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2023 Camellia Bowl Preview: Arkansas State Red Wolves vs Northern Illinois Huskies

Breaking down this Saturday’s match up between the Huskies and Red Wolves.

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Northern Illinois v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

The Northern Illinois Huskies will look to break the streak of seven consecutive bowl losses when they face off against the Arkansas State Red Wolves this Saturday in the 10th edition of the Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama.

It is a match up of former conference rivals, as both NIU and Arkansas State were members of the Big West from 1993-1995.

The Huskies were able to get a bowl bid by winning their final two games of the season, finishing 6-6 (5-3 MAC), including a shutout win over the Western Michigan Broncos and a come-from-behind win on the road against Kent State.

The Red Wolves also finished the regular season at 6-6 (4-4 Sun Belt) but clinched bowl eligibility a week prior in a dominating 77-31 win over Texas State to get them to 6-5, before falling in their final game 35-21 to former MAC squad Marshall.


Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, December 23rd at 12 p.m. Eastern time (11 a.m. Central)
  • Network: ESPN/ESPN+ (A valid subscription is required for viewing for both channels.)
  • Location: Cramton Bowl — Montgomery, AL
  • Spread: Arkansas State (-3)
  • Over/under: 53.5
  • All-time series: NIU leads 7-1
  • Last meeting: NIU 38, ASU 20 — January 8, 2012 (GoDaddy.com Bowl)

The Huskies and Red Wolves have met eight times before, seven years in a row from 1990 through 1996, and then lastly in 2012.

The Huskies won the first five meetings, holding the Red Wolves to under 9.0 points per game in those five games, and winning by a combined score 139-44. However, in 1995, Arkansas State broke the streak with their lone win, a 28-21 victory in DeKalb.

NIU has claimed the last two meetings though, a 31-30 squeaker in 1996 and then a big 38-20 win in the GoDaddy.com Bowl nearly twelve years ago...it also marks the last time the Huskies were able to get a bowl win, as they have dropped seven straight.


Getting to know the Red Wolves

Arkansas State v Oklahoma Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Offensively the Red Wolves are led by quarterback Jaylen Raynor. The freshman QB took over after J.T. Shrout got injured in the second game of the season. So far Raynor has completed 58.8 percent of his throws (150/255) for 2,300 yards and has 15 touchdowns to just six interceptions. However, he has been sacked 24 times. But Raynor can also get away from the rush rather effectively, as he has 110 carries on the season for 324 yards and five rushing touchdowns - both of which are third best on the team - so the Huskies might want to have a spy on him.

Three Red Wolves have over 500 yards receiving, with Courtney Jackson, a transfer from Syracuse, leading the way. Jackson has 658 yards and seven scores on his 38 receptions. Behind him is Corey Rucker, a former South Carolina Gamecock, who has caught 31 passes for 598 yards. And just behind him is Jeff Foreman, who has 521 yards and four TDs on his 25 catches.

On the ground, Arkansas State uses a pair of solid running backs. Ja’Quez Cross leads the way for ASU. Cross has rushed for 688 yards and found the endzone seven times and he can be a factor in the passing attack as well, catching 21 passes for 132 yards on the season. If Cross isn’t getting the ball, it will be Zak Wallace, who is listed as probable after missing the final game of the season with a tailbone injury. Wallace has 121 carries on the season resulting in 556 yards and six scores.

Defensively, they are led by a trio of linebackers that patrol every inch of the field - Charles Willekes, Javante Mackey, and Melique Straker. Willekes leads the team in total tackles, with 87, and has eight tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, and a quarterback hurry. Right behind him is Mackey, who has tallied 84 stops this season and added seven TFL, two sacks, two QBH, and a fumble recovery. Finally, Straker is fourth on the team with his 79 tackles but he is tied for the team lead with two interceptions.

Up front, ASU’s has three trouble makers. Thurman Geathers, Keyron Crawford, and Nate Martey have caused havoc in the backfield all season long. Geathers leads the team in TFLs and QBHs, with 12 of each, and has 47 total tackles, 3.5 sacks, and forced and recovered a fumble. Crawford’s 6.5 sacks leads the team and he has amassed 45 tackles, 11.5 TFL, six quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and blocked a kick. Martey is right behind Crawford, with six sacks, and has 35 tackles, eight for a loss, and four QBH.

Look out for Samy Johnson and Trevian Thomas in the secondary. Johnson has an impressive 13 pass break ups and 46 total stops, two of which were behind the line. Thomas is third on the team, with 82 tackles, and has four PBU, 2.5 TFL, two fumble recoveries, a forced fumble, and an interception.


Getting to know the Huskies

NCAA Football: Northern Illinois at Boston College Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Seventh year senior, Rocky Lombardi, will play one final collegiate game for NIU. The quarterback has had some injury issues and been inconsistent at times but he has still put the Huskies in position to win almost every game he has played. This season Lombardi has completed 57.4 percent of his passes (171/298) and thrown for 2,074 yards and ten scores with five interceptions and 16 sacks. But, down in the redzone he is very effective...especially with his legs, and he is second on the team with six rushing touchdowns.

Wide receiver Trayvon Rudolph gave everyone a scare two weeks ago when he entered the transfer portal— but he announced last week not only was he going to play in the bowl game, but that he was coming back for the 2024 season. Rudolph started slowly but, after the injury to Kacper Rutkiewicz, has really taken off. He now leads NIU in receptions (46) and receiving yards (499) and has a pair of touchdowns. He also has 20 rushes for 176 yards and an additional score.

Grayson Barnes is the only other active Huskie with 200+ receiving yards, as he has 317 yards and a team-leading four touchdowns on his 18 receptions.

As ever, the Huskies lean on their ground game and will be using a hefty dose of Antario Brown. Brown ranks 19th nationally, and second in the MAC, with his 1,164 rushing yards on 187 carries and has added ten touchdowns for the Huskies, with five of those coming for 40+ yards out. If it’s not Brown, Gavin Williams will get the ball. The former Iowa Hawkeye has three scores and 448 yards on his 86 attempts.

NIU’s defense has been their bright spot this season. They rank 21st in the NCAA in total defense, allowing just 318.5 yards per game and have been great against the pass all season long. The Huskies rank 6th in the FBS in passing yards, giving up just 164.9 yards through the air per game, and are tied for 31st in points allowed, with their foes’ scoring just 21.2 points per game.

Defensive end, Raishein Thomas, leads the team in tackles (68), tackles for loss (7), and quarterback hurries (5) and has a pass break up and 1.5 sacks as well. Defensive tackle, James Ester, has also been amazing up front. Ester’s 48 stops rank fourth on the team and he 6.5 tackles for loss, a team-leading four sacks, three QBH, and recovered a fumble.

In the secondary, watch out for Nate Valcarcel and Jashon Prophete. Valcarcel leads the team with three interceptions and has 42 tackles, 1.5 TFL, .5 sacks, and a 50-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown. Prophete has broken up a team-leading seven passes and has 32 tackles, a TFL, and forced a fumble.

Linebackers Jaden Dolphin, Tyler Jackson, and DaRon Gilbert patrol the middle of the field and have very similar stats. Dolphin and Jackson each have 55 tackles (t-2nd on the team) with Dolphin adding 3 PBU and a TFL and Jackson adding two TFL and two QBH. Gilbert has 45 tackles with 2.5 TFL, two QBH, a pass break up, and a half-sack.