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LOGAN — After a season that could have gone any which way but loose, Utah State is in a position where it could still dominate the offseason talk, despite losing to in-state rivals BYU and Utah.
To add to the positive news for Utah State fans, the Aggies won’t be bowling in the frozen tundra of Boise. Instead, the Gaslamp District and sunny San Diego are the destinations, and that is a place that brings fans and much-needed hype in the Southern California recruiting base.
Utah State will face Northern Illinois in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl (try saying that five times fast). The Huskies, who were ranked as high as 14th in the nation before a loss to Bowling Green in the MAC championship game, feature a Heisman Trophy finalist in Jordan Lynch and one of the nation’s best rushing attacks, averaging 312.5 yards per game.
The similarities between the two teams are many — both lost their conference championship games; both have/had quarterbacks with unique abilities; both are being led by first-year head coaches; both are trying to establish national brand awareness. So, the script should be similar to both fan bases.
However, the way these two teams play football is vastly different. Northern Illinois tries to run over teams, using Lynch as the catalyst to force other teams to match the Huskies’ offensive power. In stark contrast, Utah State uses its acclaimed defense as a weapon to prevent teams from imposing their will on the Aggies.
So, as the Aggies vie to win a bowl game for the second consecutive season, the key matchup in this game against Northern Illinois will come down to whether or not Utah State’s defense can stop Lynch.
Why this matchup?
Anytime a Heisman Trophy finalist is on the other sideline, a team’s attention should always be focused on first stopping that player. This season, Lynch rushed for 1,881 yards and 22 touchdowns and passed for 2,676 yards and 23 touchdowns. His running game is built on explosive quickness and agility, and his rushing abilities make the play-action passing game a potent weapon for Northern Illinois.
For Utah State to effectively stop the Northern Illinois attack, the Aggies' linebackers will have to be able to determine various keys in the Huskies attack that decide whether a play will be a run or pass. Also, Utah State will have to cover man-to-man so the linebackers can focus on stopping Lynch instead of dropping into coverage.
Who wins this matchup?
Utah State fans should take heart in the fact that the Aggies have played well against prolific offenses this season, holding Fresno State to a then season-low 24 points and Southern Cal to only 17 points. Also, which team plays well in a bowl game is often time determined by which team wants to be there more. For the Aggies, who thought their season could have been over when Chuckie Keeton went down with an injury against BYU, this game is a reward that was hard-earned and is well-deserved. For Northern Illinois, the Huskies had a chance to head to another BCS game but instead lost to Bowling Green in the MAC title game. In short, they really don’t want to be in San Diego.
This game will be closely contested, but give a slight edge to Utah State, as the Aggies’ desire to win and their well-tested defense provide a measurable advantage.