Like many expected, the 2013 Poinsettia Bowl featured a senior star finish his collegiate career with the game of his life. Unfortunately for Northern Illinois, said senior was not Heisman Trophy finalist Jordan Lynch.
Utah State running back Joey DeMartino rushed for 143 yards and a key fourth-quarter touchdown, as the Aggies pulled off a 21-14 upset win over Northern Illinois at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.
A loser in all but one of its nonconference games in 2013, Utah State set out to prove its stellar late-season run was not a fluke. Swarming the Huskies' high-powered rushing attack with packed boxes and well-designed run blitzes, the Aggies set a dominant tone from the opening whistle and flummoxed Lynch en route to arguably his worst performance of the season.
Lynch, who set an FBS single-season rushing record for a quarterback, was held to a minuscule 39 yards on 18 carries. While one of those carries was a second-quarter touchdown that gave the Huskies a 7-6 lead with 8:17 remaining in the half, the positives were few and far between for Lynch.
With the running game sputtering, he was forced to throw the ball 35-plus times for the second straight game. It shouldn't be a surprise that both games ended in Northern Illinois losses. After Lynch looked fine when passing in the first half, Utah State began forcing major mistakes by bringing pressure. The Aggies picked him off on Northern Illinois' opening drive of the second half, sparking a dominant defensive run.
Northern Illinois managed just 19 yards and one first down on its first five second-half drives.
Even when the Huskies created some luck via a turnover, they were unable to take advantage. A fourth-quarter interception of Darell Garretson gave the ball to Northern Illinois deep inside Utah State territory, but Mathew Sims missed a 29-yard field goal to render the pick meaningless. Sims missed two relative chip shots in the contest, as he finishes his career at Northern Illinois missing seven of his final 11 kicks.
Lynch was also chief among those struggling. He completed only six of 17 passes in the second half, with four of those completions coming on Northern Illinois' final drive—at a time when Utah State had opened a two-touchdown lead. Lynch's 15-yard touchdown pass to Juwan Brescacin with 1:44 remaining gave the Huskies a chance to attempt an onside kick, but it proved to be little more than window dressing.
"We had our chances," Lynch said, via ESPN. "We had our chances to make some plays and score some points. We were in the red zone three times or so and we didn't come away with points. We just didn't capitalize on it."
Instead, Thursday night proved to be an excellent showcase for DeMartino.
With Garretson struggling with turnovers and consistently checking down, DeMartino was the game's only consistent force on offense. The San Diego native's 58-yard run in the first quarter allowed Utah State to go ahead 3-0 with 6:56 remaining, and he punched the ball in from one yard out to give the Aggies their necessary cushion in the fourth.
Playing before family and friends, DeMartino pushed Utah State to just its third win over a ranked opponent in 54 tries.
"The feeling's unreal," DeMartino said. "I couldn't ask for a better senior game to go out on and to be in front of my hometown, my family, my friends and everyone who supported me out here."
In his first season since taking over for Gary Andersen, Matt Wells led the Aggies to a 9-5 season record. Once a conference doormat, Utah State now has two straight stellar campaigns under its belt and should be able to replenish its talent stock, especially after reaching a program milestone (via ESPN Stats & Info):
#UtahState: has won consecutive bowl games for 1st time in school history.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 27, 2013
Northern Illinois, meanwhile, walks away from a bowl game disappointed for the second straight year. In 2012, Lynch and Co. were overwhelmed by Florida State in the Orange Bowl. In 2013, they not only blew a chance to make a second straight BCS bowl but also looked overmatched against a Mountain West team.
Not exactly the way Lynch saw his final game going.
Jordan Lynch (QB, Northern Illinois): C
Apparently, Lynch heard his critics and decided his final game at Northern Illinois was a good time to prove he can throw a little bit. He came out firing in the first half, completing 14 of 18 passes and moving the ball well down the field despite some struggles on the ground.
It took him exactly one throw in the second half to make the type of mistake that concerns people about his acumen as a quarterback. Firing a forced pass down the right sideline, Lynch had neither the arm strength nor the proper read on the play.
That was mostly the story of the night for Lynch. Every time the Huskies began working their way down the field, a turnover or quick series of mistakes would doom them.
After such a brilliant career, Lynch will again have to prove himself to NFL scouts. There are very few who grade him out much beyond a seventh-round pick or undrafted free agent. It's unclear whether he'll look to change positions in an effort to keep his career going or, like many previous running quarterbacks, insist on staying at his position.
If Thursday night was any indication, Lynch has a lot to improve on.
Joey DeMartino (RB, Utah State): A
Lynch wasn't the only talented runner making his final collegiate appearance, and DeMartino made sure his presence was felt on the national stage. The senior running back made a living on Thursday breaking long gains against an intermittently effective Northern Illinois defense, taking advantage of almost every small mistake.
It was a long time coming for DeMartino, whose collegiate career was filled with fits and starts. After showing flashes of promise as a youngster in 2010, DeMartino's next three years were mired with injuries. He didn't receive a carry in either 2011 or 2012, making his rise to prominence all the more satisfying.
It also didn't hurt that DeMartino got to go out before a hometown crowd. The San Diego native scored his fifth 100-yard game out of his final seven and was the best offensive player on the field for most of the night.
Cameron Stingily (RB, Northern Illinois): C
The often-underappreciated member of Northern Illinois' elite rushing duo, Stingily wasn't able to add anything to the offense. Like Lynch, it looked like Stingily was just going through the motions at times. He would run right into a swarm of Utah State defenders, give some requisite effort and then go down after a couple yards.
For someone of Stingily's stature to look so shrug-worthy is a testament to the game-planning from Utah State. It was rare for Stingily ever take over a game himself. His 266-yard game against Kent State aside, Stingily's presence was almost wholly to give Lynch a breather.
Unfortunately for Northern Illinois, he wasn't even able to provide that.
Utah State Defense: A
It's difficult to single out just one player, so we'll highlight the entire unit instead. Holding Jordan Lynch to 39 rushing yards is the type of performance that could be the peak of an entire season. While Utah State had been a stellar unit throughout 2013, there weren't that many who expected the Aggies to have similar success against Northern Illinois.
Taking down the Mountain West in a down year is one thing; doing so against a team that was one victory away from a BCS bowl is another.
Utah State made Lynch join a long line of solid players unable to create offensive headway. The Aggies now have two straight seasons under their belt finishing among the nation's best defensive units. They'll be losing quite a few top players going into 2014, but we'd be remiss if we doubted them going forward.
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