BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — The range of emotion was as widespread as the finish was wild.
Joy and heartache. Deliria and disbelief. Celebration and dejection.
Arkansas State’s final game had it all.
Western Kentucky pieced together a 99-yard, 16-play drive that culminated with Brandon Doughty’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Willie McNeal with 10 seconds to play, and the Hilltoppers handed Arkansas State a crushing 34-31 defeat Saturday at Houchens-Smith Stadium.
Arkansas State coach Bryan Harsin was upset and emotional after watching his team lose in one of the strangest finishes of the season. ASU committed a pair of costly penalties that allowed the Hilltoppers to retain possession and upstage the Red Wolves in front of representatives from the GoDaddy Bowl.
It was hard for the first-year ASU coach to watch.
“It’s really a game of inches and it really came down to that,” Harsin said. “Some of the things that happened in that game — every time we made a stop, somehow, someway they ended up getting more opportunities. That’s unfortunate to have to overcome those things, but the bottom line is we had our chances to win the game.”
Arkansas State (7-5 overall, 5-2 Sun Belt Conference) had chances to finish off the Hilltoppers but either couldn’t make the play or was penalized.
Trailing 31-27 with 5:30 to play, Western Kentucky took over at its 1-yard line. Then came a series of bizarre plays that extended WKU’s game-winning drive.
On the first play, Doughty avoided a rush and possible safety, and scrambled out of the pocket just to keep possession.
Then, a facemask penalty on ASU’s Rocky Hayes gave the Hilltoppers some breathing room out to the 31. Three plays later, WKU faced fourth-and-9 and Doughty completed an 11-yard pass to McNeal for a first down near midfield.
A screen pass to running back Antonio Andrews gained 39 yards to the ASU 18, followed by an 11-yard run up the middle, and things got really weird from there.
With two minutes to play, Western Kentucky (8-4, 4-3) began the first of nine plays, seven of which were a goal-to-go situation, before scoring the winning TD.
Three straight passes netted no yards before a fourth-down touchdown pass from Doughty to Nicholas Norris was wiped out on an illegal blocking penalty. But on fourth-and-goal from the 21, ASU’s Darius Rosser was penalized for a late hit after Doughty had thrown incomplete.
The penalty gave WKU the ball and a fresh set of downs at the 11.
“There was so many penalties going against us,” ASU defensive end Eddie Porter said. “It was just deflating — every time it happened — because we were so close to winning. It was just one of those games.”
Next came a pass interference penalty against ASU defensive back Chris Humes, which gave WKU first-and-goal at the 2. After Doughty’s first-down pass fell incomplete, Doughty found McNeal open on a quick in route for the winning score.
Harsin questioned several of the officials’ decisions in the final minute. He displayed an emotional side of his personality he hadn’t shown previously at ASU.
“All I could do is sit there and complain all I want, and they look at you like that’s too bad,” Harsin said. “It is what it is. … Unfortunately, I think we put ourselves in a great position there at the end of the game to continue on. I’m just proud of our kids for fighting.”
The penalty on Rosser was among the biggest mistakes, allowing WKU a first down after it had seemingly lost possession.
Rosser did not speak to media, although a request was made. Instead, his teammates defended him and the play.
“I felt like Rosser might have pushed him, but not like (enough) to throw the flag,” Porter said. “That’s like the game-winning play. That could have ended the game.”
ASU quarterback Adam Kennedy was injured late in the first half and Fredi Knighten took over trailing 20-7. Kennedy didn’t return and watched the second half from the sideline on crutches.
Knighten led the Red Wolves on an improbable comeback. He guided ASU to a late first-half touchdown to make it 20-14 at halftime and three more scores in the second half for a 31-27 lead.
He was dejected after watching WKU win in the final seconds.
“Honestly, I felt our defense did a great job, just got the short end of the stick on some of those calls,” Knighten said. “When it was happening, I was hoping our defense would get a stop or we’d have enough time to go down and score, but it didn’t happen that way.”
