Running game, defense step forward in Red Wolves’ win

Arkansas State wide receiver Jeff Foreman (14) pulls in a 33-yard touchdown reception during the first quarter of the Red Wolves’ game at Centennial Bank Stadium in Jonesboro in this Sept. 23, 2023 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

JONESBORO -- Arkansas State picked up its fifth win of the season with a decisive 37-17 victory over Louisiana-Lafayette on a picture perfect day Saturday afternoon at Centennial Bank Stadium.

With the win, ASU (5-4, 3-2 Sun Belt Conference) moved above .500 for the first time this season. The Red Wolves can become bowl-eligible with one more win and have three games remaining on the schedule.

Arkansas State dominated in the trenches Saturday, rushing for 232 yards and winning the time of possession battle by nearly 10 minutes. Zak Wallace was the leading rusher with 88 yards, while Ja'Quez Cross and quarterback Jaylen Raynor rushed for 58 and 53 yards, respectively.

"We knew all week that we were going to have to run the ball to win," Wallace said. "The run opens up your throw game. It chews time off the clock and it wears them down. That's what we did and shout out to those guys up front [on the offensive line]."

ASU scored the game's first points on an 18-yard touchdown run by Wallace that capped off a 10-play, 74-yard drive to put the Red Wolves up 7-0. But Louisiana-Lafayette immediately answered.

On the first play of the next possession, Zeon Chriss found a wide open Peter LeBlanc streaking down the middle of the field for an 87-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7-7 with 8:59 left in the first quarter.

"That was a missed assignment," ASU Coach Butch Jones said. "We were supposed to be in three deep [coverage], and our safety didn't get to the high hole. Made a mistake and when you play a good football team like Louisiana, they're going to capitalize on that."

The ASU offense responded and regained the lead several minutes later on a 2-yard touchdown run by Raynor. The scoring drive spanned 65 yards on 11 plays to give the Red Wolves a 14-7 edge with 4:14 left in the first quarter.

The lead grew to 17-7 on a 41-yard field goal by Dominic Zvada with 11:30 left in the second quarter. Outside of the broken coverage on the early touchdown, the Red Wolves' defense kept the Ragin' Cajuns offense in check, only allowing 10 more points the rest of the way.

Louisiana-Lafayette entered leading the Sun Belt in rushing with an average of 214 yards per game. The ASU defense held them to 29 rushing yards in the first half and 64 yards for the game.

"It's a line of scrimmage game and I think you see how far we've come in that aspect," Jones said. "I think that was the storyline, the line of scrimmage. Only gave up 64 yards rushing to the No. 1 rush offense in the Sun Belt."

Zvada added a 20-yard field goal with 4:26 left in the first half to push the lead to 20-7. The Ragin' Cajuns' Kenneth Almendares made a 24-yard field goal with 57 seconds left in the half to trim the deficit to 20-10.

"I thought the way we started the game was absolutely vital and critical," Jones said. "We scored on our first four possessions. Today, we were able to gain momentum. I thought we played probably our most complete half in the first half."

Louisiana-Lafayette had a 14-play, 77-yard drive that culminated with a 1-yard touchdown run by Chriss to pull within 20-17 with 6:25 remaining in the third quarter.

Raynor's 2-yard scoring run put the Red Wolves up 27-17 with 2:08 left in the third. The drive covered 75 yards on 11 plays and lasted 4:17.

"In the second half, I didn't like the way we started," Jones said. "We kind of sputtered a little bit offensively and then we give up a big touchdown drive. But I thought the key was complementary football. Offense answered their scoring drive and we came back and matched them. I thought that was extremely critical."

Trevian Thomas led the Red Wolves with nine tackles, while Keyron Crawford had 7 tackles, including 3 for a loss, with 2 sacks and a forced fumble.

"We're playing great defense right now," Crawford said. "We just got keep it up and make the next step. I hope we make a bowl game. That's the goal."

ASU extended its lead to 30-17 on a 30-yard field goal by Zvada with 1:15 left in the game.

The Red Wolves cemented the victory 13 seconds later as Crawford forced a fumble from Fields that was scooped up by Javante Mackey and returned 16 yards for a touchdown to make the score 37-17.

Raynor finished the game completing 18 of 28 passes for 194 yards and was sacked just once. Cross led the Red Wolves in receiving with 66 yards on six receptions

"We beat a quality opponent today," Jones said. "That's a really good football team. We did that because we were very solid. We really played quality football. We played winning football in all three phases."