MOBILE, Ala. — There is a first time for everything, and now, Arkansas State has its first bowl win.
It took three bowl trips and a defensive stand in the final minute, but Arkansas State finally tasted victory in the postseason with a 17-13 win over No. 25-ranked Kent State at the 14th GoDaddy.com Bowl on Sunday night.
Arkansas State interim coach John Thompson said the hard-fought win was the crowning moment of one of the most special seasons ever for the program.
“From a game standpoint, that was a good one. That was a good one,” Thompson said. “Our guys stepped up there with a minute to go and we’ve got to make a play. We made plays. It wasn’t anything but just ball players. It wasn’t any calls, it wasn’t anything special at all, we just made plays.”
Besides the bowl win, ASU had a couple of other firsts as a program.
The Red Wolves ended the season with their eighth straight victory, giving them back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time in school history. The win was also the first ever over a ranked team.
For the players, who suffered through a loss on the same field in the same bowl last year, it was the perfect way to end the year.
“We were motivated, we knew what was on the line,” ASU running back Rocky Hayes said. “We knew we wanted to be a part of history. There was a lot of motivation and we just went on the field and got it done.”
Senior quarterback Ryan Aplin was named the bowl’s Most Valuable Player, throwing for 213 yards and a touchdown.
But it was Defensive Player of the Game Qushaun Lee that made one big play after another, including a tackle of Kent State quarterback Spencer Keith at the ASU 20-yard line with less than a minute to play to preserve ASU’s first bowl victory.
Arkansas State (10-3) wasn’t anything close to the offensive powerhouse it had been all season. ASU averaged more than 36 points and nearly 500 yards a game but after more than a month off couldn’t get going against the Golden Flashes.
The Red Wolves finished with just 285 yards, their lowest offensive output all season.
“It was a frustrating game,” Aplin said. “I think that was probably the least amount of points we put on a team all year.”
But for all the struggles Arkansas State’s offense endured, the defense made several key plays that proved to be the difference.
Lee had the biggest play perhaps of them all, tackling Kent State quarterback Spencer Keith with the Golden Flashes driving on fourth-and-8 at the ASU 25. Keith dropped back to pass but couldn’t find anyone open, spotted a seam and decided to run through it.
Lee, who had a game-high 13 tackles, closed the hole up quickly and tripped up Keith after a 5-yard gain that sealed the win for ASU.
“They ran a boot play,” Lee said. “A guy was coming from the back side, and I was trying to zone off on him. I saw the quarterback take off, and I just tried to make a play for the team.”
The play ended Kent State’s last hope to rally and was the final snap for Keith.
Afterward, Keith said he thought the opening was there. Lee just closed quicker on him than he expected.
“I saw the backer, and I thought I could get outside of him,” Keith said. “He just got me by the shoestrings.”
Lee was in on another key play midway through the first quarter that might have made the difference as well.
With Kent State knocking on the door at the ASU 1-yard line, Amos Draper and Eddie Porter combined to knock running back Trayion Durham back for a 2-yard loss. On the next play, Keith rifled a pass to Chris Humphrey in the end zone, but Lee tipped the ball up and ASU’s Nathan Herrold intercepted.
It was the only turnover of the game for either team and wiped out a golden scoring opportunity for the Golden Flashes.
“Probably the play of the game was when Q tipped the pass and Nathan intercepted it,” Thompson said. “That was a huge, huge momentum gain there. And, that fourth down was pretty big there at the end, too.”
Kent State finished with 350 yards offense, including 193 on the ground.
But neither of its star running back duo of Durham and Dri Archer took over like they had so many other games. Archer finished with 77 yards and a touchdown on nine carries while Durham carried 20 times for 68 yards.
After a scoreless first quarter, the Red Wolves got their offense going in what proved to be a pivotal point.
ASU scored twice in the second quarter, both touchdowns, as the offense got clicking with the hurry-up no-huddle that has worked for it all season long.
ASU running back David Oku had a 10-yard touchdown run that tied the score at 7-7 early in the quarter. Aplin then found J.D. McKissic for a 31-yard TD as the Golden Flashes had a hard time adjusting to the quick pace.
“It started showing there in the second quarter,” Oku said. “That’s what we work on in practice all year and it really started paying dividends then. It really did.”
The second half turned into a defensive battle with neither team managing more than a field goal.
ASU’s Brian Davis booted a 26-yard field goal for a 17-10 lead midway through the third quarter and Kent State’s Freddy Cortez kicked a 26-yarder late in the quarter.
Neither team scored in the fourth quarter.
“Winning this game means more than anything,” Aplin said.
Kent State scored first, taking a 7-0 lead early in the second quarter, by virtue of a couple of spectacular runs by Archer.
The first came on a wide receiver reverse that Archer took to the wide side of the field. He cut back twice through Arkansas State’s defense and spun away from another tackler for a 44-yard gain to the ASU 22.
A couple of plays later, Humphrey took a handoff on a similar play, then pitched it to Archer going the opposite direction and Archer out-ran ASU into the end zone for a 16-yard score. Cortez’s point-after kick made it 7-0 with 12:10 to play in the second quarter.
Arkansas State finally got its offense going midway through the second quarter.
The Red Wolves went to their hurry-up, and Kent State’s defense had trouble getting set. Aplin found tight end Darion Griswold over the middle for a 20-yard gain to the 19-yard line and Rocky Hayes’ 12-yard run to the 10 set up ASU’s first touchdown.
Facing third-and-1, Oku took a quick handoff up the middle for a 10-yard TD to complete the six-play, 60-yard drive. Davis’ PAT pulled Arkansas State even, 7-7, with 5:40 to play in the half.
The Red Wolves held Kent State, got the ball back, and took their first lead.
Back in the hurry-up, ASU needed just over two minutes to drive 88 yards in nine plays. Kent State appeared winded as the Red Wolves got to the line of scrimmage quick and operated flawlessly.
McKissic had a pair of catches while Oku and Hayes kept the Golden Flashes off balance with a couple of nice runs. McKissic finished the drive when he slipped behind the defense over the middle for a 31-yard TD and a 14-7 lead with 1:13 to play in the first half.
Kent State got some momentum back just before halftime, moving into field goal range with under a minute to play. Cortez then drilled a 42-yard field goal with 19 seconds to play and cut ASU’s lead to 14-10, which stood at the half.
Arkansas State had just 46 yards offense in the first quarter but had 178 at halftime. Aplin finished the half 10-of-10 passing for 112 yards.
The Red Wolves had two possessions in the first quarter and was forced to punt on each. Arkansas State made a couple of first downs each time it had the ball, but failed to cross midfield either time.
Kent State took its opening possession and pounded it down the field into scoring position.
The Golden Flashes drove 69 yards, including a 32-yard run on a shotgun draw up the middle by Julian Durden, to the ASU 1-yard line. But Herrold intercepted Keith on a tipped pass in the end zone to kill the only scoring threat of the first quarter.
“These guys right here made history by winning our first bowl game, but we’re not through,” Thompson said.