My hats off to these players because one more time they found a way to grind out a win. —Utah State head coach Matt Wells
SAN DIEGO — In a battle of strength against strength, Utah State emerged victorious at the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl.
USU's stingy defense held Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback Jordan Lynch and the high-flying Northern Illinois Huskies to a season-low 14 points and only 99 net rushing yards in a 21-14 Aggie victory. The Huskies came into the game averaging nearly 42 points and 312 yards rushing per contest.
“My hats off to these players because one more time they found a way to grind out a win,” said Utah State head coach Matt Wells.
Back in October, a flurry of offensive injuries changed the script for Utah State. Instead of winning games on the legs and arm of Chuckie Keeton and a high-scoring offense, the team had to grind out victories with defense and special teams.
On a clear, cool night at Qualcomm Stadium, the Aggies executed that game plan to perfection. Utah State denied Northern Illinois in scoring position three times. Husky kicker Mathew Sims missed two makeable field goals from 37 yards and 29 yards, and late in the second quarter the Aggie defense turned away the NIU offense when it attempted to go for it on fourth-and-3.
The Aggies special teams, meanwhile, converted 2 of 3 field goal attempts and recovered a crucial onside kick attempt in the fourth quarter.
“I thought they were well-coached,” Lynch said. “They were always in the right spot at the right time.”
Utah State linebacker Jake Doughty was named the game's defensive MVP. Doughty finished with eight tackles, 1 1/2 for loss and forced a fumble of Lynch in the first quarter to set up the Aggies' first field goal.
“With a challenge like Lynch, he’s a great player,” Doughty said. “It came back to playing assignment football and playing rat-tat-tat defense. When one guy gets a lick on him we needed four or five other guys there. I honestly couldn’t be prouder of (the defense). I love all of them.”
Offensively, the Aggies leaned heavily on San Diego native Joey DeMartino. The running back ran for 143 yards, including a Poinsettia Bowl record 58-yard scamper in the first quarter to set up Utah State’s second field goal of the game to go up 6-0. It was in the fourth quarter that DeMartino came up the biggest as the Aggies milked away the game on a 16-play, 80-yard drive that was capped by a DeMartino touchdown plunge from 1 yard out to put the Aggies up 21-7 with just more than four minutes remaining. DeMartino was named the offensive MVP of the game.
“Words can’t describe that feeling at the end, but as long as the team was winning and our seniors were going out like this it’s the best feeling in the world,” an emotional DeMartino said after the game.
Northern Illinois scored with just more than a minute left to cut the deficit back to one score, but the Aggie special teams came up big as Brandon Swindall came up with an onside kick recovery to allow USU to run out the clock.
It wasn’t always pretty for Utah State, which went into the locker room trailing 7-6 and looked to be knocked on its heels after Lynch led the Huskies on a long scoring drive in the second quarter. The team came out of the half hitting on all cylinders, however. On the first play of the half, Brian Suite intercepted Lynch and set USU up with excellent field position. Seven plays later freshman quarterback Darell Garretson found Swindall over the middle for a 5-yard touchdown catch to retake the lead at 13-7.
Garretson finished 17 of 28 passing with a touchdown. The true freshman also threw two interceptions, but Northern Illinois didn't score on either of them. Garretson’s second pick gave Northern Illinois the ball at the Utah State 13-yard line, but the Huskies only gained a single yard before Sims missed a 29-yard field goal attempt wide right.
Over the course of the season, of the 16 turnovers USU gave up, it only allowed 13 points on opponents' ensuing drives.
The win gave Utah State back-to-back bowl victories for the first time in school history and sent the senior class out as the winningest in school history with a total of 31 wins over the last four years.
Kraig Williams is a 2010 Utah State University graduate and regular Deseret News sports blogger. He can be followed on Twitter @DesNewsKraig.