Posted by Adam Jacobi
OHIO WILL WIN IF: Donte Harden gets the most touches of anybody on either team. Utah State RB Robert Turbin is a workhorse, but Ohio has its own dynamo in Harden, who leads the team in rushing and also excels in receiving and kick returns. Harden has only found the end zone four times all season, but his ability to move with the ball in the open field and showcase his speed has led to plenty of big plays all season long. Harden's the playmaker in this offense, so the more Ohio gives him the ball, the better a chance he has of at the very least flipping the field and giving the Bobcats an opportunity to put points on the board.
Meanwhile, Utah State's going to be feeding the ball to Robert Turbin early and often, and why not? He's just outside the Top 10 in rushing nationally, and he's the featured back in one of the nation's most prolific running games. So while Ohio can't directly affect the frequency with which Ohio gives Turbin the ball without injuring him -- and let's hope it doesn't come to that, obviously -- it can exert its best effort to limit Turbin's effectiveness and USU's time of possession. That'll be key, because if that Aggie ground game starts grinding early, the Bobcat defense is in for a long day.
UTAH STATE WILL WIN IF: Adam Kennedy continues to excel at quarterback. Kennedy wasn't really part of Utah State's plans at quarterback this year; freshman Chuckie Keeton was firmly entrenched as the Aggies' starting QB for this year and the future, but a frightening neck injury sustained against Hawaii took him out of the game and, effectively, the season (he is fine now, by the way). Kennedy took over and USU hasn't lost since -- more on that in a bit. The junior quarterback has passed for 10 touchdowns and four picks in his five games of action, and he's rushing for almost 0.5 more yards per carry than Keeton on the year.
That combination of rushing ability and passing efficiency (Kennedy's 180.8 rating would be third in the nation if he qualified) is downright Russell Wilson-ian -- right down to the fact that he's not the primary option on offense -- and like with Wisconsin, it can and does punish defenses that stack the box. Kennedy's sample size is still pretty small, though, and if he finally has a game where he struggles on offense for whatever reason, the Aggie offense could turn one-dimensional in a hurry, and that's any defensive coordinator's dream.
X-FACTOR: The endgame. Utah State was one of the most fascinating teams in college football this year, with its first three losses coming in heartbreaking fashion: Auburn scored two touchdowns in the game's final three minutes thanks to an onside kick recovery and stunned the Aggies 38-35, Colorado State scored a touchdown and two-point conversion with under 30 seconds left to force overtime, then stuffed Utah State on the Aggies' own two-point conversion in OT to win 35-34, and BYU drove 96 yards in under three minutes to score a TD with 11 seconds left and beat USU, 27-24. All of that... in September.
The Aggies ripped off a 5-0 November under Kennedy to get to this point, however, and in a remarkable reversal of their September misfortunes, they usually did so with their own last-minute heroics. Utah State needed overtime to put away Idaho, 49-42, and used a fumble recovery with 5:40 left on its own 11-yard-line to seal a victory against Nevada, 21-17. Those were the two least exciting games of USU's November. The aforementioned trip to Hawaii to start the month's slate, where Kennedy first took over at QB for Keeton, saw the Aggies score with 14 seconds left to complete a 21-0 spree and beat the Warriors, 35-31. The Aggies also scored the game-winning touchdown in the last minute of their 34-33 comeback victory against San Jose State, and USU capped its season with a 13-play, 83-yard drive culminating in a game-winning touchdown pass from Kennedy to Matt Austin with 35 seconds left, beating New Mexico State 24-21.
So Utah State is clearly no stranger to the whims and vagaries of last-minute fate, and while Ohio played in seven one-possession games of its own this season (including a 23-20 loss to Northern Illinois in the MAC Championship where the Bobcats led 20-0 at the half, 20-7 going into the fourth quarter, and 20-13 with three minutes left), USU's the team that has won its last five such games. If there's one team to trust in the final minutes of this game, it's probably going to be Utah State -- and that statement would have sounded either cruelly sarcastic or downright insane after September. Such is college football.