SAN DIEGO – Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey said the Poinsettia Bowl represented an opportunity for the Huskies to “get the bad taste” out of their mouths from the team’s MAC championship loss to Bowling Green.
It wasn’t to be.
NIU suffered another bitter defeat, this one by a 21-14 score to Utah State on Thursday night at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.
Aiming for a program-best 13-win season, nothing came easy for the Huskies (12-2).
NIU started its first drive of the game at its own 3-yard line and punted after three plays gained just nine yards. Huskies quarterback Jordan Lynch fumbled away the ball near midfield on the Huskies’ second drive. Kicker Mathew Sims missed a 37-yard field goal attempt on NIU’s third possession.
One of the nation’s most productive offenses was nearly shut out by Utah State (9-5), which held the Huskies 35 points below their season scoring average. A less-heralded NIU defense kept the Huskies in the game, waiting around for an offense that never did get on track.
Utah State kicker Nick Diaz booted a pair of early field goals, giving the Aggies a 6-0 lead one minute into the second quarter. Lynch provided NIU with a 7-6 lead on the Huskies’ next possession, capping a 78-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run midway through the second quarter.
NIU carried the one-point lead into halftime. As he headed for the locker room at the half, Huskies coach Rod Carey was asked what changes the team needed to make.
“We don’t have to make many adjustments,” Carey said to ESPN. “We’re moving the ball fine. We just have to finish drives.”
The Huskies wouldn’t finish a down to open the second half.
NIU got the ball at the start of the third quarter, but Utah State’s Brian Suite intercepted Lynch at the NIU 31-yard line on the first play of the possession. Seven plays later, Aggies quarterback Darell Garretson threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Swindall for a 13-7 lead.
Utah State was driving for another TD late in the third quarter when NIU’s Jimmie Ward stepped in front of a Garretson pass at the goal line and made his seventh interception of the season.
Three minutes into the fourth quarter, George Rainey tipped a Garretson pass, Ken Bishop intercepted it and the Huskies were in business at the Utah State 13-yard line. But another missed field goal by Sims, this one a 29-yarder, again knocked the wind out of the Huskies.
Utah State running back Joey DeMartino, the game’s offensive MVP, only added to the agony with a late 1-yard touchdown run that put the game away.
Lynch hit Juwan Brescacin with a 15-yard TD pass to complete the scoring with 1:44 to play, but the Huskies couldn’t recover the ensuing onside kick.
Lynch rushed 18 times for 39 yards and completed 20 of 35 passes for 216 yards. The Heisman finalist finished the season with 4,812 total yards (1,920 rushing / 2,812 passing).