San Diego • The Utah State Aggies will always wonder what a healthy Chuckie Keeton would have done for them this season. They'll also be thankful for the opportunity that Jordan Lynch gave them.
In a 21-14 victory over Northern Illinois in Thursday night's Poinsettia Bowl, the Aggies delivered a phenomenal defensive effort against a quarterback who finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Lynch's presence at Qualcomm Stadium validated everybody associated with USU's football program. That list includes first-year coach Matt Wells, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, a relentless defense and an offense that did just enough to overcome midseason loss of Keeton, the Aggies' star quarterback.
USU planned to win this game, and acted that way for 60 minutes against a Top 25 opponent that had gone into December with a perfect record. The Aggies produced a memorable snapshot of their 9-5 season, with more evidence of why they simply wouldn't allow Keeton's absence to ruin everything.
"It's ultimately the belief in the locker room," Well said recently. "Those kids don't think they are going to win, they expect to win. They expect to win every single time, and there are five different times this year that they have been completely shocked."
The Aggies wouldn't let that happen to them a sixth time, even when NIU (12-2) appeared to be on the verge of controlling this game in the first half and when USU wobbled with two turnovers in the second half.
Afterward, Wells labeled it "a signature win," which was true in multiple ways.
The game's decisive sequence said everything about the Aggies. Freshman quarterback Darell Garretson was intercepted on consecutive series with USU leading 13-7. The second turnover, via a tipped screen pass early in the fourth quarter, gave the Huskies the ball at the Aggie 13-yard line. But USU's defense responded again, and NIU missed a field-goal try.
"I can't even tell you how many times our defense has bailed us out," Garretson said.
The Aggie offense then produced an epic drive that started with this instruction from Wells: "Saddle up, Joey."
USU's offensive line came through as San Diego native Joey DeMartino carried the ball 11 times for 53 yards on the 16-play, 80-yard drive that lasted 7 minutes, 19 seconds. DeMartino's 1-yard touchdown run capped a 143-yard night for the bowl's offensive MVP, and Garretson's two-point conversion pass gave USU a 21-7 lead with 4:14 remaining.
Wells emphatically pumped his fist in celebration, and the Aggies' salvaging of the season was almost complete. USU ultimately needed Brandon Swindall's recovery of an onside kick in the last two minutes to secure the win.
The Aggie defense gave up 234 total yards in the first half, but only seven points thanks partly to NIU's missed field goal and USU's fourth-down stop as linebacker Kyler Fackrell led a surge to stuff Lynch on a run up the middle. "They were always in the right spot at the right time," Lynch said.
The Huskies then gained only 81 yards in the second half. Lynch finished the season with more than 1,900 rushing yards, but only 39 of them came against USU.
That's the effect of what USU linebacker Jake Doughty, the game's defensive MVP, described as a "rat-tat-tat" approach: "One guy gets a lick on him [and] we had four or five other guys right there."
Nick Diaz kicked two field goals in the first half as the Aggie offense took mild advantage of Brian Suite's recovery of Lynch's fumble and a 58-yard run by DeMartino. That play accounted for slightly more than half of USU's offensive production in the opening half, which ended with the Huskies leading 7-6.
But then the Aggie offense did its part, in response to the defense. Suite's interception of Lynch led to USU's first touchdown, via a 5-yard pass from Garretson to Swindall.
The Aggies admirably overcame Keeton's absence by winning five straight games in October and November, including victories over bowl qualifiers UNLV and Colorado State.
Garretson competed gamely, as always, against Northern Illinois. Keeton was not the only one missing from the offense, either. Four other starters from the original lineup were lost to season-ending injuries along the way, limiting the Aggies in a loss to Fresno State in the Mountain West championship game.
But that would not be the story of USU's 2013 season. Wells and his players were determined to write their own ending, and they did so in style.