JONESBORO — Arkansas State set the stage for another showdown. Getting there proved much more difficult than anticipated.
ASU overcame a mistake-plagued start with touchdowns on its first three drives of the second half and held off Sun Belt Conference newcomer South Alabama for a 36-29 victory Saturday night at Liberty Bank Stadium.
The Red Wolves (4-3 overall, 2-1 Sun Belt) won their second straight despite three first-half turnovers, two which led to South Alabama field goals and another that thwarted a possible touchdown of their own. The win keeps Arkansas State in the SBC race and sets up a critical matchup between contenders at Louisiana-Lafayette on Oct. 23.
ASU coach Gus Malzahn didn’t seem too pleased with the win. His team was outgained, suffered critical breakdowns again on special teams and yielded more points than the Jaguars had scored in their last three games combined.
“We’re tickled to death to have the win, but we did a lot of things to shoot ourselves in the foot,” Malzahn said. “You have to give the other team credit, they’re a solid team.
“But, we’re happy with the victory, disappointed that we didn’t protect the football and we had some special teams breakdowns, and we had trouble getting off the field on third down. But the bottom line is we won.”
ASU spent nearly the entire first quarter fighting from behind after vicitimizing itself with a turnover after South Alabama scored on its first possession. The Red Wolves scored back-to-back touchdowns, though, to go ahead 14-10 and never trailed again.
Still, the Jaguars (1-5, 0-2) managed to make Arkansas State uncomfortable most of the night. A strong start to the second half with scores on three straight drives saved the Red Wolves from a huge upset.
“I saw some great things out there tonight,” South Alabama coach Joey Jones said. “We were playing a champion from last year that has a very good football team. We took them down to the wire, within six points in the middle of the fourth quarter, just where we wanted to be.”
ASU led 21-19 midway through the third quarter when quarterback Ryan Aplin sparked a quick drive with a couple of deep throws to Taylor Stockemer for gains of 20 and 27 yards. He then hit Josh Jarboe on a short route in the flat and Jarboe turned it into a 15-yard TD and 28-19 lead.
Aplin, who was 17-of-22 passing for 203 yards and three touchdowns, said the offense moved as efficiently as it had all night on the possession.
“We started getting in a little bit of rhythm and the O-line was doing a good job giving us time,” Aplin said. “We kind of had them off guard with our run game and pass game, and guys were just getting open. I think you saw them tonight getting good separation.”
South Alabama answered with a drive to the Arkansas State 20, but the defense stiffened and the Jaguars were forced to settle for Mike Chapuseaux’s 42-yard field goal that made it 28-22 with 14:55 to play.
The Red Wolves responded with their third straight scoring drive of the half, driving 65 yards in three minutes to essentially put the game away.
The 9-play drive culminated with Aplin’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Stockemer in the corner of the end zone. Stockemer got behind USA cornerback Darrius Morrow, made a leaping grab and dragged both feet for the score.
“He made a great play,” Aplin said of Stockemer’s catch. “It probably wasn’t the greatest throw. I made him stretch out for it and he made a great play.”
Oku’s dive over the pile for the two-point conversion gave Arkansas State a 36-22 lead with 11:55 to play.
South Alabama won just about every battle except the one that counted on the scoreboard.
The Jaguars had 373 yards offense and 24 first downs compared to ASU’s 316 yards and 23 first downs. They ran 88 plays compared to Arkansas State’s 59 and had possession for more than 35 minutes compared to ASU’s 24:21.
While it was a victory, it was not the type of victory the Red Wolves were happy with.
“We just started out so poor,” ASU defensive coordinator John Thompson said. “We had no juice for some reason the first series. We missed some tackles, we were not aggressive and they really did a great job of coaching and they took advantage of their week off. We saw a lot of new things from them.”
ASU remained in the Sun Belt race, one game back of leaders Western Kentucky, Louisiana-Monroe and ULL. The Ragin’ Cajuns had the week off while Western Kentucky won on Thursday night and ULM rolled past Florida Atlantic.
While the Red Wolves are happy to be in the hunt, it was clear they weren’t happy how they stayed in it.
“It’s a credit to our players because there was some disappointment,” Malzahn said. “At halftime we didn’t have much momentum but we were leading.That’s a credit to our team to come out and play well for the most part in the second half.”