Pierce: ESPN analyst sees reason to hope for USU and BYU
Sports on TV • Mike Bellotti questions state of mind of Northern Illinois, Washington players

By Scott D. Pierce

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: December 23, 2013 05:39PM
Updated: February 14, 2014 11:49PM
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Even if ESPN analyst Mike Bellotti weren’t working both the Poinsettia Bowl and the Fight Hunger Bowl, he’d be watching.

“I think they’re interesting matchups,” he said. “I’m fired up about both games.”

The former Oregon coach, who will do TV commentary for the Poinsettia Bowl (Thursday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN) and radio commentary for the Fight Hunger Bowl (Friday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN) said No. 24 Northern Illinois “has to be favored” over Utah State on Thursday. But he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the Aggies can pull off an upset.

And not just because of the USU defense, which he praised, and the Huskies’ weak pass defense. He questions NIU’s state of mind after losing in the MAC championship game, dashing the team’s chances of a second straight trip to a BCS bowl.

“I think Utah State is probably in a better mindset than Northern Illinois,” Bellotti said. “They had a chance for BCS berth. They lost it in the last game of the season. How do they feel about this game? They could have been playing in the Orange Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl.

“I think that that certainly favors Utah State. A lot of times these games are determined by who’s the most excited to be there and who really wants to win the most.”

He knows a little something about that. He watched his Oregon team lose 44-20 to BYU in the 2009 Las Vegas Bowl — a game that wasn’t as close as the final score.

Bellotti praised that BYU squad as a “very, very good football team,” but added, “Our kids weren’t as happy to be there, no question. And probably didn’t respect BYU enough. Once it got going, it was just a snowball effect, and it was a rout.”

Can the same thing happen for USU on Thursday?

“The question is — how does NIU recover from that disappointment?” Bellotti said.

There’s a question of players’ attitudes hanging over BYU’s opponent in the Fight Hunger Bowl. Can Washington soldier through despite losing its coach, former BYU quarterback Steve Sarkisian, to Southern California?

“I think that does affect your preparation,” Bellotti said. Not just because the Huskies are playing with an interim head coach, Marques Tuiasosopo, but because position coaches have taken on new assignments or are doubling up on assignments.

“Do Washington’s players want to go out on top? Do they want to prove something?” Bellotti said. “Or are they caught in this transition?

“And BYU is saying, ‘Hey, we want to beat a Pac-12 school.’”

He figures fans who haven’t paid much attention to the Cougars this season may be in for a surprise.

“You’ve got a team in BYU that runs the football,” Bellotti said. “Has a mobile quarterback [Taysom Hill] that doesn’t throw the ball great. Plays solid defense, can stop the pass.

“But both of these teams are running teams.”

He sees the two offenses as similar, which should make for “a great game. A little different style as to the way they run, but similar. They want to run the ball with tempo and then play great defense.”

So it may come down to defenses.

“BYU’s defense, led by Kyle Van Noy, has already proven on a national stage that it can stop people,” Bellotti said. “Washington’s defense has sort of played inconsistently this year.”