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N. Illinois aims to end run of bowl losses in clash vs. Arkansas St.


Northern Illinois hasn’t won a bowl game since ending the 2011 season with a victory over Arkansas State in the Bowl.

The Huskies have since dropped seven straight bowl games. They will get the opportunity to end the dismal stretch when they again face the Red Wolves on Saturday in the Camellia Bowl at Montgomery, Ala.

Northern Illinois hasn’t even been competitive in most of the games during its bowl skid, losing five by 21 or more points.

The Huskies (6-6) had to do a lot of work to gain this bowl spot, as they started the season 1-4. But they recovered to win five of their next seven games, including back-to-back MAC wins over Western Michigan and Kent State to close the regular season.

“Every bowl experience is unique and different,” Northern Illinois coach Thomas Hammock said. “It’s a great reward for the way you played throughout the season and an excellent way to send your seniors out the right way. We have the opportunity to finish the season with a championship.”

Arkansas State (6-6) is in a bowl game for the first time since 2019, when it beat Florida International in this same Camellia Bowl. The Red Wolves dropped two of their last three regular-season games this year but still received a berth.

Linebacker Charles Willekes, the team’s leading tackler with 87 stops, said Arkansas State is playing with a purpose.

“We’re looking at this game as the first one of next year,” Willekes said. “So ending this season with a winning season and starting next year with a win would be huge.”

Red Wolves quarterback Jaylen Raynor was named Freshman of the Year in the Sun Belt Conference after passing for 2,293 yards and 15 touchdowns, with six interceptions.

Raynor’s best performance was when he passed for 383 yards and six touchdowns in a 52-28 rout of host UMass on Sept. 30.

Northern Illinois features a seven-year veteran at quarterback in Rocky Lombardi, who spent four seasons at Michigan State (2017-20) before playing the last three for the Huskies.

Lombardi has passed for 2,074 yards and 10 touchdowns, with five interceptions, this season. He has 5,316 yards at Northern Illinois, the sixth-highest total in school history.

The Huskies also have a standout running back in Antario Brown, who has 1,164 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. Brown has topped 150 yards four times this season, including a career-best 280 (on just 13 carries) in a 55-14 win over host Akron on Oct. 7.

Brown scored four touchdowns in that game on runs of 66, 58, 46 and 50 yards.

“AB made some explosive and dynamic plays for our offense, and we saw what he could do when he was able to stay healthy and play the whole season,” Hammock said.

Defensively, only two teams topped 200 passing yards against Northern Illinois, which entered the bowl season ranked sixth nationally in passing defense at 164.6 yards per game.

The Huskies also have had success against the Red Wolves, winning seven of the eight meetings.

“They are a physical, imposing football team,” Arkansas State coach Butch Jones said of the Huskies. “They do a great job, they’re well-coached. This is a challenge. We have to prove we can play with them as well.”

The Red Wolves are 4-6 in FBS bowl games. Northern Illinois is 4-10 at the FBS level.

–Field Level Media

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