Following the Mid-American Conference Championship loss to Bowling Green at Ford Field, Northern Illinois' chances for a second straight BCS bowl bid vanished. The Huskies rose to the No. 14 spot in the BCS poll and sported a 12-0 record, but the Falcons spoiled several dreams for the Huskies, while costing the conference millions of dollars.
The Huskies, though, got some good news two days after losing to Bowling Green. The Huskies found out that they will be playing Utah State in the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego on Dec. 26. Instead of playing in Mobile, Detroit or another not-so-warm region bowl, the Huskies head to the Poinsettia motivated to atone for their loss to Bowling Green and avenge their 37-7 blowout loss to TCU in the 2006 Poinsettia Bowl. It's not the Orange Bowl or the Fiesta Bowl, but the Huskies are excited to get back on the football field.
"Last year after the Orange Bowl loss, we had to sit on that loss for sixth months and that was a really bad taste in your mouth for that amount of time," NIU coach Rod Carey said. "This year, we don't have to wait that long to get back out there and get that bad taste out of our mouth."
The Huskies (12-1) better return to their old form or face another loss against a talented Utah State team. The Aggies (8-5) dropped a 24-17 decision to Fresno State in the Mountain West Conference Championship Game in Fresno, Calif. The Huskies, ranked No. 23 in the final BCS standings, will bring the experience of playing in their sixth straight bowl game. They will also bring some national recognition to the bowl with senior quarterback Jordan Lynch earning an invitation to the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
Stopping Lynch, who finished seventh in the 2012 Heisman voting, is Utah State's main priority. The Huskies have dealt with some injury issues at wide receiver to Tommylee Lewis and Da'Ron Brown late in the season that caused Lynch to assume a bigger role. The Falcons entered the MAC title game with the best defense in the conference. Bowling Green's defense was able to seal off Lynch's running lanes and did a good job covering his main options in the passing game.
The Aggies' defense has been tested against some very talented passers, including Fresno State's Derek Carr. But Lynch is a big-time running and passing threat, able to attack a weakness in any defense at any time, whether with his accurate passing or ability to find running lanes and vision to find holes on cutbacks. Lynch totaled 4,557 yards and 46 touchdowns in the first 13 games this season, and his all-time numbers put him in special company in FBS history.
There's a reason Lynch will be heading to New York. He powers the fifth-ranked rushing offense, breaking his own FBS single-season rushing mark for a quarterback with 1,881 yards this season. Utah State's defense played a big role in the team's late-season turnaround, ranking among the Top 25 defenses in the nation in several categories, including in scoring defense. Lynch is the first NIU player to be selected a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.
"It's hard (to get selected from a non-AQ school)," Lynch said of being named a Heisman finalist. "One of the biggest things is you have to win games, have a winning team and your stats have to separate you from the bigger schools. I knew if I had a chance to get here it would be a good individual season, and I knew it would take a great year as a team for us. I'm really happy and like I said, I wouldn't be here without my coaches and teammates."
The Falcons showed that the Huskies are vulnerable on defense if you can keep Lynch from gobbling the time of possession. Utah State, which owns an 8-2 all-time mark against Mid-American Conference teams, relies on running back Joey DeMartino to carry the load. He rushed for 1,078 yards and 12 touchdowns this season. With four seniors on the offensive line, the Aggies will look to control the line of scrimmage and take time off the clock to keep Lynch planted on the sidelines. The Aggies, who are playing in a school record third straight bowl game, rank 37th in the country in scoring offense.
"We are excited to prepare for a quality Northern Illinois team that had an outstanding season," Utah State coach Matt Wells said. "They're very well-coached and obviously very talented as they are playing in their sixth straight bowl game."
--QB Jordan Lynch is coming off a tough outing in the MAC Championship Game. Lynch has plenty of motivation after the Huskies missed a bid for a second BCS bowl game in a row. But Lynch is a tough customer and will come back motivated and primed to show Utah State why he was invited to the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York. Lynch's talent lies in his ability to see things and take advantage of them, whether with his arm or legs. His cutback ability equals some of the top running backs in the country. He often extends drives with his running approach of not avoiding contact. Lynch threw two interceptions in the MAC title game loss, but he rarely makes mistakes and forces passes.
--RB Cameron Stingily is an X-factor to watch. A human battering ram, Stingily is a load to bring down for teams. His straight-ahead running style allowed him to rush for 1,007 yards in the regular season. When Stingily can pound for yards in the middle, Lynch benefits with lanes to the outside. Utah State can't let Stingily gain yards-after-contact to allow NIU's offense to move down the field and become more diverse as the game progresses.
--C Tyler Larsen is one of the senior leaders in Utah State's experienced offensive line. One of six finalists for the 2013 Rimington Trophy, which is given annually to the most outstanding center in college football, Larsen has played in 51 straight games for Utah State. The 6-foot-4, 312-pound senior center anchors an offensive line that ranked fourth in the Mountain West and tied for 37th in the nation with an average of 32.6 points per game.
--Utah State landed its third straight bowl game despite losing five players to season-ending injuries, including starting quarterback and highly regarded Chuckie Keeton. The Utah State offense, behind a solid offensive line, is currently 49th in the nation in total offense, averaging 420.9 yards per game.
--K Mathew Sims gained a reputation as a big-game kicker with his performance in the previous two MAC title games before this season, then hitting the game-winner at Iowa to start the 2013 season. Sims has been steady throughout his season until hitting a rough patch late in the regular season, mostly due to some bad weather weekday games. But Sims' struggles shed a light on a concern for the Huskies entered the MAC Championship game. He has made 17 of his 27 attempts this season, with a 3-for-9 showing from 40-49 yards out.
