Fresno, Calif. • The day after Utah State football lost to a ranked team with a Heisman-caliber quarterback, the Aggies learned they’ll face another in the postseason.
For the third straight year, it’s back to work for a bowl. Utah State is bristling for the opportunity to prove itself, fresh off a 24-17 loss to Fresno State in the Mountain West championship game.
"We’ve got to go back to the film room and fix what we didn’t do well enough [Saturday]," junior linebacker Zach Vigil said. "That’s something that this team is really good at. We’re good at bouncing back."
The Aggies (8-5, 7-2) will be heading to San Diego for the Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 26. They’ll be facing No. 23-ranked Northern Illinois (12-1, 8-1), a team that was contending for a BCS berth before falling in the Mid-American Conference championship game to Bowling Green.
Utah State will make program history just by taking the field at Qualcomm Stadium that night. The Aggies have never been to three straight bowls. Coach Matt Wells said the injuries and disappointments his team has been through add to the benchmark.
"It’s a reward for these kids for a season that has been very successful amidst all the adversity we’ve faced," Wells said. "We’ve fought through it. It’s a reward for these guys."
But Utah State, Wells said, won’t settle for just showing up. Winning the Poinsettia would be a fulfilling cap to the season, but it will be an uphill battle.
What Northern Illinois brings to the matchup is firepower. The Huskies, who went to the Orange Bowl last year, feature one of the country’s top offenses, powered by a Heisman-caliber quarterback. Senior Jordan Lynch set a quarterback record by running for 1,881 yards with 22 touchdowns, adding 2,676 passing yards and 23 scores through the air.
The most prolific offense in the school’s history ripped through the MAC West division before faltering against the Falcons. Coach Rod Carey said his group is on the same mission as the Aggies: to end the season on a high note.
"That Orange Bowl loss hung around for six months," Carey said. "We want to send these seniors out with 13 wins, which has never been done at NIU."
The hallmark of Utah State’s No. 7-ranked scoring defense has been stopping the run. Despite losing to Fresno State on Saturday night, the Aggies still held the Bulldogs to a season-low scoring output and hassled Derek Carr for two interceptions and three sacks.
Poinsettia Bowl spokesman Mark Neville said the strengths of the two teams had the committee buzzing since the picks were made.
"We’re absolutely fired up about this matchup," Neville said, adding that he expected Lynch facing the Utah State defense to be one of the bowl’s top storylines.
The Aggies hope that their defensive dominance is one of a few things they hold over from their last performance, in which the offense managed only 10 points. Utah State gave up eight sacks to Fresno State and couldn’t find consistency in its attack. Wells acknowledged the team will be working on its offense, among other issues, during the two-week lead-in to the bowl.
The game is set for a 7:30 p.m. MST kickoff to be televised on ESPN.
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