrow 7-6 lead into halftime despite Lynch completing 14 of his 18 first half passes and generating 14 first downs.

Utah State coach Matt Wells later managed to outdo his counterpart once more, as the Aggies' halftime defensive adjustments essentially locked down a Huskies offensive attack that had come in averaging 41.6 points per game.

Utah State held Northern Illinois scoreless on its first five possessions of the second half, including the first series of the third quarter when strong safety Brian Suite dove in front of an out route for a beautiful interception at the Huskies' 31-yard line.

That turnover led seven plays later to a five-yard touchdown pass on a quick slant from quarterback Darell Garretson to wideout Brandon Swindall for a 13-7 Aggies' lead.

But the Aggies most impressive defensive stand would come in the fourth quarter after a tipped Garretson screen pass was intercepted by defensive tackle Ken Bishop at the Utah State 13-yard line.
Poinsettia Bowl 2013 / Tri Le

Despite Northern Illinois starting its drive in the red zone after the pick, the Aggies defense responded by stuffing a first down run, causing two Lynch incompletions on second and third down, and then forcing a missed 30-yard field goal attempt by Sims.

Incredibly, in 16 possessions this season following a Utah State turnover, the Aggies' elite defense has allowed a total of only 13 points.

"They always make big plays," DeMartino said about the Utah State defense.  "It's just great to be on an offense when you know you have a defense that's going to step up and make plays for you and get you back on the field."

With the game hanging in the balance, and with Garretson already having thrown two picks in the second half, Wells leaned on his offensive line and DeMartino to win the game.

Utah State responded with a beautiful 17-play, 80-yard drive that chewed up 7 minutes and 19 seconds on the clock, and culminated in a DeMartino one-yard touchdown run.  A successful two-point conversion would put Utah State ahead 21-7 with 4:14 remaining in the game.

Poinsettia Bowl 2013 / Tri Le The Daily Sports Herald

Fourteen of the drive's seventeen play calls involved runs, as the Aggies' offensive line simply manhandled and broke the spirit of the Huskies' defense.  Northern Illinois was forced to use all three of its time outs on the drive, not only to stop the clock, but also to give its battered defense a rest.

"Honestly, we imposed our will," coach Wells said of that late drive.  "Tougher team won."

Lynch kept things close by throwing a 15-yard touchdown pass to Juwan Brescacin with 1:44 to play, but a failed onside kick on the ensuing play would seal the victory for Utah State.

With the win, Utah State improved to 9-5 and got a signature win over a quality mid-major program that just last season competed in a BCS bowl.

Northern Illinois finished the season with a 12-2 record, as Lynch ended his outstanding collegiate career.  His final stat line: A humble 39 yards rushing on 18 carries, 216 yards passing, two touchdowns, one lost fumble, and one interception.

DSH Player of the Game: Joey DeMartino

DeMartino, a local kid from the San Diego area, was the difference-maker for the Aggies, averaging 6.2 yards per carry, including one spectacular run of 58 yards.

"Words can't even describe the feeling," DeMartino told The Daily Sports Herald.  "I'm just so glad we as seniors can go out the right way."

On Utah State's decisive seventeen-play drive in the fourth quarter, DeMartino carried the ball 11 times and caught one eight-yard pass for good measure.

His 143 yards rushing allowed Utah State to enjoy a 168 to 99-yard edge on the ground over Northern Illinois, helping the Aggies win the battle in the trenches.

By Mike Elliott
Editor for TheDailySportsHerald.com

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