--S Jimmie Ward will play the final game of his illustrious career against Utah State. The NIU defense is hurting after allowing Bowling Green sophomore quarterback Matt Johnson to do his best Payton Manning impersonation. Johnson torched NIU's defense for career highs of 393 yards and five touchdowns. Ward leads the Huskies with 89 tackles and six interceptions. His leadership leading up to the game and during the tight moments in the bowl game could be crucial to his team's chances to stop Utah State.
BOWL HISTORY: Northern Illinois is 4-4 in bowl games as a major college program, and 5-8 all-time in bowl games. The Huskies lost 31-10 in the 2013 Orange Bowl game to Florida State. This is the team's sixth straight bowl appearance. Utah State will be playing its third straight bowl game in a row, all against teams from the MAC. Overall, this is Utah State's ninth bowl appearance. The Aggies are 1-7 in bowl games, with losses to Toledo and Ohio in the last two Famous Idaho Potato Bowl games.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Two turnovers, you know, it's unacceptable. I expect a lot out of myself. I didn't live up to my expectations." -- NIU senior quarterback Jordan Lynch after losing 47-27 to Bowling Green in the Mid-American Conference Championship game.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Scouting the running game: Northern Illinois is a running team first. When the Huskies are able to pound the ball with quarterback Jordan Lynch or running back Cameron Stingily, the offense flows better and the wide receivers suddenly start making big plays. Lynch should play like a man on fire after suffering a 20-point loss to Bowling Green, plus extra motivated from being the school's first-ever Heisman Trophy finalist. The Huskies average 312.5 yards per game rushing, with Lynch tallying 1,881 yards. The Aggies have given up 178.8 on the ground per game and 20 touchdowns. The Aggies have several capable runners, with seven players with at least 21 carries.
Scouting the passing game: Lynch will have a tough time finding open spots against Utah State's battle-tested defense. The Huskies offense will take a big hit if either wide receiver Tommylee Lewis or Da'Ron are sidelined or limited due to injuries. Most likely, both will be at full strength after three-plus weeks off. But the Aggies have intercepted 16 passes and held opponents to 224.8 yards passing per game. Lynch will take what the defense gives him, but he rarely throws an interception -- aside from his two-interception game against Bowling Green -- and completed 63.1 percent of his passes for 23 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Darell Garretson has played in the last seven games after taking over for injured Utah State starting quarterback Chuckie Keaton. The Huskies might try and pressure Garretson and force him into mistakes due to him throwing nine touchdowns and five interceptions in 180 pass attempts.
Scouting the run defense: The NIU defense gives up 150.2 yards per game on the ground. Those numbers are skewed somewhat due to the Huskies gained big leads in the second half of games this season. But the Huskies have shown a troubling sign late in the season of not being able to stop the run. Utah State running back Joey Demartino ran for 1,078 yards and averaged 5.4 yards per carry. The Aggies have rushed for 2,325 yards this season and scored 20 rushing touchdowns. Utah State's experienced offensive line is a factor to watch. The Aggies want to control the line of scrimmage and eat up clock.
Scouting the pass defense: Bowling Green repeatedly attacked NIU's vulnerable secondary for big plays to win the MAC title game. Utah State might attempt the same approach, just not in the same volume. The Aggies have attempted 452 passes as a team, averaging 242.1 yards per game. Quarterback Darell Garretson replaced highly regarded quarterback Chuckie Keeton, who suffered a season-ending injury, in Utah State's loss to Boise State. Garrettson has completed 60.6 percent of passes for 1,325 yards. The Huskies have a penchant for giving up big passing plays, witnessed by NIU opponents tallying 3,559 yards for a per game average of 273.8 per game.
Scouting the special teams: This part of the game has been a strong suit for several seasons for Northern Illinois. But senior kicker Mathew Sims is suffering from some late-season issues. Normally a well-regarded clutch kicker, Sims has struggled down the stretch and made just 17 of his 27 field goal attempts this season. Sims' troubles are evident in long attempts, as he's 3-of-9 from 40-49 yards out and 2-of-4 from 50 yards or longer. Northern Illinois needs a healthy Tommylee Lewis returning kicks and punts. Lewis is an electric returner and often comes up big in big games. Utah State kicker Nick Diaz has made 15 of his 21 attempts this season, but attempted just six field goals past 40 yards.
Intangibles: How will the Huskies react to losing a shot a BCS bowl bid and perfect season? The Huskies are a wounded bunch and you have to wonder if they won't be motivated to play the day after Christmas against Mountain West Conference opponent Utah State. But don't bet against Jordan Lynch. He's beaten some big time odds to become a Heisman Trophy finalist. Utah State won't be intimidated, not after battling then-No. 24 Fresno State to a 24-17 loss in the Mountain West title game.
--QB Chuckie Keeton's season-ending knee injury against Brigham Young was supposed to be the end of Utah State's bowl chances. Keeton was a do-it-all quarterback, who lead Utah State to an 11-2 record in 2012, and he passed for 1,388 yards and 18 touchdowns and rushed for 241 yards before his injury ended his season after playing just six games.
--RB Joe Hill is another player that Utah State overcame to land its third straight bowl game. Hill still ranks third on the team in rushing with 252 yards in five games played.
--WR Da'Ron Brown did not dress for the MAC Championship game due to a hamstring injury. Brown, the team's second-leading receiver, should be set to play by the time the Dec. 26thbowl game comes around. Brown tops the Huskies with nine touchdown catches and caught 42 passes for a team-best 689 yards.
--WR Tommylee Lewis had been bothered most of the season with an ankle injury. Lewis played in the MAC title game and caught six passes for 37 yards. He leads the team with 80 receptions and ranks second behind Brown with 660 receiving yards.
--LT Tyler Loos won't be a surprise addition to the bowl lineup. Loos is still recovering from suffering a broken leg in the UMass victory.
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