The loss snapped a four-game winning streak and leaves Arkansas State at the mercy of the political process of the bowls. Western Kentucky won its fourth straight and strengthened its case to secure a bid.
ASU will finish no worse than second in the Sun Belt and has an outside chance to still tie for the league title.
“We should be in a bowl game,” Harsin said. “We play a good brand of football, our guys are fun to watch and we’ve been a good football team all year long. I think we’re attractive to a bowl game.”
Western Kentucky finished with 406 yards offense compared to ASU’s 357. But the Hilltoppers were undermined by their own mistakes, including three fumbles that led to two Arkansas State touchdowns.
Trailing 20-14 at halftime, Arkansas State caught a break on the opening play of the second half.
Return man Anthony Wales fumbled the kickoff. ASU’s Raziel Valgis recovered and the Red Wolves took over at the Hilltopper 34.
Keeping the ball almost strictly on the ground, Arkansas State bulled its way to the 18, where Knighten found Julian Jones for 10 yards. On the next play, Knighten ran up the middle for an 8-yard TD and a 21-20 lead early in the third quarter.
ASU held the Hilltoppers on their next possession and drove for another score. The Red Wolves took 13 plays to set up Brian Davis’ 45-yard field goal that made it 24-20.
Western came right back to retake the lead. The Hilltoppers mixed their attack, running four times and passing four times on a 69-yard drive. After a short pass to tight end Tim Gorski, Andrews carried two straight times, scoring from the 2 to put WKU in front 27-24 with 1:31 to play in the third quarter.
Arkansas State had a chance to tie early in the fourth quarter. Davis had his 52-yard field goal wiped off the scoreboard when Dexter Samuel was penalized for holding and the Red Wolves were forced to punt.
ASU got the ball back in great field position when Andrews fumbled and Sterling Young recovered at the WKU 22.
After a couple of swing passes, Michael Gordon carried up the middle to give ASU first-and-goal. Moments later, J.D. McKissic took a handoff in motion, stopped and tossed a pass to Julian Jones for a 6-yard TD that put the Red Wolves up 31-27 with 9:27 to play.
ASU didn’t score again, and WKU won with an unlikely finish.
“We played our hearts out,” Young said. “I feel like, personally, that we just got some bad calls. I really don’t know exactly what happened on each particular penalty. But when you give a team that many opportunities to score with a fresh set of downs, with all the different penalties and some late flags it seemed to me like, that close to the goal line with that time left, it seems the like the more advantage was to their side.”
Arkansas State struck first, driving 83 yards on the game’s opening possession. The Red Wolves when defensive lineman Ryan Carrethers lined up in an offset Dead T, took a handoff and powered into the end zone on a 1-yard run.
Carrethers was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct on the play. On a short kickoff, WKU return man Tyree Robinson raced up the sideline for a 38-yard return and ASU was also penalized for lining up offsides.
The Hilltoppers began their first possession at the Red Wolves’ 35 and scored in three plays. Keshawn Simpson’s 1-yard plunge tied the game 7-7.
Arkansas State was forced to punt and gave the Hilltoppers another short field at the ASU 32. On third-and-13 Doughty fired a rocket to McNeal on a post route for a 24-yard touchdown and 14-7 lead.
Kennedy underthrew McKissic on a fade and WKU’s Jonathan Dowling intercepted to give the Hilltoppers the ball at their 41. WKU got a 20-yard carry on a sweep by Andrews and a nice third-down pass by Doughty to Andrews to the 23. On the first play of the second quarter, Doughty connected with Norris for a 23-yard TD and 20-7 lead.
WKU placekicker Garrett Schwettman missed the extra point.
Davis missed a 42-yard field goal on ASU’s next possession. The Red Wolves forced a punt, gaining possession at their 15 before the game took an ominous turn. Linebacker Andrew Jackson and another defender combined to sandwich Kennedy with a hit that knocked him out of the game.
Knighten kept the drive going, though. He had several runs, capping the drive on a 1-yard keeper to pull ASU within 20-14 with 2:52 to play in the half.