San Diego • We're a few hours away from the Poinsettia Bowl, and Utah State is in the hunt for a signature season win. We'll see tonight on ESPN if the Aggies can pull off a win that it seems that many are picking for the Huskies.
With the final game of the year ahead, I thought I'd circle back to Gameday Thoughts, and see what factors could be a big influence in this contest. If you just plain can't read any more preview coverage, watch our pregame breakdown on this TribTalk video where I make many of the same points.
Stopping the run • Utah State always has a goal to stop the run, and they've often been quite successful. The Aggies have only allowed 107.3 yards per game, but Northern Illinois is averaging 312.5 yards. Who flinches? Utah State will have to play superbly against the run and get good push up front from stalwarts Connor Williams, A.J. Pataiali'i and B.J. Larsen. There could be a four-man front like USU used against Air Force and New Mexico. But the Aggies can't completely sell out, or else they face getting beat through the air like they did against Taysom Hill and BYU. There will be a lot of heat on the corners to keep the receivers covered downfield as the front seven looks to apply pressure to Jordan Lynch.
Protecting the quarterback • Freshman Darell Garretson hasn't had a stunning finish to the season by any measure, but he needs to get enough time to make plays. Offensive coordinator Kevin McGiven said he's worked on a number of ways to get out the ball faster. Garretson needs to know when to get rid of the ball, but his pocket awareness only reflects his age. Four of Utah State's starting five linemen are playing their final games as Aggies, and they'll have to show that they want to go out on top. Can Tyler Larsen, Jamie Markosian, Eric Schultz and Sini Tauauve'a bring a better effort to the bowl game? That will be a huge key.
Winning third downs • Utah State has been spectacular in the season-long view in both stopping their opponents (No. 9) on third down and converting their own chances (No. 28). But it was rough going at Bulldog Stadium for an offense that converted only a quarter of its third down chances. The defense did OK against Fresno on third down, holding them to 6-of-14, but gave up three fourth-down conversions. That can't happen against Northern Illinois, which is averaging over 45 percent of its third-down conversions. The Huskies defense has held opponents to only 38.4 percent successful conversions, which the Aggies would do well to beat.
A special teams edge • Can Utah State get that extra push from special teams? Against New Mexico and Wyoming, sophomore Jojo Natson helped elevate the Aggies from merely winning to blowouts. USU could use a bonus from the third phase of the game, given some of the late season offensive struggles. Conversely, Utah State will have to play the same great kickoff and punt coverage it has all year - top 5 in both categories nationally.
See you at Qualcomm Stadium.
Kyle Goonkgoon@sltrib.comTwitter: @kylegoon