PHOTO: USA Today Sports
NIU Huskies (12-1) vs Utah State Aggies (8-5)
Thursday, Dec 26th @ 9:30 pm (ESPN)
Line: NIU by 1.5
How NIU got here: Northern Illinois and Jordan Lynch rolled to a 12-0 regular season record and looked poised to make their second straight BCS bowl. Not so fast my friend, they got beat by 20 points in the MAC Championship Game and fell from a possible BCS bowl despite posting a 12-1 record on the season.
How Utah State got here: The Aggies overcame a rocky start and the loss of their star quarterback to post an 8-5 record on the season. Chuckie Keeton got hurt in the sixth game after starting the year with 18 TD passes and 2 INTs. The Aggies won five straight down the stretch before closing the season with a seven point loss to Fresno State to finish 8-5 overall and 7-1 in the Mountain West.
For NIU to win: NIU averaged 312 yards per game on the ground this season. In the MAC Championship Game, they struggled to get the running game going and by the time they did it was too late. NIU needs to establish the run early but they also need to get Lynch throwing the ball in rhythm early. On defense, the Huskies need to make the Aggies earn their yards. In the loss to Bowling Green, NIU gave up 9 plays of 20 or more yards and 23 plays of 10 or more yards.
For Utah State to win: Bowling Green set the blueprint to beat NIU. Now the question is if the Aggies can duplicate it. First and foremost, the Aggies have to stop Lynch from gaining easy yards on the ground. When the Aggies have the ball, it's about establishing the run to make freshman QB Darell Garretson comfortable and to allow the game to come to him.
Key Player (NIU): Jordan Lynch, QB. After finishing third in the Heisman voting, Lynch will be playing in his final collegiate game. Utah State had the top rushing defense in the Mountain West, so getting yards on the ground won't be easy for him. If Lynch is unable to deploy his usual ground and pound strategy, he must be accurate in the passing game.
Key Player (Utah State): Joey DeMartino, RB. DeMartino finished sixth in the Mountain West with 82.92 ypg and he had 12 rushing TD which placed him fourth in the conference. In wins, DeMartino is averaging 103.5 ypg with 11 TD and in losses he's averaging just 50 ypg with only 1 TD.
Key Stat: Both NIU and Utah State were in the top ten (tied for 10th) in the Nation with 28 takeaways. NIU intercepted 17 passes on the season and USU intercepted 16.