The Northern Illinois Huskies definitely live by their motto of “the Hard Way”, as they needed a few breaks in the final moments of the game to survive and win the Camellia Bowl over the Arkansas State Red Wolves. It was their first post-season bowl win since the 2011-12 season, when they also defeated the Red Wolves in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
NIU (7-6, 5-3 MAC) was able to overcome a late touchdown and what seemed to be a successful onside kick from the Red Wolves (6-7, 4-4 Sun Belt) in the final 90 seconds and hold on to a 21-19 victory.
The Huskies started the game strong, becoming the first team in Camellia Bowl history to score a touchdown on the opening drive of the game. Rocky Lombardi went 5/6 on the opening drive, mostly to Grayson Barnes, and converted on all three 3rd downs (all of which were 9+ yards), en route to an early lead. NIU would go for two but Gavin Williams was stopped just short of the goal line to keep the Huskies to a 6-0 advantage.
After each team threw an interception, the Red Wolves would counter when Jaylen Raynor found Corey Rucker wide open for an easy 42-yard touchdown. Their extra point attempt was good, giving them a 7-6 lead with just about six minutes left in the first quarter.
NIU wouldn’t be down for long, as they marched 75-yards down the field in nine plays - aided by a pair of unsportsmanlike conduct fouls on the Red Wolves - and scored their second touchdown when Lombardi took the ball on a QB keeper and powered his way 6-yards into the endzone, making the score 13-7 - a lead that the Huskies wouldn’t give up the rest of the game.
After the Huskie defense stuffed ASU on 4th and 1 at the NIU 13, the Huskies got the ball back and had no problems putting together another fantastic drive, which then stalled out around the ASU 32. But the Huskies pulled out all the tricks and, on a fake field goal attempt, kicker Tanner Woodill took the ball and ran untouched into the endzone to give NIU a 19-7 lead. Northern would go for two again and, this time, would convert it on a Philly special pass to Trayvon Rudolph, making it 21-7.
Arkansas State would get a field goal on their next drive, to cut the lead to 11, 21-10. And then, after a missed NIU field goal and then a late interception, would hit another field goal as time expired in the first half, cutting the lead to just one score - 21-13.
The second half started very quietly, as the first five drives all ended in punts, with four three-and-outs. The Huskies were able to move it on the sixth drive of the half and had a chance at another short field goal, which Woodill missed again - bouncing it off the upright. From there the teams would punt each punt it again on back-to-back possessions.
Arkansas State got the ball back with just over 3:30 to go in the game and, with new life, quickly moved down the field. A 32-yard pass opened the drive, then a 23-yard QB keeper, then a few more moderate gains and all of a sudden ASU was threatening. Rucker would catch his second TD pass of the game when Raynor found him for a 13-yard TD pass with 1:14 left in the game.
Trailing 21-19, ASU lined up for a tying 2-point conversion but Raynor’s pass was well high and the Huskies breathed a sigh of relief. But the anxiety was just begging for NIU fans.
On the ensuing onside kick attempt, the ball bounced off of NIU’s wide receiver Dane Pardridge and into the hands of Arkansas State. But it was all for naught, as there was a flag down...an offensive offsides call on the Red Wolves negated the recovery and made ASU rekick.
On the second kick, Barnes made another big play for NIU, catching the bouncing ball and returning down to the Red Wolves’ 30-yard line to secure the win for the Huskies.
Not only was this the first bowl win for NIU in over a decade, snapping their seven game losing streak, it was also their first win over Butch Jones, the former CMU head coach who is now at the helm for Arkansas State. They are now 1-3 against Jones.
The Huskies out-gained Arkansas State 423-351 and crushed ASU in time of possession, doubling them up with a 40:21-19:39 advantage. On the ground, NIU had 191 yards rushing to ASU’s 101, while the Red Wolves had 250 yards passing to the Huskies’ 232.
Lombardi finished the game 18/29 for 200 yards and had one touchdown and two interceptions. He also had three rushes for 21 yards and a TD. Antario Brown carried the ball 25 times for 132 yards and Barnes had five catches for 105 yards.
For Arkansas State, Raynor finished the day with 250 yards, two TDs, and went 16/30 passing. He also led the team in rushing with 49 yards on 13 carries. Rucker led all receivers with 107 yards and two touchdowns on his five catches, while Jeff Foreman had four grabs for 52 yards.