MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- The comeback collapsed as Justice Hansen crumpled to the ground in the final seconds.
The football, knocked loose from the junior quarterback of Arkansas State University, rolled toward midfield. Time expired as an offensive lineman recovered the ball, and Middle Tennessee State rushed the field with a 35-30 victory in the Camellia Bowl.
ASU (7-5, 6-2 Sun Belt Conference) was down 28-10 midway through the third quarter, but the Red Wolves pulled within 35-30 with 5:03 left in the game when Hansen threw a 41-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver Christian Booker.
The Red Wolves had one final shot to win with 1:27 left in the game, starting a drive at the ASU 9. Hansen was sacked three times on the final drive, including the sack fumble by Middle Tennessee State junior defensive end Darrius Liggins at the ASU 38.
"It's really just hurting ourselves offensively," said Hansen, who finished 31 of 57 for 337 yards, 3 touchdowns and an interception.
ASU hurt itself in all aspects. Middle Tennessee State cashed in to earn a 21-10 halftime lead.
The Blue Raiders were punting from their 40 on their second possession of the game when ASU sophomore safety Trajan Doss and sophomore receiver Darveon Brown were penalized for roughing the punter. On the next play, Middle Tennessee State sophomore running back Terelle West rushed for a 45-yard touchdown to put the Blue Raiders ahead 7-3 with 9:25 left in the first quarter.
It was the longest touchdown run in Camellia Bowl history.
ASU reached the Middle Tennessee State 23 in the middle of the second quarter when Hansen was sacked and stripped of the football. Senior linebacker D.J. Sanders returned the fumble 54 yards to extend the lead to 14-3 with 5:41 left in the half.
With a minute left in the first half, a facemask penalty erased ASU senior defensive end Ja'Von Rolland-Jones' sack that would have put the Blue Raiders at third and 19 at its 43. It also would have given Rolland-Jones 44½ career sacks, which would have broken the all-time NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision career record set by Terrell Suggs from 2000-2002. Instead, the penalty gave Middle Tennessee State a first down at the ASU 36.
Two plays later, quarterback Brent Stockstill threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Ruben Garnett to put the Blue Raiders ahead 21-10.
"We've got to eliminate mistakes," said ASU Coach Blake Anderson, whose record is now 31-20 at the end of his fourth season. "To me, the big concerns and issues tonight were turnovers. The turnover for a touchdown. Turnovers when we should get points. It's another game when we outgain the opponent [462-352 in total offensive yards] and we don't outscore them."
Middle Tennessee State Coach Rick Stockstill said Friday that he wanted to make ASU's offense one-dimensional, and the Blue Raiders did so in the first half.
ASU was held to 13 rushing yards on 7 carries on its first four drives, and the Red Wolves ran the ball on either the first or second play of each of those drives. That forced long plays on third down, and ASU was 1 of 5 on third down through those drives.
"They did a good job of showing confusion up front and being physical," Hansen said. "But once you get down by a couple scores, later in the game, you tend to throw the ball more."
Hansen was 5 of 7 for 65 yards on ASU's second scoring drive, which ended on a 1-yard touchdown run by Hansen. That made the deficit 14-10 with 1:59 left.
ASU's 188 total offensive yards in the first half were its fewest since it had 118 in a 24-19 loss to South Alabama.
At the start of the season, Anderson said the goal was for a "signature season," a shot at the Group of 5 conference's New Year's Six Bowl spot. At season's end, the Red Wolves fell short of its third consecutive Sun Belt championship and finished with just seven victories for the first time since Anderson's first year.
"It's not very good. It's not," Anderson said. "When I dissect this season, I just think we're athletically better than our record.
"I'm excited about the team we have coming back. There's a special season in this group. But, no, I'm not ever going to be happy with 7-5."
ASU running back Johnston White shoves away Middle Tennessee State’s Khalil Brooks during the second half.
A pass intended for Arkansas State wide receiver Justin McInnis (left) is broken up by Middle Tennessee State cornerback Mike Minter Jr. on Saturday night during the first quarter of the Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Ala.
Sports on 12/17/2017
Print Headline: Comeback sacked: Wolves fall short after falling behind by 18