Huskies Grind Out 2-point Win at Camellia Bowl Posted December 23, 2023 By Barry Allen MONTGOMERY – Northern Illinois made it clear at the beginning of the week that they wanted to control the line of scrimmage. The Huskies did just that on Saturday, grinding out a 21-19 win over Arkansas State in the 10th annual Camellia Bowl at historic Cramton Bowl. “We are glad to walk off the field as champions,” Northern Illinois head coach Thomas Hammock said. “It means everything for our seniors. It means everything for our guys coming back. It was a tough ball game.” It was the ninth one-score game in the 10-year history of the Camellia Bowl. Northern Illinois (7-6) led 21-13 at halftime, which marked the highest scoring first half in bowl history. The Huskies didn’t score in the second half, but played keep away from the Red Wolves to clinch the school’s first bowl win in 11 years. “We played complimentary football in all three phases,” Hammock said. “Our offense played well in the first half. Stalled out in the second half. Our defense stepped up in the second half, forced three straight three and outs.” NIU only had five second-half possessions but two of those took more than five minutes off the clock. The Huskies set the Camellia Bowl record with 40:23 time of possession. “The 40 minutes in time of possession shows our physicality,” Hammock added. “I thought we won the line of scrimmage. We knew we were a physical team.” Arkansas State (6-7), who only had 53 yards on its first four second-half possessions, marched 86 yards in the final two minutes for a touchdown. The second half, offensively, we started with three straight three-and-outs, 56 yards of total offense,” Arkansas State head coach Butch Jones said. “When you play Northern Illinois, they average about anywhere between four to six minutes off the clock per possession.” Freshman quarterback Jaylen Raynor tossed a 13-yard pass to Corey Rucker to pull the Red Wolves to within 21-19 with 1:14 left. Raynor accounted for 77 yards on the drive. He completed 3-of-4 passes for 52 yards. He ran twice for 36 yards, including a 32-yard scamper on the second play of the drive. Raynor’s two-point pass attempt fell incomplete. A-State lined up for an onside kick and came up the football, but an offside call negated the play. The Huskies recovered the next attempt and ran out the clock. NIU took the opening kickoff and drove 75 yards for the first opening possession touchdown in bowl history. Seventh-year quarterback Rocky Lombardi completed 5-of-6 passes for 79 yards on the drive. Barnes caught three passes for 65 yards, including an 18-yard TD strike. Gavin Williams’ run for the two-point conversion failed and the Huskies led 6-0 five minutes into the game. Arkansas State drove into the red zone before Raynor threw an interception. One play later, Lombardi threw an interception giving the Red Wolves the ball at the NIU 42-yard line. On the very next play, Raynor hit a wide open Rucker for a 42-yard touchdown pass to put ASU in front 7-6. NIU marched right back down the field and capped the nine-play, 75-yard drive when Lombardi scored on a 6-yard touchdown run. Kanon Woodill added the extra point to make it 13-7. The Huskies drove 87 yards on their next possession to take a 21-7 lead. Facing a fourth down at the ASU 33-yard line, NIU called a fake field goal. Holder Tom Foley flipped the ball to Woodill, who ran untouched 33 yards for his first career touchdown. It was the second special teams touchdown in Camellia Bowl history. It was NIU’s first TD off a fake field goal since 2012. “We had some extra time to study things,” Hammock said. “We felt like it was a great opportunity to get the first down, but when they overloaded then we had a chance for a touchdown as long as Kanon didn’t trip over his feet. He did a great job. Probably the only touchdown in his life. It was actually the game winning play. It was our last touchdown.” Lombardi threw to Trayvon Rudolph for the two-point conversion to push the lead to 21-7. ASU added two field goals before halftime to cut the deficit to 21-13. Dominic Zvada hit a 45-yard field goal and then capped the scoring with a 23-yard field goal on the last play of the half. Lombardi won Bart Starr MVP honors after he accounted for 221 yards and two touchdowns. The Huskies had a 100-yard rusher and 100-yard receiver in the win. Antario Brown ran 25 times for 132 yards. Barnes caught 5 passes for 105 yards and one touchdown. Raynor had 299 yards and two touchdowns for A-State. His favorite target was Rucker, who caught five passes for 109 yards and two touchdowns.