SAN DIEGO - The Poinsettia Bowl will be played after Christmas for the first time Thursday night when Northern Illinois faces Utah State at Qualcomm Stadium in a matchup of conference division winners.
The change was caused by a limited amount of available dates, according to Mark Neville, the Poinsettia Bowl's associate executive director. The latest previous Poinsettia Bowl was on Dec. 23 in 2008, 2009 and 2010. The earliest was on Dec. 19, 2006.
The game is expected to return to before Christmas next year and remain there, Neville said.
Organizers expect a crowd of between 20,000 and 25,000, which would put the game at risk of drawing its smallest crowd. The lowest announced attendance was 24,607 for the 2011 game between Louisiana Tech and Texas Christian.
The game's record attendance came in 2010 when San Diego State's 35-14 victory over Navy drew an announced crowd of 48,049.
Northern Illinois (12-1) won the Mid-American Conference's West Division and appeared headed for its second consecutive Bowl Championship Series consecutive bowl but was upset by Bowling Green, 47-27, in the conference's championship game.
Utah State (8-5) won the Mountain Division of the Mountain West Conference, then lost to Fresno State, 24-17, in the conference championship game, ending a five-game winning streak.
Northern Illinois is ranked 23rd in the USA Today Coaches Poll and 24th in The Associated Press media poll. Utah State is unranked.
Entering bowl play, Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch was fourth among NCAA bowl subdivision players in both total offense, averaging 350.5 yards per game, and rushing yards per game, averaging 144.7 yards per game.
"We ask him to do a lot and it's not because that's our system, it's because he can," Huskies coach Rod Carey said. "Those are the things that amaze you. He makes the ... hard things skill-wise look easy. That's what amazes you every day."
Lynch was third in voting for the Heisman Trophy.
The Poinsettia Bowl gets the second selection of bowl-eligible teams from the Mountain West Conference behind the Las Vegas Bowl. Poinsettia Bowl organizers chose Utah State to play in the game for the first time.
The Poinsettia Bowl reached an agreement with Army in 2009 to play in the 2013 game if it was bowl eligible. The game reached an agreement with the Mid-American Conference in the summer of 2012 to supply a team if the Black Knights did not win at least six games to become bowl eligible. Army was 3-9 in the 2013 season.
Northern Illinois will be playing in its second Poinsettia Bowl. It lost to Texas Christian, 37-7, in the 2006 game.
With the opening kickoff set for 6:30 p.m., organizers are encouraging fans to arrive early or take the Trolley. The Qualcomm Stadium parking lot will open at 2:30 p.m. Enhanced service on the Green Line will be provided from 4:45 p.m. through the opening kickoff and again after the game.
The national anthem will be sung by Jessica Sanchez, a Chula Vista native who was the 2011 runner-up on the Fox singing competition "American Idol."