Camellia Bowl Notebook Posted December 23, 2023 By Barry Allen Arkansas State; Northern Illinois Wrap Up Game Prep Arkansas State and Northern Illinois put the finishing touches on preparation for the 10th annual Camellia Bowl, which will be played Saturday, Dec. 23 at 11 a.m. at the historic Cramton Bowl in downtown Montgomery. Both teams had two days of practice while in town then held a walk through at the Cramton Bowl on Friday afternoon. Arkansas State head coach Butch Jones said the Red Wolves have enjoyed the bowl week festivities but the goal is to win the game. “This has been the first bowl experience for about 99 percent of our football team,” Jones said. “We don’t have a lot of bowl experience, so everything here this week has been a good first impression. The people here have been remarkable and everything has been outstanding. All the pageantry and events are great, but at the end of the day this is what it’s all about, competing and trying to find a way to win a football game.” NIU head coach Thomas Hammock is pleased with the work the Huskies have put in this week. “This has been a tremendous week for our football team,” Hammock said. “We really have enjoyed the bowl experience, things that we have seen and the events we have attended. The goal is to win the game. Our focus has really shifted the last couple of days to get ourselves locked in on what we need to do and how we need to execute to go play the way we want to play. We are excited and ready to play.” The Turnaround Playing in a bowl might have seemed like a far-fetched idea for a pair of teams that won only three games in 2022. Northern Illinois and Arkansas State were both 3-9 last season. They are among seven teams to win three or fewer games in 2022 and make a bowl game this season. The list includes Arkansas State, Boston College, Northern Illinois, Northwester, Old Dominion, South Florida and Virginia Tech. “There are seven teams in the country that made the biggest jumps in their win totals from last year,” Jones said. “We are one of seven and so it’s Northern Illinois. So, when you look at it these are two teams that have come from similar backgrounds in their past. You have to have good leadership, some resolve and resiliency to do that.” After slow starts in 2023 both teams orchestrated in-season turnarounds as well. Northern Illinois started 1-4 but rebounded to win five of the last seven games, including a two-game winning streak to get bowl eligible. “Things have gone in the right direction, but I’ll take it a step further,” Hammock said. “At one point in the season, we were a 1-4 football team. So, we needed to make the transition in season to have this opportunity. Obviously with Arkansas State you see a young team that got better as the season went along. They played some tough games early and then they started to show what they are about in the second half of the season. We know it will be a tremendous challenge. I believe in our guys. We know who we are and what we are about.” Arkansas State lost its first two games to Oklahoma and Memphis by a combined 110-3 but rebounded to win six of the last 10 games to go to a bowl for the first time in four years. “It’s obvious the season didn’t start the way we wanted it to, but I knew our culture had kicked in when we got back to Jonesboro and the players called a players-only lift,” Jones said. “So it’s Saturday evening at 9:30 and our entire team is in our weight room lifting for two hours. I knew that our culture had finally set in and that culture, that connection, that connectivity has really guided us throughout the course of the year.” Quarterback Play The two starting quarterbacks in the 2023 Camellia Bowl are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Arkansas State will start freshman Jaylen Raynor, while Northern Illinois will counter with seventh-year senior Rocky Lombardi. Raynor was the 2023 Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year despite not earning his first career start until Week 4. Raynor threw for 2,293 yards and 15 touchdowns, while rushing for 331 yards and five scores. Among freshmen, the Kernersville, N.C., product led the nation with 12.2 points responsible for per game and ranked second in the country with 262.4 yards of total offense per game and 229.30 passing yards per game. The freshman quarterback led the Red Wolves to a 6-4 record in the 10 games in which he appeared to earn their first bowl berth since 2019. I think the word is progression,” Jones said. “I think he has continued to elevate his game week in and week out. Every repetition he gets, whether he gets it in the game or in practice, it vital for his growth in the game. He’s a student of the game. Our players believe in him. His leadership capabilities, for being as young as he his, are very impressive. I challenged him to get in the training room and extra film while we were down here.” Lombardi played spent four years at Michigan Stare before transferring to NIU. In 2019 at Michigan State, he played against Justin Herbert and Oregon in the RedBox Bowl. In 2021, he led NIU to the MAC Championship with a win over “Rocky is a guy we got in the transfer portal and helped us win a championship,” Hammock said. “To me, if you win a championship that cements your legacy. He won a championship, got injured in 2022 and came back this year, his seventh year in college football and really given us a chance in every game. We lost five games by a total of 22 points. That takes a level of toughness and a lot of that starts at the quarterback position. He came back and responded after some bad moments and gave us a chance.” Friday Activities Dr. James Andrews was the recipient of the Alabama Legends Award and was honored at the annual luncheon held at the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel and Spa at the Convention Center on Friday afternoon. The luncheon included players, coaches and administrators from Arkansas State and Northern Illinois, who will meet in the 10th annual Camellia Bowl on Saturday at Cramton Bowl. Andrews is the ninth recipient of the award, joining Bobby Bowden, Pat Dye, Woodrow Lowe, Gene Stallings, Johnny Davis, Larry Blakeney, Woody McCorvey and Chan Gailey. Both schools cheerleaders and bands participated in a pep rally on Friday night the Union Train Station.