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Red Wolves can’t maintain late lead

by Mitchell Gladstone | September 25, 2022 at 4:19 a.m.

Minutes after Arkansas State coughed away a fourth-quarter lead last Saturday at Memphis, Coach Butch Jones delivered a message that's been the theme early in the Red Wolves' season.

"We're going through that process right now of truly learning how to win," Jones said after a 44-32 loss to the Tigers.

ASU remained entrenched in that process Saturday night as Old Dominion -- after being shut out in the first half -- came from behind in the closing minutes to win its first-ever Sun Belt Conference game.

Tight end Zack Kuntz's 7-yard touchdown reception with 6:33 to play and two fourth-down stops powered the Monarchs to a 29-26 victory at S.B. Ballard Stadium in Norfolk, Va., as the Red Wolves were unable to get in position for a potential game-tying field goal before the final seconds ticked off the clock.

ASU quarterback James Blackman completed 23 of 35 passes for 285 yards, but his interception and fumble allowed Old Dominion to twice grab the lead in the second half after the Monarchs were unable to do so in the first 42 minutes.

"All those things of playing winning football -- you can't turn the football over, regardless of the circumstances, and you can't give up explosive plays," Jones said in his postgame radio interview. "We're going through that process of still understanding that a football game can come down to three to five plays."

Blackman -- as was the case much of the night, with the Monarchs tallying eight sacks -- found himself under duress inside the Red Wolves 30-yard-line when Old Dominion sent a safety blitz and the ball wound up on the ground, giving the Monarchs their best field position.

The Monarchs faced fourth-and-3 a few plays later, but a defensive pass interference on ASU cornerback Kenneth Harris brought Old Dominion (2-2, 1-0 Sun Belt) inside the 10.

That set up Kuntz's go-ahead score and the ensuing two-point conversion to give the Monarchs what would wind up being a decisive three-point advantage.

But it was the start of the second half that, at least from Jones' point of view, swung the game.

The ASU defense began to show some cracks at the start of the third quarter despite Blackman and the offense staking ASU (1-3, 0-1) to a 12-0 lead at halftime.

The Monarchs marched 78 yards on their opening series of the second half, then followed a 49-yard touchdown reception by Jeff Foreman with a 77-yard touchdown by standout wide receiver Ali Jennings to make it 19-14.

In just more than four minutes, the Red Wolves' first first-half shutout against an FBS opponent since Nov. 2020 against Louisiana-Lafayette was a distant memory.

"It's dumbfounding when you play great defensive football and then in four plays you give up 158 yards," Jones said. "They have an NFL tight end [in Kuntz] -- we limited his touches. They have a great receiving corps -- we limited [Jennings] tonight. But you look at those explosive plays, those are momentum plays that are hard to overcome."

After a feeble first quarter featuring 127 combined yards and no points, ASU grabbed momentum in a matter of 43 seconds at the start of the second quarter.

The Red Wolves pinned Old Dominion deep and capitalized when the Monarchs were whistled for holding in their own end zone -- resulting in a safety. ASU then made the most of great field position, getting into the red zone on a 42-yard pass from Blackman to Foreman before Brian Snead rushed twice to find the end zone and push ASU's lead to 9-0.

But the Red Wolves were hampered by injuries. On top of right tackle Robert Holmes' season-ending injury last Saturday, leading wideout Champ Flemings didn't make the trip to Old Dominion with a nagging ailment and fellow wide receiver Te'Vailance Hunt was ruled out in pregame warmups after being a game-time decision for the second straight week.

That doesn't include star defensive end Kivon Bennett, who also missed the trip with an undisclosed injury, and Blackman, who spent much of the fourth quarter hobbled following a hard hit on the Monarchs' interception return for a score late in the third quarter that put them up 21-19.

After waiting until November to pick up a first Sun Belt victory a year ago, ASU hasn't earned one by the end of Setemper this season.

"It's the little things, it's the small details," Jones said. "I hope everyone will come out and support this football team on Saturday because we're going to need it. And we need to get a win."

Print Headline: Red Wolves can’t maintain late lead


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