JONESBORO — Arkansas State found what’s been missing. Some offense and a very good feeling.
After a couple of head-scratching offensive performances, ASU showed how dangerous it can be with the football.
The Red Wolves scored on five straight possessions to build a 42-0 lead in the first half, quarterback Ryan Aplin rewrote the school record book and Arkansas State pummeled Southwestern Athletic Conference member Alcorn State 56-0 Saturday night at Liberty Bank Stadium.
ASU (2-2) bounced back from a tough loss at Nebraska by running the football effectively all night, rolling up 396 yards on the ground and averaging more than 7 yards a carry. The Red Wolves passed the ball efficiently, too, completing all but two passes, and showed they can throw it down the field deep.
While the lopsided outcome was expected, it gave Arkansas State some confidence as it begins Sun Belt Conference play next week.
“We do have that good feeling again,” Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn said. “It’s good to have a win, especially at home. I really appreciate our crowd; once again they were loud and our kids recognized it. We feel like we have some momentum going into our conference.”
Alcorn State (1-3) couldn’t stop much of anything. ASU finished with 634 yards total offense, the seventh-most in school history. The Red Wolves averaged nearly nine yards a play for the evening, finished with 30 first downs and punted just twice.
Arkansas State quarterback Ryan Aplin was 12-of-13 passing for 198 yards and three touchdowns. Aplin’s three scores moved him to the top of ASU’s all-time career touchdown passing leaders with 50, surpassing former quarterback Cleo Lemon’s 48 scoring tosses. He also set ASU’s single-game record for the highest completion percentage by connecting on 92.3 percent of his passes.
Defensively, Arkansas State was about as effective as it was on offense. Alcorn State finished with just 130 yards offense, including only 32 through the air. The Red Wolves had 11 tackles for loss, forced three fumbles, intercepted a pass and had a defensive touchdown.
The shutout was Arkansas State’s first since a 61-0 victory over Mississippi Valley State to open the 2009 season.
“That was definitely a goal for us,” ASU defensive end Tim Starson said. “This game is kind of going to set the pace and the tone for the rest of the season for the defense.”
After struggling to move the football on its opening possession, Arkansas State took a 7-0 lead a little less than six minutes into the game with its second defensive touchdown in as many weeks.
ASU linebacker Eddie Porter delivered a crushing hit, separating the ball from Alcorn State quarterback Jordan Payne on third-and-long from the Braves’ own 25. Porter hit Payne around the 18, jarring the ball loose, and defensive tackle Ronnell Wright scooped it up around the 7 and carried it in for the score.
“The defense gave us a shot in the arm by scoring,” Malzahn said. “That kind of loosened everybody up and we were able to play after that point.”
The Red Wolves got their first offensive points on their second possession, driving 72 yards to make it 14-0 with 1:56 to play in the first quarter.
Running back David Oku carried eight times on the 10-play drive, including one snap as the quarterback. Oku scored on a 12-yard touchdown run, running virtually untouched through a huge hole on the right side, and Brian Davis made the point-after.
Arkansas State didn’t waste any time on its next possession after holding Alcorn State to one first down.
The Red Wolves took possession at their 41 after a short punt, and moved into scoring territory with four straight running plays by Oku. Aplin then threw deep to J.D. McKissic, who was wide open in the end zone for the touchdown. Davis’ extra point made it 21-0 with 12:25 to play in the half.
Aplin said Arkansas State’s effectiveness running the football opened up the passing game.
“Guys were getting open,” Aplin added. “They jammed us up a couple times and guys were getting good releases. The big thing was I had a lot of time. The (offensive)-line did a great job of letting me sit back there and go through my progressions and pick out my guys.”
Arkansas State’s Don Jones intercepted Alcorn State quarterback John Gibbs on the Braves’ next possession and returned it 22 yards to the 18 to set up another touchdown.
Oku carried four of five straight running plays, lining up twice at quarterback, and scored on a 1-yard run behind the right side of the line. Davis’ fourth PAT of the half gave Arkansas State a 28-0 lead with 9:54 to play.
“He’s kind of developed into a wildcat guy,” Malzahn said of Oku at quarterback. “As a matter of fact, when I recruited him at Auburn, that’s what we were going to recruit him for. We have asked him to do a lot of things in our traditional offense, and now we’re starting to do some of the peripheral things.”
ASU scored on its fourth straight possession in quick fashion for a 35-0 lead.
Aplin found Josh Jarboe down the sideline for a 55-yard gain to the Alcorn State 14. Oku carried for a 3-yard gain, and Aplin found Julian Jones open in the end zone on a quick slant for an 11-yard touchdowns. It was the 49th touchdown pass of Aplin’s career and broke the school record for career passing touchdowns.
Aplin’s third touchdown put Arkansas State up 42-0 with 2:59 to play in the half.
The fifth-year senior connected with tight end Kedric Murry for a 7-yard touchdown with a nice fake and then tossed soft pass to a wide-open Murry. ASU’s sixth touchdown was set up by Aplin’s 54-yard pass on third down to Carlos McCants from the Red Wolves’ own 29.
“For us to hit some big shots down the field gives everybody some confidence and gives our coaches some confidence,” Malzahn said.
Alcorn State had one chance to score in the first half, but placekicker Ernesto Santillan missed a 33-yard field goal as time expired, leaving ASU up 42-0 at the half.
Arkansas State had 345 yards offense in the first half with Aplin and Oku combining for most of the damage. Aplin was 12-of-13 passing for 198 yards and three touchdowns, while Oku carried 17 times for 92 yards and a pair of scores.
ASU played almost entirely with reserves and backups on offense in the second half and scored twice.
The Red Wolves drove 93 yards late in the third quarter with running back Sirgregory Thornton showing some explosive moves. Thornton had runs of 16 and 30 yards, while Derek Keaton had a 33-yard reception in which he reversed his course and got to the sideline.
Thornton capped the drive with a 3-yard touchdown for a 49-0 lead with 24.2 seconds left in the quarter.
Backup tailback Rod Smith, a Dumas native, added a 6-yard score with 8:39 to play in the game on a carry up the middle. Smith’s touchdown punctuated an 11-play, 83-yard drive in which he carried six times for 67 yards.
Smith finished with a team-leading 104 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries.
Arkansas State opens Sun Belt play next Saturday with a visit from Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers handed Southern Mississippi a stunning 42-17 loss Saturday night after upsetting in-state rival Kentucky 32-31 last weekend.
Malzahn said the Red Wolves did what they had to do against Alcorn State.
“We really challenged our team, regardless of who we are playing, that we need to get better,” Malzahn said. “We need to eliminate mistakes, and get some momentum getting into conference play. I think everybody can see that there are some very good teams in this conference.”