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Red Wolves rejoice after two-point stop

by Mitchell Gladstone | November 13, 2022 at 2:45 a.m.
FILE — Arkansas State players take the field before the Red Wolves' game against South Alabama on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022, at Centennial Bank Stadium in Jonesboro. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

JONESBORO -- Ball on the left hashmark, a bunch set with three wide receivers to the right and Massachusetts running back Ellis Merriweather behind the tight end on the left.

Butch Jones took his first timeout.

The Minutemen came out in the same formation, and again, Jones asked for time.

They were "Kodak timeouts," Jones explained. A chance to see how Massachusetts would line up with the game in the balance.

Make a stop and all Arkansas State would only need an onside kick recovery to secure the win. A conversion by the visitors and things would almost certainly be headed to overtime.

The Red Wolves had an idea of what was coming -- a flow play to the right -- but it would require execution on their part.

Inches short of the goal line, cornerback Kenneth Harris came through.

ASU's defensive stand on a would-be game-tying two-point conversion with 18 seconds remaining saved the Red Wolves from yet another fourth-quarter collapse as they held off the Minutemen 35-33 at Centennial Bank Stadium Saturday afternoon. Harris came flying down as Massachusetts wideout Isaac Ross caught a pass running parallel to the goal line, crashing into Ross and stunting his momentum inches short of the end zone.

The Minutemen dominated statistically, outgaining ASU 475-275, running 94 plays to the Red Wolves' 42 and maintaining possession for 41:30 of the 60 minutes.

None of those numbers mattered to quarterback James Blackman as he found Jones seconds after the final whistle for an embrace.

"I told him exactly what he's been telling us," Blackman said when asked what his message was to ASU's head coach. "Dirty, grimy, slimy, it's hard to win football games. ... I love the way [Jones] pushes us, the grit that he's got. He's just a competitor, man, and all of us on the team wanted to get that win for him."

That the Red Wolves were able to close things out was a reversal from games at Memphis, Old Dominion and Southern Mississippi -- all of which ASU (3-7) held a fourth-quarter lead before ultimately losing.

Shades of those past failures began to creep in again Saturday.

After the Red Wolves opened the second half with a touchdown to stretch their advantage to 21-6, Massachusetts (1-9) strung together an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in response.

The Minutemen then picked off Blackman on the first play of ASU's next series and marched 62 yards on seven plays to draw within a pair -- a missed two-point conversion kept the Red Wolves' advantage at 21-19.

ASU extended its lead back to 16, the highlight coming on a 75-yard touchdown run by Marcel Murray -- who reached the 2,000-yard mark for his career and finished with eight carries for 123 yards -- only for Massachusetts to chip away and eventually give itself a shot to send things into overtime.

"We could never just hold the momentum of the game," Jones said. "As we continue to move forward and really learn how to win, you've got to learn how to close an opponent out and we weren't able to do that."

The Red Wolves could have put things to bed early with any semblance of offensive efficiency.

After ASU scored a touchdown on its opening series, needing just four plays, the Red Wolves managed two yards on its remaining 17 plays of the opening half. Safety Trevian Thomas provided ASU's other points, returning a Brady Olson interception 26 yards for a touchdown.

"Offensively, I don't think we could play any worse than how we played in the first half," Jones said.

As was the case so much of Saturday, the Red Wolves' defense bailed them out.

After nearly two seasons of being ASU's much-maligned unit, they were the ones who made a critical play -- one Blackman described as "game-changing" for the program.

Against a feeble Massachusetts program that's won only three times in its last 38 games, perhaps that's hyperbole.

But it was undoubtedly worthy of celebration, as defensive lineman Ethan Hassler did, wheeling away 60 yards across the field and into a mosh pit on the Red Wolves' sideline.

"We came up big when we needed to," Hassler said.

Print Headline: Red Wolves rejoice after two-point stop


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