San Diego • As a freshman, Travis Van Leeuwen could’ve envisioned himself ready to play in a third straight bowl game. But it would’ve been just that — a vision.
On the brink of finishing his Utah State career, the sunshine and beaches he’s seen this week still have the feel of a pleasant daydream. But the looming Poinsettia Bowl, and facing off against one of the nation’s toughest teams, is very much real.
“When I first got to the program,” he said, “the dream was to just go to a bowl game.”
For Utah State (8-5), the dream has changed. The Aggies want to keep climbing in the college football world, and beating Northern Illinois (12-1) on Thursday night on ESPN would go a long way to keep the momentum going into the offseason.
The bowl is a challenge of Utah State’s legitimacy. The Aggies beat two teams with winning records this season. In some of their losses, such as Boise State and BYU, they struggled with fresh or sudden injuries. In others, such as Utah and Fresno State, they had chances they couldn’t seize.
But if they can beat the Huskies — the No. 5 offense in the nation, led by a Heisman-contending quarterback — it would be tough to deny that the Aggies belong in a conversation with the best mid-major programs in the country. And that, coach Matt Wells said, would be a strong reinforcement of the confidence the program has already gained.
“I think ultimately it’s the belief in the locker room,” he said. “Those kids don’t think they are going to win, they expect to win.”
The schematic battle is headlined by a strength-against-strength matchup between NIU’s offense and Utah State’s defense, particularly in the run game. Senior quarterback Jordan Lynch has put up 1,881 yards on the ground, but, as Wells noted, has competed more than 63 percent of his passes.
He’s paired with a tough running back in Cameron Stingily, so for the Aggies’ stated goal of stopping the run first — well, they’ve got their work cut out for them.
“[Lynch] is a tough physical player — that’s his greatest asset,” Vigil said. “You’re not going to tackle him with just one guy.”
While the focus is on how Utah State’s No. 10-ranked run defense will stop NIU’s ground game, other matchups may have even more of an effect.
After a rough outing against Fresno State, a team that hasn’t played much elite defense this year, the Aggies are concerned about offense. Freshman quarterback Darrell Garretson had a subpar showing against the Bulldogs, but he also had a hard time staying upright — a fact that his offensive line has taken to heart.
The Aggies also want to get their run game going against a team that has played the run pretty well this year. Against the pass, All-American safety Jimmie Ward lurks as a ballhawk.
“This is a defense built to me pretty much like a general manager or manager would build a baseball team: strong up the middle,” Wells said. “They’re very well coached.”
Utah State has a tough task at hand. But it’s not thinking of itself as the underdog anymore.
Only a win can validate that belief.
“I think as a team, we showed our true character this year,” cornerback Nevin Lawson said. “We lost a lot of people, but we never stopped fighting. We gotta keep fighting now.”
P Utah State vs.Northern Illinois
Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego
Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
TV • ESPN
P Utah State vs. Northern Illinois
At Qualcomm Stadium (San Diego)
Kickoff • 7:30 p.m MST
TV • ESPN
Radio • 1280 AM
Records • USU 8-5; NIU 12-1
Series history • USU leads 1-0
Last meeting • USU 42, NIU 7 (Oct. 14, 1995)
About the Aggies • The Aggies have earned top-15 rankings nationally in scoring defense (17.3 ppg), rushing defense (107.3 ypg) and total defense (332.1 ypg). … With 12 rushing touchdowns, senior running back Joey DeMartino is tied for No. 28 in the country. … Utah State has never been to three straight bowl games in its history, and is looking for consecutive bowl wins for the first time. … Senior linebacker Jake Doughty is No. 9 nationally with 10.8 tackles per game.
About the Huskies • Senior quarterback Jordan Lynch is one of the top dual-threat passes in the country, and was the third overall finisher in Heisman voting. … Northern Illinois has won at least 11 games each of the last four seasons, going to the Orange Bowl last year and narrowly missing this season. … Senior safety Jimmie has six interceptions this season, the top individual performance in the Mid-American Conference. … The Huskies are top 10 nationally in scoring (41.6 ppg), total offense (535.5 ypg) and rushing offense (312.5 ypg).