SAN DIEGO -- Utah State linebacker Jake Doughty said the Aggies' defense wanted to make a statement.
For Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch, the message came through loud and clear.
"All the credit goes to them," said Lynch, whose 23rd-ranked Huskies lost 21-14 to the Aggies in the Poinsettia Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium on Thursday night. "The second half they were (playing) straight cover one, stopping the run game, and I was kind of off throwing. They had all of the momentum in the second half."
Senior running back Joey DeMartino rushed for 143 yards and a touchdown to lead Utah State.
The Aggies (9-5) clamped down on Lynch, who finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting, and handed Northern Illinois (12-2) its second consecutive defeat. The Huskies won their first 12 games this season.
"It's all about mentality," said Doughty, who was voted the game's defensive MVP. "In the whole second half, we wanted to prove to everybody in the nation that we have one of the top defenses. It's times like that that true defenses really come to play and come to produce."
DeMartino, a standout high school player in the San Diego area, delivered a 1-yard touchdown run with 4:14 remaining that gave Utah State a 21-7 advantage and turned out to be the difference.
"Words can't even describe that feeling at the ending," said DeMartino, the game's offensive MVP. "As long as our team is winning and our seniors are going out like this, this is the best feeling in the world."
Lynch, who completed 20 of 35 passes for 216 yards, connected on a 15-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Juwan Brescacin with 1:44 left to cut the margin. The Aggies recovered the onside kick, securing the win.
"To beat a team like that on a national stage is big-time for these kids," Utah State coach Matt Wells said. "The way they did it was typical fashion, just blue-collar and toughness and tremendous defense the whole game, and to find a way to run the ball at the end of the game."
Utah State safety Brian Suite had an interception and a fumble recovery. He picked off a Lynch pass on the first play of the second half, setting up freshman quarterback Darell Garretson's 5-yard scoring pass to wide receiver Brandon Swindall for a 13-7 Utah State lead with 11:57 left in the third quarter.
The Aggies' defense limited the Huskies to one first down in the third quarter, and that one came courtesy of a 10-yard run by tight end Desroy Maxwell on fourth-and-6 from the Northern Illinois 19 on the final play of the quarter. The Huskies didn't manage another first down until their final drive.
The Aggies prevailed despite two second-half turnovers, one of them costing them a touchdown and another occurring deep in their own territory. It was standard operating procedure for Utah State, whose defense allowed just 13 points after 16 turnovers.
Garretson, who went 17-for-29 for 121 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions, was picked off by safety Jimmy Ward in the end zone after the Aggies drove to the Northern Illinois 12 late in the third quarter.
Garretson threw another interception at the Utah State 14, where Northern Illinois defensive tackle Ken Bishop was the recipient. The Huskies failed to take advantage of the miscue, as kicker Mathew Sims missed a 29-yard field goal with 11:33 left in the game. Sims also missed a 37-yard attempt in the first half.
Two Nick Diaz field goals staked the Aggies to a 6-0 lead. A fumble by Lynch, recovered by Suite at the Northern Illinois 46, led to a 31-yard field goal by Diaz with 6:56 left in the first quarter.
Diaz added a 39-yarder with 14:09 remaining in the second quarter, tying the Poinsettia Bowl record set by Navy's Joey Bullen in 2007.
Later in the second quarter, Lynch guided the Huskies on a 15-play, 78-yard drive. He sneaked across the goal line on a 1-yard run to give Northern Illinois a 7-6 lead with 8:17 remaining before halftime.
NOTES: Northern Illinois QB Jordan Lynch came up short in his bid to become the first player in NCAA history to pass and run for 2,000 yards in a season. He gained just 39 yards on 18 carries Thursday. Lynch rushed for 1,920 yards (a single-season record for quarterbacks) and threw for 2,892 yards. ... Aggies RB Joey DeMartino's 58-yard run late in the first quarter was the longest run in the Poinsettia Bowl, breaking the mark of 44 yards set by Navy's Reggie Campbell in 2007. ... Utah State QB Darell Garretson, whose father Rick was a wide receiver at San Diego State in the late '70s, is the nephew of NBA referee Ron Garretson and the grandson of the late Darell Garretson, a longtime NBA official. ... The game drew a crowd of 23,408.