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Winning FG leaves Red Wolves on high

by Mitchell Gladstone | November 15, 2021 at 2:01 a.m.

MONROE, La. -- Arkansas State's offensive linemen gathered in the south end zone postgame, none wearing more than their jersey even with temperatures dropping toward 40 degrees. The Malone Stadium floodlights were just minutes from shutting off, but they needed one more guy.

The group called for Andre Harris Jr., and the left tackle lumbered down the ramp from the Red Wolves' locker room to join them.

And from the morass of nearly 300-pound men emerged kicker Blake Grupe, all 5-8 and 150 pounds of the redshirt senior climbing atop Justin Dutton's broad shoulders.

Grupe had never kicked a game-winning field goal in his ASU career. Nor had he done so at Smith-Cotton High School in Sedalia, Mo. Drilling a 42-yarder to give the Red Wolves a 27-24 lead with 1:17 remaining was, in and of itself, worthy of a photo shoot.

But when you end your team's eight-game losing skid and become the Red Wolves' all-time leader in field goals with 59, you most certainly deserve a piggyback ride from your offensive linemen.

Those are the rules.

"The last couple of weeks have been crazy," said Grupe, who set a school record for career points by a kicker last week and now needs only seven more points to surpass Richie Woit as ASU's overall scoring leader. "Coming here as a walk-on, I would've never believed that I'd have had these opportunities."

When Grupe trotted out to the Louisiana-Monroe 32-yard line, there were plenty of nerves on the sideline, said cornerback Samy Johnson, who hauled in the game-sealing interception less than a minute later in the Red Wolves' 27-24 victory against the Warhawks.

Grupe didn't say what was going through his mind at the time. But once the ball left his right foot, he was sure he'd drilled it, staring down his handiwork as the football sailed through the uprights and into a crowd of kids gathered to collect it.

Everyone in the field-goal operation, from holder Ryan Hanson to long snapper Jack Bullard and the rest of the unit, knew their kicker had made history. The first few came to embrace him. Then Grupe waited for the last few to get to their feet, tapping helmets as they returned to the sidelines.

So many of these ASU players have only been through the lean years.

Coach Butch Jones brought in 50-plus newcomers this fall. Others joined the Red Wolves last season.

Grupe arrived in Jonesboro in fall 2017. His first three ASU teams reached the postseason and despite playing an extra game each of those years, their 15 losses are as many as ASU has suffered in the last 21 contests.

Making that late-game kick did more than simply make history. It ensured that the Red Wolves wouldn't have a chance next week to match their 10-game losing streak from the 2000 season -- the longest since they dropped 14 consecutive spanning the 1990 and 1991 campaigns.

"The team has never quit," Grupe said. "The team has never let their spirits get down and they've never stopped working. It's a great thing for my team, I was glad I was able to do it, but at the end of the day, it's a team win."

Earlier in the week, Jones said on his weekly radio show that Grupe was going to hit a game-winning field goal at some point this season.

For a team that had gone more than two months without a game, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who'd give odds on that possibility

But if Jones had figured out somebody to take him up on such a bet, his kicker made sure he cashed in.

"[It was] just a gut feeling," Jones said. "I just had a sense about myself and a piece of my heart and my mind that Blake would have a game-winning field goal. I just could feel it. And there isn't anybody I trust more to kick a game-winning field goal more."

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