MONTGOMERY, Ala. (12/16/17) – Arkansas State nearly erased an 18-point second half deficit, but fell short of completing the comeback and lost to Middle Tennessee 35-30 in the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl Saturday night at Cramton Bowl stadium.
Justice Hansen threw for 337 yards and three touchdowns, but was sacked six times, including three on the final drive of the game. Justin McInnis led the team in receiving with seven receptions for 107 yards, while Christian Booker and Warren Wand each had a touchdown catch. Wand also led the team in rushing with 46 yards on 13 attempts.
A-State (7-5) pulled within a touchdown late in the fourth quarter when Hansen found Booker on a 41-yard scoring reception to get within five points with 5:03 to go in the game. The A-State defense then forced Middle Tennessee (8-6) to punt the ball after the Blue Raiders failed to convert a third-and-eight pass play. The defensive stand did force the Red Wolves to use all of their timeouts, however, as they took over on their own 9-yard line with 1:27 remaining.
Hansen was sacked on the first play of the drive, but then connected with Blake Mack and Chris Murray on back-to-back passes to get to A-State 42. After an incompletion, Hansen was sacked on back-to-back plays, including the final play of the game as the ball came lose and was recovered by the Red Wolves as time expired.
“For the majority of these seniors this was their last game and we wanted to send them out with a great memory, but we just didn’t play that well,” A-State head coach Blake Anderson said. “I thought Middle Tennessee came out with a chip on their shoulder and really just played with more energy than we did early on and it took too long to respond. Whether that is carry over from the loss two weeks ago or the effects of a long season I don’t know, but in the end it took us too long to respond and we had too many mistakes to recover from.”
The Red Wolves hurt themselves with crucial penalties in the first half. A-State was penalized five times for 61 yards, and two kept drives alive for the Blue Raiders that eventually turned into points. McInnis was whistled for a roughing the punter call in the first quarter that allowed Middle Tennessee to score its first touchdown of the game on the very next play, while Ronheen Bingham was flagged for a facemask penalty that negated a sack by Ja’Von Rolland-Jones. MTSU scored two plays later to take an 11-point lead at halftime.
After a quick four-play drive that resulted in a punt for A-State to start the third quarter, Middle Tennessee engineered a 12-play, 73-yard drive that ended in a 2-yard touchdown by Tavares Thomas to go up 28-10.
The Red Wolves responded with a 10-play drive that took 2:50 off the clock to cut deficit to 28-17. Hansen got the offense going with a 12 yard run on second and found McInnis twice on the drive, including a 20-yard competition for the score.
B.J. Edmonds gave the Red Wolves a chance to cut into the Blue Raiders’ further with his second interception of the game that gave Arkansas State the ball at the MTSU 36-yard line. Hansen connected with Kendrick Edwards on a 12-yard touchdown pass a few plays later, but the score was negated due to a penalty and Omar Bayless fumbled on a completed pass at the five yard line that gave the ball back to MTSU and prevented the Red Wolves from capitalizing on the turnover.
Arkansas State found magic to start the fourth quarter when Cody Grace connected with Chris Murray on a 21-yard fake punt to move his team into scoring position. Hansen threw to Warren Wand two plays later on a 2-yard touchdown pass to cut the Blue Raiders’ lead to 28-23 with 14:24 to go in the game.
Middle Tennessee answered on their ensuing drive, however, when Brent Stockstill connected with Shane Tucker on a 30-yard pitch-and-catch to push the lead back to double-digits at 35-23.
“I hate the way we finished this season,” Anderson said. “It is certainly not how wanted things to go but I think we have a really talented group of guys coming back next year. We really have to learn some hard lessons about earning things and making sure you bring it every week because there is never an opportunity for a letdown because other teams are just too good.”
The Red Wolves were able to find the scoreboard first after an interception by Edmonds, his second of the season, was turned into a 20-yard field goal by Sawyer Williams in the first quarter. However, the lead was short-lived as Middle Tennessee’s Terelle West scampered 45 yards to the end zone after a roughing the kicker penalty on a punt kept the drive alive early in the opening frame.
The Blue Raiders carried the 7-3 advantage into the second quarter and were able to move in front 14-3 after a sack by Darius Harris forced a fumble that was scooped up by D.J. Sanders for a 54-yard touchdown. The Red Wolves responded with a 13-play, 85-yard drive, capped by a one-yard plunge from Hansen, to claw within 14-10 with just under two minutes to halftime.
However, Middle Tennessee started the ensuing drive at midfield after a penalty and a few plays later Stockstill found Ruben Garnett from 31 yards out for a touchdown to give the Blue Raiders a 21-10 edge at the break.
Arkansas State outgained the Blue Raiders 462-352 in total offense, but Middle Tennessee finished 120 yards on the ground to A-State’s 102. The Blue Raiders were penalized 10 times for 87 yards, while A-State committed 7 mistakes for 81 yards. Each team had three turnovers.