San Diego • It’ll be a fourth quarter long remembered in Logan.
From a defense that did not break after a turnover put them up against a wall, to an offense that pulled itself together at the right time, Utah State’s 21-14 win over Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl played out in film-worthy sequence.
Even those who weren’t in the huddle can easily envision coach Matt Wells, headset tugged down around his neck, telling his linemen and running backs, "Saddle up."
But Utah State’s 9-5 season isn’t about one particular play, one drive or even one game. Adversity and challenges — from injuries to defeats — forged a team that learned how to deal with the unexpected and disappointing turns in the season.
"To beat a team like that on a national stage is big time for these kids," Wells said. "And the way they did it in typical fashion, blue collar and toughness and tremendous defense the whole game and found a way to run the ball at the end of the game. I’m proud of these guys and proud to be their coach."
Limping to the finish, Utah State’s health wasn’t pretty. Five offensive starters were done. A few more weren’t likely going to play in the bowl game. Senior safety Maurice Alexander was one of the biggest losses after getting surgery on his wrist. Wells said only four receivers, two running backs and two tight ends were available for full practice.
There may have been a time when that fazed the Aggies. But by the Poinsettia Bowl, they were way past it. Even in the game, Wells and his staff went with a switch on the offensive line midway through the game — a change that proved to be fortuitous.
Utah State had already seen so many teammates go down, they knew how to handle their waning depth.
"We didn’t dream that we would end up with this many people out, but it shows the resiliency and the next man up and players stepping up on our team," senior running back Joey DeMartino said. "When somebody goes down, you’re expected to step up and replace them."
No excuses, they emphasized.
Utah State also wouldn’t take excuses for losses this year. A season of watching the big prizes slip away made the Aggies ache — sometimes even more than their injuries did.
Going into the bowl, Wells said he had seen shock in the locker room after every loss. The Utah State football team found it hard to comprehend how they could’ve been beaten.
Utah. USC. BYU. Boise State. Fresno State. The defeats stung more and more because each time, the Aggies expected to win.
Being forced to make a stop in the red zone was nothing new for a defense that had to make up for a lack of offensive production toward the end of the season. And when the offense was challenged to make a drive or else possibly lose its last game, the players knew what laid on the other side.
"We haven’t had a good drive like that in a while where we drove the ball down that field," DeMartino said. "We took it to heart to come back after that loss at Fresno, and we wanted to come back and show ourselves. We knew what we had to do."
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.