San Diego • Every time Northern Illinois appeared ready to peel itself off the mat, it was sent flat on its back again. And again.
The Utah State defense wouldn’t let the Huskies breathe, even in a second half when they had all the advantages they could ask for. NIU’s nationally ranked offense, their Heisman contender — all were negated by the Aggies, a unit that smothered what had been a point-scoring machine on turf.
“I honestly couldn’t be prouder, from top to bottom,” said senior Jake Doughty, sitting at a podium with a trophy in front of him. “It means a lot how everyone played. I love all of them.”
A senior class that had set a program record for victories powered Utah State (9-5) to a physical, grind-it-out 21-14 Poinsettia Bowl win over Northern Illinois (12-2) for the program’s final and most memorable triumph of the season. Even as turnovers seemed to keep the Huskies in the game, the Aggies’ defensive unit found ways to keep snuffing them out.
A late drive utilizing power runs ended up being the difference for Utah State, which had limped to the finish of an injury-riddled season — in some ways literally — but still had much to show for it.
“We’re not playing the same guys we’re starting with, and we’re not playing the same guys the middle of the season,” a Gatorade-soaked coach Matt Wells said. “To me, that’s the stamp of a program. But it’s those 22 seniors too, and the way that they held it together, and the way they willed it upon themselves to keep finding a way to win.”
It was a night for old-school football.
The defense made the biggest plays throughout the contest. Doughty forced a fumble in the first quarter that Brian Suite recovered, leading to a field goal. Suite, a junior safety, also set the tone early in the third quarter, intercepting a pass on the first drive that set up a go-ahead Utah State touchdown.
Northern Illinois was held to 99 yards on the ground, less than a third of its normal average while under the direction of Heisman finalist Jordan Lynch.
Perhaps the toughest stand the Aggies made came in the fourth quarter, after freshman quarterback Darell Garretson had thrown his second pick in as many drives. Utah State quelled any momentum by holding the Huskies to a field goal attempt — which they missed.
Meanwhile the Aggies’ own running game saved them from falling behind.
A late 16-play, 80-yard drive that consumed more than seven minutes proved to be the difference. Senior running back Joey DeMartino plunged into the end zone in his hometown’s most storied stadium, capping his career with 143 yards on the ground and a score in an offensive MVP performance.
Utah State did it behind a makeshift line, with Jamie Markosian and Eric Schultz playing out of position and Jake Simonich stepping in at tackle. Before the drive, Wells told the offensive huddle they would ride out the game with the run.
“We talked and we said, ‘Hey, we’re going to ride you five up front with two tight ends, and saddle up, Joey,’” Wells said. “Honestly, we imposed our will.”
The last score with 4:14 remaining won it. Northern Illinois scored with 1:44 left — a quick, scrambling drive — but couldn’t recover an onside kick. Utah State kneeled it out for the victory.
The Aggies’ much-discussed offensive issues lingered into the Poinsettia Bowl, and although they were leading, the ground slippery beneath them.
Despite getting good field position from special teams and defensive plays, Utah State’s offense struggled from the outset. Aside from a 58-yard run by DeMartino, the Aggies lacked explosiveness and could only draw a pair of field goals out of drives deep in Northern Illinois territory.
All kicks and no touchdowns came back to bite the Aggies in the first half, as NIU picked up steam. Lynch led a churning, 15-play, 78-yard drive in the second quarter. After completing some midrange passes, the Huskies pounded the ball up the middle all the way to the end zone. Lynch scored with a lean just over the line for the score.