Led by Heisman Trophy finalist Jordan Lynch, Northern Illinois can set the single-season school record for victories - though it would come one game later than they would have liked.
Having just missed out on a second consecutive BCS bowl bid, the No. 24 Huskies expect a serious challenge against Utah State and its stout defense in the Poinsettia Bowl on Thursday night in San Diego.
After finishing 12-2 and losing 31-10 to Florida State in the Orange Bowl last season, Northern Illinois (12-1) was again in position to bust the BCS before losing 47-27 to Bowling Green in the Mid-American Conference title game Dec. 6. Averaging 42.8 points and 542.3 total yards heading into that contest, the Huskies were held to 454 yards and matched their lowest point total of the year while allowing a season high.
"(That) game doesn't define us - we're not going to let it," coach Rod Carey said. "We've got another game. We still have a lot to play for."
Making a MAC-record sixth straight bowl appearance, NIU will try for a school-record 13th win in Lynch's collegiate swan song.
The senior topped his own FBS single-season rushing record for a quarterback of 1,815 yards from 2012 by gaining 1,881 this season. He set the FBS single-game rushing mark for a quarterback with 316 yards against Central Michigan on Oct. 19, then topped it with 321 versus Western Michigan on Nov. 26.
Lynch, who needs 119 rushing yards to become the first player in NCAA history to run and throw for 2,000 in the same season, accounted for 46 touchdowns rushing, passing and receiving in 2013. He's one of five players in NCAA history with 20 rushing and 20 passing TDs in a season.
While going 24-3 the last two seasons as a starter, Lynch has compiled 9,510 yards and 89 touchdowns on the ground and through the air.
Though he was held to 126 yards on 26 carries and threw two interceptions in the league title game, Lynch's third-place finish in the Heisman voting is the highest in MAC history.
"It's hard to get selected from a non-(automatic qualifying conference)," said Lynch, who finished seventh last season. "One of the biggest things is you have to win games, have a winning team and your stats have to separate you from the bigger schools.
"I knew if I had a chance (to be a Heisman finalist) it would be a good individual season, and I knew it would take a great year as a team for us."
With a defense among the top 10 in the FBS in points (17.3) and rushing yards (107.3) allowed per game, Utah State (8-5) is eager for the challenge of trying to contain Lynch and the Huskies.
"They are very well-coached and obviously very talented," coach Matt Wells told the school's official website.
The Aggies' school-record third straight bowl appearance also comes against a third consecutive MAC opponent. Playing in the Idaho Potato Bowl each of the last two seasons, Utah State lost 24-23 to Ohio in 2011 and beat Toledo 41-15 in 2012.
It didn't seem like the Aggies would have any postseason plans while sitting 3-4 and without star quarterback Chuckie Keeton, who suffered a season-ending knee injury during a 31-14 loss to BYU on Oct. 4. However, with freshman Darell Garretson at the helm, Utah State outscored opponents 168-51 during a five-game winning streak that ended with a 24-17 loss to then-No. 24 Fresno State in the first Mountain West Conference title game Dec. 7.
"It's a tremendous group of young men," said Wells, the MWC coach of the year. "The thing that I'm proud of is they continue to move this program little by little, step by step.
"We've just got a lot of fighters, kids who continue to play."
Senior Joey DeMartino became Utah State's third-straight 1,000-yard rusher with 1,078 and 12 touchdowns.
Garretson completed 60.6 percent of his passes for 1,325 yards with nine TDs and five INTs in seven games, but he could sit out after enduring a helmet-to-helmet hit against Fresno State. Junior Craig Harrison, who has played in seven games and went 4 of 9 for 55 yards with a late interception in the league title game, could start if Garretson is out.
The Aggies have a 2-6 all-time bowl record while the Huskies are 5-8.
Utah State won the only previous meeting with NIU, 42-7 on Oct. 14, 1995.