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Utah State football: Aggies overcame adversity to win Poinsettia Bowl

SAN DIEGO — Facing adversity in the fourth quarter of the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, Utah State found a way to overcome.

The quarter in many ways mirrored USU's 2013 season. A stout defense, a tough-as-nails offense and just the right amount of luck led the Aggies to back-to-back bowl wins for the first time in school history.

It started on defense. With the Aggies' backs against the wall following a Darell Garretson interception, the Aggies did what they did so many times during the season and found a way to get off the field unscathed.

Trailing 13-7, Northern Illinois started the drive just 13 yards away from a potential go-ahead touchdown. But the high-powered Huskies offense gained just a single yard and settled for a field goal attempt that went wide right.

During the season, USU turned the ball over 16 times, but opponents were only able to cash in on those mistakes for 13 total points.

“It shows that as a defense we're going to step up to the plate and take everything you got, and we want to prove to the offense no matter what happens we got your back,” linebacker Jake Doughty said. “ ... I wish that number was 0 instead of 13.”

After getting the ball back, the Aggie offense found a way to grind out a touchdown drive that effectively sealed the game. The USU offense was rarely pretty in the final two months of the season, but more often than not it found a way to get results. Down five starters from the opening-day roster and left paper thin at the skill positions, USU head coach Matt Wells went to the one place he knew he could get production — his running game and specifically workhorse back Joey DeMartino.

“I said, ‘Saddle up, Joey,’” Wells said. “Honestly, we imposed our will and the tougher team won. That's the bottom line. We imposed our will and we had to. Anytime you go 17 plays and slam that thing in to take a two-touchdown lead, that's imposing your will and that's, to me, all character. It's all internal and these kids had it in them. They've always got it in 'em.”

The drive was a 17 play, 80-yard trudge down the field that drained 7:19 off the clock and put the Aggies up 21-7 with just more than four minutes left. DeMartino touched the ball 12 times on the drive, accounting for 61 yards. It wasn’t the type of drive that makes up a SportsCenter highlight package, but instead was the tough way the Aggies got it done offensively over the last two months.

“We are not playing the same guys we started with. We're not playing the same guys as the middle of the season,” Wells said. “They did it together and they just willed it upon themselves to find a way, to keep finding a way, to win.”

Wells talked a lot in the weeks leading up to the bowl game about the team needing this victory to break through another ceiling for the program. The Aggies responded, winning a game against a ranked opponent for only the third time in school history. In the process, they beat one of the best mid-major programs in the country over the last four years, a title the Aggies hope to take on.

“I think it's a signature win,” Wells said. “I don't think there is any question about it. On this stage in this bowl game, national television against that program that's one game from being in back‑to‑back BCS games, it's a big‑time win and our kids stepped up and knocked it out of the park”

Kraig Williams is a 2010 Utah State University graduate and regular Deseret News sports blogger. He can be followed on Twitter @DesNewsKraig.