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Aim is to finish strong after BCS letdown

SAN DIEGO – It isn’t a BCS bowl, but sunshine and Shamu are some consolation.

It is not unusual for teams to accept an invitation to San Diego on the heels of disappointment, if not crushing defeat.

Northern Illinois can’t deny that its loss to Bowling Green in the Mid-American Conference Championship game dashed its dreams of a second straight BCS appearance.

So this is a letdown.

“I would be lying to you if I said there wasn’t,” NIU football coach Rod Carey said.

This season won’t be perfect, but the No. 23-ranked Huskies (12-1) are here and they are intent on making the most of it.

“We have a bad taste in our mouth,” Carey said, “so we’re anxious to get back out on the field and try to get that bad taste out.”

Tonight’s Poinsettia Bowl game against Utah State (8-5, 7-1 Mountain West Conference) provides the Huskies with that opportunity.

“We really want to prove that we are the 12-0 team that everyone saw before the MAC Championship,” senior offensive tackle Matt Krempel said. “We’re here to prove that we’re ready to come back and win a game.”

Krempel was among five teammates – along with senior defensive linemen George Rainey, Ken Bishop, Anthony Wells and Joe Windsor – who were kissed by a beluga whale in a behind-the-scenes tour Tuesday during the team’s visit at SeaWorld. The Huskies spent part of Christmas Day at the San Diego Zoo.

Now it’s back to business.

“The key for us to get a victory is to do what we’ve done all year,” Bishop said. “Stick to our fundamentals and come out and play with a lot of energy.”

It begins, of course, with Heisman finalist Jordan Lynch, who is approaching 5,000 yards in total offense this season (2,676 passing, 1,881 rushing) as the senior quarterback closes out his collegiate career.

“He’s a tremendous talent,” Utah State coach Matt Wells said, who noted that the Aggies’ focus will be to shut down a Huskies running game led by Lynch and running back Cameron Stingily (1,081 yards, 9 TDs). “With their QB being a running back, that’s a two-headed monster back there.”

Lynch has had plenty of help on an offense that has averaged 41.6 points a game.

“I don’t think their skill kids get enough credit,” Wells said, alluding to players such as Stingily and receivers Tommylee Lewis (80 catches, 660 yards, 3 TDs), Da’Ron Brown (42-689, 9 TDs) and Juwan Brescacin (30-469, 5 TDs).

This game has been promoted as NIU’s offense against Utah State’s defense, which is allowing 17.3 points a game. The Aggies’ defense is led by senior linebacker Jake Doughty and defensive back Nevin Lawson.

“If it turns into a high-scoring game, I hope we can match serve,” Wells said. “And if it’s a low-scoring affair, I hope we score enough.”

The Aggies, who lost to Fresno State in the Mountain West championship game, also have been productive offensively (32.6 points a game).

Utah State lost starting quarterback Chuckie Keeton in the sixth game of the year to a season-ending knee injury, but freshman Darell Garretson (109 of 180, 1,325 yards, 9 TDs) has stepped in with little dropoff. Running back Joey DeMartino (1,126 yards, 12 TDs) leads the Aggies’ running game.

“They’re as good of a team as we’ve played all year,” Carey said. “They have our full attention, to say the least.”

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