The big 2013 Poinsettia Bowl breakdown: Lynch vs. Aggie D an elite matchup

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

In his final college football game, NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch faces the best defense he's seen since last season's Orange Bowl. Does he have some tricks in store? And if he doesn't, can a weak NIU defense hold off a weak USU offense to win a lower-scoring game?

If you combined team 2012 and 2013 F/+ rankings, you'd find these five at the top of the non-BCS list: Utah State (24th overall), Boise State (26th), Fresno State (37th), Northern Illinois (45th), and San Jose State (52nd).

Since Boise State's Kellen Moore (and a lot of other Boise starters) left following the 2011 season, Utah State has been the cream of the mid-major crop at the FBS level. Meanwhile, in that same span, NIU has gone a cool 24-3. Both programs lost their respective head coaches following incredible success in 2012, and while their ratings each slipped a bit, both maintained a level of play that qualified them as mid-major elite.

("Mid-major elite" obviously means something different now than it did a few years ago, when TCU and Utah were still mid-majors and Boise State had not yet fallen back to the pack.)

It would perhaps be more fun to watch both USU and NIU taking on major-conference teams of similar caliber -- Utah State ranks between Michigan and Ole Miss this season, while NIU falls in the Texas Tech or Cincinnati neighborhood -- but in the absence of that, a nice showcase of two solid mid-major programs isn't a bad fall-back option.

Now if only Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton were healthy...

How they got here

USU's season to date

Matt Wells took over for the departed Gary Andersen after the 2012 campaign, and for the most part he did just fine. An 8-5 record was a clear step backwards from last season's 11-2 finish and No. 16 final AP ranking. Still, 8-5 should never be something for USU to scoff at (the combined 9-38 record of 2005-08 isn't that far in the rearview mirror), and the Aggies did an admirable job of maintaining form when star quarterback Keeton was lost to a knee injury.

In the end, USU lost tight battles at Utah and USC with Keeton, then fell to BYU, Boise State, and Fresno State (in the MWC title game) without him. Thanks to another killer defense, they won five in a row in conference play and took the Mountain Division crown from Boise State, but sacks and turnovers doomed them at Fresno.

NIU's season to date

San Diego's nice, but in the football universe, it's no Glendale, Arizona. NIU was on pace for a second consecutive BCS bid, going 12-0 in the regular season in Rod Carey's first season succeeding Dave Doeren and raising their MAC winning streak to 23 games overall.

But they were slapped around by Bowling Green in the MAC title game, 47-27, and fell all the way from a Fiesta Bowl perch to the Poinsettia Bowl. This is a solid bowl and a decent landing spot, but it's not the Fiesta, and NIU will have to fight through what has to be a decent amount of disappointment when they land in San Diego.

Data dump

Team Record BCS F/+ Rk Line Off F/+ Rk Def F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
Utah State 8-5 NR 33 -1 87 9 15
Northern Illinois 12-1 23 61
48 76 82
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
USU Offense 96 77 75 93 85 106 54
NIU Defense 116 55 96 110 67 40 49
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
USU Offense 85 80 97 112 85 105 76
NIU Defense 122 66 84 126 39 25 91
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
NIU Offense 41 44 23 55 14 10 68
USU Defense 11 8 2 27 13 64 94
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
NIU Offense 10 3 52 3 1 18 1
USU Defense 1 3 37 13 18 37 38
Field Position Adv. FG Efficiency Punt Efficiency Kickoff Efficiency Punt Return Efficiency Kick Return Efficiency
USU Special Teams 8 76 34 5 8 91
NIU Special Teams 23 90 88 92 80 20

USU's biggest advantages:

Utah State once again has a phenomenal defense. In 2012, the Aggies were powered by a solid running game and a defense that ranked an outstanding ninth overall in Def. F/+.

This year, the offense fell apart, thanks first to the departure of stud running back Kerwynn Williams and to the aforementioned Keeton knee injury. The USU offense fell from 48th to 87th in Off. F/+ … but the defense once again ranked ninth. The unit was as disruptive as ever, logging 102 tackles for loss (32 sacks) and defensing 69 passes. Jake Doughty and Zach Vigil wreak more havoc than 3-4 inside linebackers are supposed to, combining for 23 tackles for loss, and seniors Tay Glover-Wright and Nevin Lawson form the best mid-major corner duo in the country, with four interceptions and 23 pass break-ups. This is an experienced, aggressive, battle-tested lineup.

It is particularly difficult to run on the Aggies; they are second in Rushing S&P+ and first in Adj. Line Yards (here's your reminder that both of these numbers are opponent-adjusted), plus third in Opportunity Rate and 13th in Stuff Rate. They stop the run on standard downs, then light up the pass on passing downs.

NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch is truly awesome, and the offensive line does a lovely job of keeping defenders out of the backfield on the run or the pass, but this is the stiffest defensive test either Lynch or the line have faced this year. And they didn't fare incredibly well in their last test, against Bowling Green.

NIU's defensive front leaves something to be desired. With solid special teams and a defense that specializes in three-and-outs, Utah State tends to give its offense pretty good field position. But NIU's still going to score some points, so the Aggies will at least semi-frequently have to take advantage of the solid field position.

Their best hope for doing that is to lean on senior running back Joey DeMartino. When both Keeton and running back Joe Hill got hurt and the offense looked half-listless against BYU and Boise State, USU just started handing the ball to DeMartino. He averaged 10.6 carries and 66.0 yards in the first seven games, then averaged 20.7 carries and 102.7 yards in the last six. Fresno State held him in check (18 carries, 54 yards), but NIU might struggle to do the same with a defense that ranks 96th in Rushing S&P+, 122nd in Adj. Line Yards, and 126th, dead last, in Stuff Rate.

NIU can still rush the passer pretty well and still closes out drives well on passing downs, and that won't change in San Diego. But really, NIU just tries to mitigate damage done by the run and eliminate big plays. USU will probably be happy to hammer away, five yards at a time, on the ground.

NIU's biggest advantages:

The Huskies have Jordan Lynch, and the Aggies don't. At 61st in the F/+ rankings, NIU didn't really deserve the BCS bid it almost got this year. The Huskies are quite a bit worse than they were in 2012, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

But Jordan Lynch certainly deserves whatever chances he can get on a big stage. In two seasons as NIU's starter, Lynch has completed 62 percent of his passes for 5,814 yards, 48 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, and he has rushed 568 times for 3,696 yards and 41 touchdowns. When he threw two interceptions in the MAC title game, it was rather stunning; he had only thrown one pick in his previous seven games.

Lynch doesn't have as many explosive weapons around him this season, but NIU still grinds out plenty of points and yards thanks to Lynch and a line that mostly keeps pressure off of him. This might not be an elite battle overall, but Lynch and his line versus the USU defense is just that.

Utah State doesn't do "explosive." Bowling Green attempted 12 passes on first-and-10 in the MAC title game. The Falcons completed 11 of those passes for 274 yards. Seven went for at least 20 yards. BGSU receivers were roaming free downfield for most of the game, especially in run-or-pass situations. Utah State probably won't get away with that.

Sure, outside receivers Travis Reynolds, Travis Van Leeuwen, and Ronald Butler have combined for 121 catches for 1,783 yards (14.7 per catch) with a solid 64 percent catch rate. But Reynolds, the most explosive of the three, missed the final two games of the regular season, and he is questionable for action in San Diego. (To say the least, quarterbacks Darell Garretson and Craig Harrison struggled against Fresno State in his absence.) Plus, DeMartino is not a significant big-play threat.

USU might not be as well-equipped to take advantage of NIU's downfield lapses; needless to say, that's a good thing for NIU.

Overreactions for 2014

We tend to overreact to particularly positive or negative bowl results when it comes to projecting forward for the next season. How might we overreact to this game?

No matter who wins, this game probably won't have much impact on 2014 expectations. Keeton will return with full health next fall, but most of his supporting cast -- DeMartino, Reynolds, Van Leeuwen, four starters on the line -- will not. Plus, seven defensive starters also depart. Because Boise State is also in transition, Keeton might be enough for some to pick USU as the division favorite again next year.

NIU, meanwhile, will actually return eight offensive starters, but a) none of them are named Jordan Lynch, and b) the entire starting defensive line and half the secondary will be gone. Granted, some new blood on defense might not be a bad thing, but it's not guaranteed to be a good thing either. Odds are solid that there will be a new favorite in the MAC next year, Poinsettia win or no Poinsettia win.

Summary

F/+ Projection: USU 26, NIU 16
Win Probability: USU 75%

How much do the F/+ ratings love Utah State's defense? It's projecting the Aggies to hold NIU to 16 points. I really don't see that happening, but with the strength-vs-strength and weakness-vs-weakness nature of this game, it's hard to get a good read on what to expect.

If Lynch and company are able to move the ball on Utah State, the Aggies' offense probably won't be able to respond for a full 60 minutes; meanwhile, if Utah State is getting some stops, it would be a lot to ask of the NIU defense to do the same for too long, even against a less-than-explosive USU offense.

But uncertainty usually makes for good viewing, and San Diego could have itself a really fun matchup.

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