JONESBORO -- After two consecutive frustrating losses, Arkansas State University got back on track Saturday night with a 38-14 victory over Texas State at Centennial Bank Stadium.
The Red Wolves led 17-14 at halftime before orchestrating a big third quarter to pull away. ASU blocked a punt, sophomore running back Marcel Murray rushed for a pair of touchdowns, sophomore cornerback Nathan Page picked off Texas State quarterback Tyler Vitt twice, and ASU's defense allowed just 3 yards of offense in the third quarter.
The sequence gave the Red Wolves (4-4, 2-2 Sun Belt) a 31-14 lead and allowed for a stress-free fourth quarter.
"I challenged our guys when we came in [at halftime]," said ASU Coach Blake Anderson, who admitted he was irritated after Texas State scored 14 unanswered points to close the first half. "We walked straight in, we got circled up in the middle of the locker room, I got at them and challenged them.
"They came back and responded and played really well. Maybe as good a quarter as we've played all season, so that's what you want to see from a mature football team."
Redshirt freshman quarterback Layne Hatcher, Murray and senior wide receiver Omar Bayless each had strong nights. Hatcher completed 18 of 28 passes for 158 yards and 2 touchdowns. Murray rushed 22 times for 114 yards and 2 scores. Bayless caught 7 passes for 77 yards and 2 touchdowns, setting a single-season school record for touchdown catches with 12.
The Red Wolves' defense, which for the second consecutive week played primarily with a three-man front, turned in its best performance of the season, allowing a season-low 227 yards, 8 first downs and 14 points while forcing 3 turnovers. Texas State's offense mustered just 30 yards and one first down in the second half.
"You've seen just some improvement over the last couple weeks as we've gotten better at the scheme that we're running," Anderson said, "and it showed tonight."
Texas State (2-5, 1-2) appeared ready to strike for a touchdown on the first series of the game when it faced a fourth and goal at the 1. But ASU caught a break when Vitt couldn't connect with a wide-open Hutch White in the flat.
What ensued was an 18-play, 99-yard drive by that lasted 7:22 for the Red Wolves. It was kept alive thanks to a 21-yard run by senior Jamal Jones on fourth and 2, and four third-down pickups. On a third and 7, Hatcher found Bayless on a slant for a 13-yard touchdown to give ASU a 7-0 lead with 5:01 left in the opening quarter.
"I was out there like, 'Man, we're going. We've been out here a while,' " Hatcher said of the drive. "When I got back on the sideline, looked up at the clock, there was seven minutes gone, I was like, 'Definitely was as long as it felt.' But if you're in the end zone, it doesn't matter. It feels good."
After a 47-yard punt by senior Cody Grace pinned Texas State on its own 5, ASU's defense forced the Bobcats into another mistake.
On third and 7 at the 8, junior defensive end Jeffmario Brown smacked Vitt from behind to force a fumble, which was recovered by senior defensive back Logan Wescott at the 2.
The Red Wolves had to settle for a 20-yard field goal by sophomore Blake Grupe after the offense fumbled on first down, then threw back-to-back incomplete passes. ASU led 10-0 with 14:53 left in the second quarter.
A 7-yard touchdown run by Jones made it 17-0 with 9:22 remaining. He finished with 13 carries for a career-high 63 yards.
Texas State answered on the next drive. Facing a fourth and 1 at ASU's 2, Caleb Twyford scored after running to his right out of the Wildcat formation. Vitt later hit White for a 6-yard touchdown pass to pull Texas State within 17-14 with 1:58 left before halftime.
The Red Wolves' onslaught began after intermission.
After a three and out by Texas State, Bayless blocked Seamus O'Kelly's punt, which set up ASU at the Texas State 13. It was his second blocked punt of the season.
"I wasn't starting on the punt return, but whenever we call that play, I go in," Bayless said. "They had the faith in me, and when I saw a clean hole so I could get to it, that's when I got to it."
On the next play, Murray rushed for a touchdown, putting ASU up 24-14. Page's first pick of the night came on the next series.
Later in the quarter, after a 34-yard punt return by senior safety B.J. Edmonds set up ASU at Texas State's 16, Murray found the end zone again, extending the Red Wolves' lead to 31-14 with 4:19 left in the third quarter. Minutes later, Page intercepted Vitt a second time.
"The [defensive] playmaking was a big factor in the game," Page said. "We said we were gonna come out with a lot of energy and force a lot of turnovers so we could win the game, and that's what we did."
Hatcher hit Bayless for a 2-yard touchdown pass with 9:48 left in the fourth quarter to extend the lead to 38-14.
Sports on 10/27/2019
Print Headline: Big third quarter stops ASU's woes