Logan • If the top billing at the Poinsettia Bowl goes to Heisman finalist Jordan Lynch taking on Utah State’s battle-tested defense, the Aggies’ offense is somewhere on the undercard.
The program struggled to put points together in the Mountain West championship against Fresno State, its biggest weakness in a 24-17 loss. And although viewers may be tuning in to see how the Aggies can stop Northern Illinois, the heat is on for the offense to correct its flaws before its season-ending showdown in San Diego.
For offensive coordinator Kevin McGiven, that’s a personal challenge as well as a team one.
“We got to get back to execution overall as an offense,” he said. “I’ve got to improve in studying the opponent, take what they’ve given us, and put our guys in position for success. That’s something I’ve taken personally since the Mountain West Championship.”
The numbers don’t smile on the Aggies: The offense gave up eight sacks, two quarterbacks threw picks, and the team managed to convert only four of 16 third downs. Utah State was forced to punt six times and got in the red zone once.
Everyone has work to do.
“I think a lot of last game was we played with high effort, but there were too many times when all 11 of us weren’t on the same page,” senior receiver Travis Van Leeuwen said. “We had missed assignments and whatnot. To execute, we need all 11 guys.”
One of the most pressing issues is keeping quarterback Darell Garretson upright. The freshman took six sacks before the last one — an apparent helmet-to-helmet hit — sidelined him with a concussion.
He’s done well to get back to practice, but McGiven suggested Utah State will find ways to get the ball out of his hands quicker and “buffer” the pass rush that so bothered him in the last game.
Northern Illinois’ defensive line is “a whole different animal,” senior center Tyler Larsen. They stress gap control rather than the non-stop blitzing of the Bulldogs. But the Huskies can still rack up the sacks: They’ve garnered 32 as a team.
“With gap-control guys, it’s more technique,” Larsen said. “We’re really emphasizing getting the right technique and just trying to prepare a bit more.”
In the secondary, NIU boasts a safety who has been placed on a number of All-American teams. Safety Jimmie Ward has picked off six passes this year while making a team-leading 89 tackles. The Aggies will have to be aware where the Huskies’ leading ballhawk is lurking.
Utah State’s receivers have also made a renewed commitment to developing a steady rapport with Garretson. Van Leeuwen and Jojo Natson are still the top targets, but Ronald Butler has emerged as a deep threat.
“It takes preparation and building trust with him,” Butler said. “With Travis Reynolds going down, that was his go-to receiver. He bailed him out of a lot of things. With him going down, it’s helped me get a chemistry with him and just telling him he can trust in me.”
O Utah State vs. Northern Illinois
Dec. 26, 7:30 p.m.
TV • ESPN