December 14, 2024 | The Historic Cramton Bowl

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December 14, 2024

9:00 pm ET/8:00 pm CT on ESPN

Montgomery, Alabama



Lombardi Caps Seven-Year Career with Bart Star MVP Trophy

Posted December 23, 2023

By Tim Gayle

Montgomery – His statistics may not rank among the best passers in the history of the Camellia Bowl but what Northern Illinois quarterback Rocky Lombardi brought to Saturday’s matchup to Arkansas State meant a lot more than yards and touchdowns.

The seventh year senior orchestrated a beautiful opening possession in the 10th annual Camellia Bowl, setting the tone for the Huskies’ 21-19 win over Arkansas State on Saturday afternoon at Cramton Bowl.

Lombardi rushed for 21 yards and a touchdown while completing 18 of 29 passes for 200 yards and another touchdown, closing out a long collegiate career with a satisfying win and capturing the Bart Starr MVP Award in the process.

“I’m proud to be a Huskie and I’m happy that I’m here, but I’m ready to move on,” Lombardi said. “It’s my time to be done and to move on, so I’m really excited about my future.”

Northern Illinois coach Thomas Hammock will hate to see Lombardi leave, giving his veteran the credit for directing the offense to three first-half touchdowns. The first touchdown was masterful as Lombardi converted three third-and-long situations into first downs.

“Those plays were all the quarterback,” Hammock said. “The quarterback, he made plays and he left the ball in the spots that guys need to make them. The first one was to Grayson Barnes, the second one was to Trayvon Rudolph. He just executed. And, obviously, when you start picking up some third downs, that gives guys momentum.

“I thought Arkansas State came up with some energy and juice, they had us behind the sticks on the first third down, but when you get that first down and you keep those guys on the field for an extended period of time, that allows you to start to wear them down. And, obviously, to finish that drive with a touchdown, a beautiful ball in the back of the end zone to Grayson Barnes, was outstanding.”

That pass has to rank among the best in his career. Facing third down and 13 and a hard-rushing Arkansas State defense, Lombardi placed the ball at the back of the end zone, where Barnes snared it and got one foot down in bounds for the points.

Unfortunately for Lombardi, he never saw it.

“I was hit as I threw it, but we had the look we wanted, we had Grayson one-on-one,” Lombardi said. “Just put it in the spot where I thought he could get it. He’s got tremendous ball skills and he’s got great hands. I saw him signaling touchdown. I tried to look up at the JumboTron afterward. I didn’t quite catch it, but I heard a lot of people talking. It was a crazy catch.”

Hammock said the communication with Lombardi helped the game plan and enabled the Huskies to keep the Arkansas defense off balance throughout much of the first half.

“First of all, the helmet communication was outstanding,” Hammock said. “We are a huddle team and have the ability to talk to the quarterback. We were able to put a lot more offense shifts and motions in the game plan, knowing that we had the communication. I think we probably moved five to six seconds quicker with that communication. I thought the guys executed at a high level, we weren’t jumping offsides, we didn’t have a lot of illegal formations or anything like that.”

Late in the first quarter, Lombardi added a 6-yard touchdown run to give his team a 13-7 lead, then watched from the sidelines as his teammate, placekicker Kanon Woodill, ran 32 yards with a reception out of field goal formation.

“You saw it open up and he was gone,” Lombardi said. “I mean, there was nobody catching him. It was awesome. It was very cool.”

Lombardi threw a two-point pass to Rudolph following Woodill’s touchdown to close out the Huskies’ scoring and ultimately provide the game-winning points in a 21-19 victory. It was a fitting end to a career that started at Michigan State, moved to Northern Illinois and ended with a medical redshirt year that allowed him a seventh season to get the Huskies from three wins last year to a 7-6 finish this year.

“People don’t understand how much work he puts in to be able to do his job at a high level,” Hammock said. “He was a coach on the field. I know he wants to play (in the National Football League) and hopefully he has an opportunity to continue to play. But for us, he’s been everything. He’s leaving a legacy of what that position looks like and we’re going to miss him.”

Perhaps fittingly, the last game in a long collegiate career earned a Lombardi the Bart Starr Award.

“It means a lot to go out a winner,” he said. “We’ve done a lot more winning than losing here. We didn’t quite have the season we wanted, but we made it to a bowl game and we’re proud to be here and we’re proud to be bowl champs.”