MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Camellia Bowl was slipping away. Two second-half turnovers by Arkansas State University redshirt freshman quarterback Layne Hatcher aided the descent.
After ASU took a 27-13 lead early in the third quarter, Florida International had pulled within 27-26 by the fourth. Panthers kicker Jose Borregales had a chance to take the lead with a 29-yard field goal attempt with just over five minutes remaining.
But Borregales — who had hit all four of his previous attempts in the game, including a 52-yarder — missed wide left, allowing Hatcher and the Red Wolves’ offense to redeem themselves.
Hatcher found junior receiver Jonathan Adams for a 13-yard touchdown pass with 3:37 left — the decisive play that lifted ASU to a 34-26 victory at the Cramton Bowl.
ASU, which entered 1-4 in bowls in the Blake Anderson era, earned its first bowl victory since the 2016 Cure Bowl. The Red Wolves finished the season 8-5.
Despite a persistent rain Saturday evening, the Red Wolves racked up 525 yards, including 393 through the air. Hatcher completed 27 of 51 throws and had 4 touchdown passes. Senior wide receiver Omar Bayless capped his record-setting season with 9 catches for 180 yards and a touchdown, earning him the game’s MVP award.
FIU receiver Austin Maloney nearly outdid Bayless, tallying 10 receptions for 178 yards and a touchdown. FIU quarterback James Morgan threw for 312 yards, a touchdown and 2 picks on 22-of-38 passing.
An elite FIU pass defense, which entered ranked sixth nationally, was left reeling after the opening quarter. ASU put together two long drives — one to open the quarter and one at the end of it — to take a 14-0 lead.
Hatcher led the Red Wolves on a 15-play, 80-yard drive on their first series, capping it with a 4-yard touchdown pass on a first and goal after rolling to his right and finding a crossing Bayless in the back of the end zone.
Later in the quarter, Hatcher found senior Kirk Merritt for a 9-yard touchdown pass on a third and 8 with 55 seconds left, capping a 13-play drive for 90 yards.
After 15 minutes, ASU had tallied 149 yards on 31 plays and was 7 of 8 on third downs.
FIU’s offense — which didn’t cross midfield in its three first-quarter drives — got going on the ensuing possession when running back Napoleon Maxwell punched in a 3-yard touchdown run on a third and goal to make it 14-7 ASU with 12:50 left before the half.
The teams traded field goals twice over the next four series to close out the quarter, and the Red Wolves took a 20-13 lead into halftime. Sophomore Blake Grupe hit field goals of 46 and 37 yards for ASU, and Borregales connected twice from 25 yards.
The Red Wolves’ offense came out with another surgical drive to open the third quarter. On a first and 10 from the FIU 15, Hatcher stayed patient in the pocket before finding wide-open sophomore tight end Reed Tyler on the left side of the end zone. That concluded an 11-play, 74-yard drive as ASU grabbed a 27-13 lead with 12:22 left in the third quarter.
ASU began to unravel when it committed the game’s first turnover minutes later, and that led to FIU clawing back into the game.
Moments after the Panthers were stuffed on a fourth and 1 at ASU’s 23, Hatcher gave the ball right back to FIU after he was smacked from behind by cornerback Stantley Thomas-Oliver III, causing Hatcher to fumble the ball. FIU recovered it at the 23, and two plays later Morgan hit Maloney for a 19-yard touchdown pass to pull FIU within 27-20.
Borregales tacked on a 48-yard field goal with 38 seconds left in the third quarter to make it 27-23 ASU, then added another field goal — this one from 52 yards, a Camellia Bowl record — with 11:52 left in the fourth quarter to pull within 27-26. The latter came after Hatcher committed his second turnover, an interception down field while targeting Merritt.
Then ASU gave FIU an opportunity to take the lead when a pass by Hatcher on a fourth and 2 at FIU’s 42 fell incomplete. The Panthers drove to ASU’s 12 before Borregales was called upon for his fifth field goal attempt of the night. His miss wide left swung the game back into ASU’s favor.
After Hatcher and Adams connected on a touchdown pass, ASU senior cornerback Jeremy Smith and senior defensive back Darreon Jackson intercepted Morgan on back-to-back possessions to seal the victory.