JONESBORO -- What began as a romp was unraveling.
Arkansas State University's 25-point second-quarter lead over Georgia Southern on Saturday afternoon at Centennial Bank Stadium was chopped to five late in the fourth quarter after Eagles quarterback Shai Werts' 25-yard touchdown pass.
The Red Wolves, with 4:50 remaining and leading 38-33, took the ball back and drove down to Georgia Southern's 30 before sophomore kicker Blake Grupe missed a 47-yard field goal with 1:29 left, affording Georgia Southern one more chance.
On a fourth and 11 from ASU's 34, Werts scrambled from the pocket and sprinted to his right before being brought down near the first-down marker by junior linebacker Tajhea Chambers and freshman cornerback Jarius Reimonenq.
It all came down to a spot and a chains measurement. The ASU sideline's jubilation told the story as the referee planted the first-down marker to the turf inches in front of the ball, sealing a 38-33 victory.
"That spot was about as close as they can get right there at the end," ASU Coach Blake Anderson said. "Holding my breath."
But the Red Wolves (7-4, 5-2 Sun Belt) were knocked out of the Sun Belt West division race with Louisiana-Lafayette's blowout victory over Troy on Saturday. ASU still collected its fourth consecutive victory since the team fell to 3-4 after a home loss to Louisiana-Lafayette on Oct. 17, and it came in memorable fashion on the team's senior day.
"It felt amazing," said senior defensive tackle Kevin Thurmon, who tallied 6 tackles, 3 tackles for loss and 2 sacks, including a critical sack of Werts on third down before ASU's final stop. "It's great memories. I had a great time here, I had a great experience here.
"I'm gonna miss it. It's good that it ended like this at home."
The final offensive numbers were about what you'd expect from both teams. ASU put up 445 yards, including 354 passing. Georgia Southern (6-5, 4-3) totaled 481 yards, with 299 rushing.
ASU's defense limited the Triple Option-based Georgia Southern attack to 5 of 14 on third down and 1 of 4 on fourth, while also tallying 13 tackles for loss and 5 sacks.
It was the improvisation of Werts, who completed 14 of 24 passes and racked up 333 total yards and 4 touchdowns, that kept the Eagles in it.
"We investigated some defensive schemes over the course of the summer about how to defend the Triple Option," Anderson said. "We bottled up their base offense all night long. The things that Shai Werts did were on broken plays and scrambles and just him improvising, which he is obviously really, really good at doing."
Nearly all of ASU's damage came in the first half.
After Georgia Southern took a 3-0 lead, the Red Wolves scored 21 unanswered points.
Hatcher twice connected with junior receiver Jonathan Adams on touchdown passes in the first quarter, the second coming on the quarter's final play and going for 63 yards to give ASU a 14-3 lead. Adams -- who finished with 7 catches for 158 yards and 2 touchdowns -- had 4 catches, 132 yards and 2 scores after one quarter.
After Georgia Southern fumbled in its own territory on the third play of the second quarter, Hatcher hit senior receiver Omar Bayless for a 32-yard touchdown pass as ASU took a 21-3 lead with 23 seconds off the clock in the quarter. Bayless, who tallied 7 catches for 113 yards and 1 score, broke the Sun Belt's single-season receiving yards record Saturday.
The Eagles answered with a 10-play, 63-yard drive that chewed 6:19 on the next series, capped by a 10-yard rushing touchdown by Werts. But that spark didn't last long.
Fourteen seconds later, senior receiver Kirk Merritt sprinted into the end zone untouched for a 94-yard touchdown on the kickoff return. Merritt found the end zone again on a leaping 27-yard touchdown catch with 6:07 left before halftime to put ASU up 35-10.
Georgia Southern cut the deficit to 35-19 at halftime, sacking Hatcher in the end zone for a safety with 2:34 to play and scoring in the final minute with an 11-yard touchdown pass by Werts.
"When [Werts] got the ball in his hands, good luck," Anderson said. "That dude can play. I hate to think about having to defend him again next year."
The Red Wolves could only manage a field goal over the final two quarters. Grupe's 19-yard kick made it 38-19 with 9:43 left in the third quarter, but he missed two attempts from 47 yards after that.
"We [knew] if we can jump out against a team like this, running the Triple Option, it can really put them in stressful situations, get them out of their rhythm and what they like to do," said Hatcher, who finished 19 of 24 for 354 yards and 4 touchdowns. "I think we achieved our goal on that. Seems like we just hurt ourselves a little bit in just some weird situations."
Arkansas State’s Kirk Merritt catches a 27-yard touchdown pass from Layne Hatcher over Georgia Southern’s Reynard Ellis during the second quarter Saturday at Centennial Bank Stadium in Jonesboro. The Red Wolves won 38-33 for their fourth consecutive victory.
Sports on 11/24/2019
Print Headline: Red Wolves hold big lead by inches