SAN DIEGO—Utah State allowed two 100-yard rushers all season long. Jordan Lynch, the all-purpose Heisman Trophy finalist from Northern Illinois, failed to make it into that exclusive club. The Aggies’ swarming defense made Lynch look average during a 21-14 victory over No. 24 Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl on Thursday night. Safety Brian Suite intercepted a pass and recovered a fumble by Lynch, who was bottled up for only 39 yards rushing. That kept him from becoming the first major college player to rush for 2,000 yards and pass for 2,000 yards in the same season. Utah State stymied a Huskies offense that had averaged nearly 42 points a game.
“The only thing we do every week is not stop the run game, but eliminate the run game,” USU coach Matt Wells said. “But obviously he is a big part of the run game, so we were able to eliminate him, make him one-dimensional and then we were able to actually find a way to run the football, which makes them one-dimensional, and the ballgame is ours.”
Joey DeMartino, who went to high school and junior college in San Diego, carried 23 times for 143 yards and a touchdown for Utah State (9-5). He was the offensive MVP.
“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.”
DeMartino said the Aggies wanted to bounce back from a loss to Fresno State in the Mountain West Conference championship game.
“We took a hard loss there,” DeMartino said. “That’s not how we play. We just wanted to come back and prove to the nation that we can compete every game and we did just that.”
Lynch was third in the Heisman Trophy voting and made the Associated Press All-America team as an all-purpose player. He extended his major college record for yards rushing for a quarterback in a season to 1,920. He completed 20 of 35 passes for 216 yards and was sacked twice. Lynch ran for a touchdown and passed for another for NIU (12-2), which ended the season with two straight losses. The Huskies were coming off a 20-point loss to Bowling Green in the Mid-American Conference title game that cost them a BCS bid.
“We gave it the 24-hour rule,” Lynch said. “The carpet got pulled out from under us losing to Bowling Green and thinking about going to a BCS game. But we got a chance to play a great opponent in Utah State. I thought we had a great three weeks of practice. We came out with a lot of energy and had fun. All the credit goes to Utah State.”
Lynch’s pass was intercepted on the first play of the third quarter by Suite, setting up a go-ahead, 5-yard touchdown pass from Darrel Garretson to Brandon Swindall. The Aggies put it away when DeMartino scored on a 1-yard run with 4:14 to go for a 21-7 lead. It capped a 16-play, 80-yard drive that consumed 7:19.
“We had to find a way to keep wearing them down and I’m going to tell you what — we imposed our will on them at the end of the game,” Wells said.
“On that one drive to make it 21-7, that was more of an issue that they had been out there all night because the offense couldn’t do a thing,” NIU coach Rod Carey said. NIU punted four times, had two turnovers, two missed field goals and relinquished possession on downs one time.
“We weren’t able to move it like we normally do,” Carey said.
Lynch threw a 5-yard scoring pass to Juwan Brescacin with 1:44 left to pull NIU to 21-14. NIU tried an onside kicked that USU recovered. There were four turnovers and three missed field goals. The game drew only 23,408 to 70,000-seat Qualcomm Stadium, the lowest attendance in the bowl’s nine-year history. Suite also recovered Lynch’s fumble in the first quarter. NIU’s first five series in the second half ended with an interception, three punts and a missed field goal.
“We had our chances,” Lynch said. “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.”
The teams staggered through an unimpressive first half that included a missed field goal by each team, a shanked punt by NIU and a lost fumble by Lynch, who later scored on a 1-yard run with 8:17 left in the second quarter to cap a 15-play, 78-yard drive and give NIU a 7-6 lead. Lynch ended NIU’s second possession by losing a fumble at midfield. Utah State responded with a 31-yard field goal by Nick Diaz. NIU’s Mathew Sims was wide right on a 37-yard field goal attempt and DeMartino had a 58-yard run to set up Diaz’s 39-yard field goal