SAN DIEGO— After losing half of their offensive starters during the course of the season, the Utah State Aggies rallied around their defense to close the regular season on a five-game winning streak. USU relied on its defense again Thursday as the Aggies defeated No. 23 Northern Illinois, 21-14, in the 2013 San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl.
The win marks the first time Utah State (9-5) has won back-to-back bowl games in program history.
“That’s another ceiling Utah State just broke. To beat a team like that on the national stage was big time for these kids,” USU head coach Matt Wells said. “The way they did it was typical fashion, just blue collar and toughness and tremendous defense the whole game.”
Trailing 7-6 at intermission, the USU defense stiffened immediately to begin the second half as Brian Suite intercepted Heisman finalist QB Jordan Lynch to set up USU at the Huskies 31 yard line. Seven plays later, the Aggies capped one of their better offensive drives in the past two games with a 5-yard touchdown pass from freshman QB Darell Garretson to sophomore receiver Brandon Swindall.
That score put the Aggies on top 13-7 with 11:57 remaining in the third quarter – a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Following the Suite interception, the Aggie defense did not allow a Northern Illinois first down until the final play of the third quarter when the Huskies executed a fake punt on fourth down and six from their own 19 yard line. That was followed up with another three and out.
It was a crowning achievement for one of the top defenses in the nation, as USU held the No. 5 offense in the country 220 yards below its season average and 27.6 points below its scoring average.
“It’s all about mentality. In the whole second half, we wanted to prove to everybody in the nation that we’ve got one of the top defenses,” said USU senior linebacker Jake Doughty, who was named the defensive MVP. “It’s times like that, that true defenses come to play and come to produce. That mentality is what we’ve tried to cement into our players, and into everybody else.”
The Aggies’ suffocating second-half defense held, despite the fact that USU turned the ball over twice in the final 30 minutes – both interceptions by Garretson. One took place in the end zone as USU was going in for the score, and the second took place deep in Aggie territory, giving the ball to NIU. Both scores resulted in zero points for the Huskies.
Following the second interception, on a third and 23 screen pass that was tipped, the Huskies had a first down at the USU 13 with 12:22 remaining and the Aggies clinging to a six-point lead. Following three solid defensive plays by USU, Mathew Sims’ 29-yard field goal sailed wide – his second miss of the game.
“I hate putting our defense back out on the field, especially as an offense. We like to stay on the field and kill some time too, we want to play too,” DeMartino said about the turnovers. “But, just having them as a staple to our team this whole year has been tremendous.”
The ensuing possession for Utah State, DeMartino got his wish. The Aggies began at their own 20 yard line with 11:33 remaining following the missed field goal. From that point, DeMartino – who’s a San Diego native and was named the offensive MVP – took over. The senior touched the ball 12 times, including 11 rushes, on a 16-play, 80-yard drive that chewed 7:19 off the clock and culminated in a one-yard TD plunge.
“Coach Wells came up to me and the linemen and said he was going to put it on our back, and I mean, we haven’t had a good little drive like that in a while, where we just ran the ball down their throat,” DeMartino said. “We really took it to heart to just come back after that loss at Fresno. That wasn’t our offense, and we wanted to come show it today. It just felt great, we knew what we had to do.”
Garretson connected with Natson on the two-point conversion to put the Aggies in control, 21-7, with 4:14 remaining. DeMartino finished the game with 23 rushes for 143 yards – including a Poinsettia Bowl record 58-yard jaunt – to go along with his score.
Trailing by 14, the Huskies rallied behind Lynch, converting two fourth down plays to score on a 15-yard strike from Lynch to Juwan Brescacin with 1:44 remaining. The score made it 21-14, but the ensuing onside kick try was recovered by the Aggies and Utah State was able to run out the clock as the Huskies had burned all of their timeouts on USU’s previous drive.
Not only does the win send the Aggies into the offseason on a high note, but it also adds to the 2013 senior class win total – a school record 31.
“Words can’t even describe that feeling at the end, but as long as our team was winning and our seniors are going out like this, this is the best feeling in the world,” DeMartino said. “Putting our program on the map and showing that we can win in big-time environments. It just means everything. Watching it grow from four years, it’s crazy. Going from four wins, to three bowl games to, two bowl wins – it just means everything. It just shows how much we’ve grown, especially as a program, and I’m just happy to be part of Utah State.”