Arkansas State Red Wolves romp over Texas State, become bowl-eligible

Arkansas State running back Ja'Quez Cross (2, left) tries to shake off an opponent during a game at the Red Wolves' Centennial Bank Stadium in Jonesboro in this Sept. 23, 2023 file photo. At right, Cross is shown in an undated courtesy photo. (Left, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe; right, Arkansas State University Athletics courtesy photo)

JONESBORO — Arkansas State scored seven rushing touchdowns and physically manhandled Texas State in all phases on its way to a dominating 77-31 victory in front of an announced crowd of 16,721 on Saturday afternoon at Centennial Bank Stadium.

By picking up its sixth win of the season, ASU becomes bowl-eligible for the first time since 2019 when it defeated Florida International 34-26 in the Camellia Bowl played in Montgomery, Ala. The 77 points were the most scored by a team in a Sun Belt Conference game.

“I’m proud of our players, coaches. Our fans, I’m happy for them,” ASU Coach Butch Jones said. “We still have a long ways to go, but I think what you’ve seen is our players are learning how to win. They’re learning how to play quality football. They’re learning what it takes to play winning football.”

Ja’Quez Cross stuffed the stat sheet for the Red Wolves, rushing for 139 yards and three touchdowns. He also returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown, accounting for an eye-opening 320 all-purpose yards.

“To be here today and to be able to say we are bowl-eligible, it’s just big and it just shows how much we grew from last season to this season,” Cross said. “We’re sending the seniors off the right way.”

Cross’ efforts highlighted an offensive performance where the ASU offensive line had its way with the Texas State defensive front that entered the game leading the Sun Belt in tackles for loss. Three running backs reached the end zone for the Red Wolves.

“Anytime we can run the football, we’re going to be effective,” Jones said. “We had some explosive plays in the run game. It’s execution. You don’t do things until you get it right, you do things until you can’t get them wrong.”

Texas State opened the scoring on a 4-yard touchdown run by Ismail Mahdi that capped an 11-play, 65-yard drive to give the Bobcats a 7-0 lead.

ASU had a quick response. Following a 47-yard kickoff return from Cross, the Red Wolves started their first drive from midfield.

Facing fourth and 1, Zak Wallace took an inside handoff and burst up the middle before cutting back to the outside once he reached the second level on a 41-yard touchdown run to tie the game up at 7-7 with 8:45 left in the first quarter.

After Texas State got a 43-yard field goal from Mason Shipley, ASU took its first lead at 14-10 with 2:03 left in the first quarter when Wallace scored from 8 yards out. The Red Wolves’ drive covered 81 yards on 13 plays and ate up 4:43 of game time.

Texas State regained the lead as TJ Finley found a wide open Joey Hobert across the middle for an 18-yard touchdown to give the Bobcats a 17-14 edge with 12:16 left in the second quarter.

The lead would change again on the ensuing ASU drive. One play after Wallace went down with an injury, Cross sprinted up the middle on an inside run and outran the Bobcats defenders on his way to a 42-yard touchdown run to put the Red Wolves up 21-17.

Late in the second quarter, Texas State’s Donerio Davenport fumbled a pitch and Keyron Crawford was able to recover at the Bobcats’ 15.

One play later, Cross scored his second rushing touchdown of the game from 15 yards out to give the Red Wolves a 28-17 lead with 4:01 left in the second quarter.

“We were able to force a turnover on our end of the field and then right away our offense goes in and scores,” Jones said of the swing in momentum. “We scored touchdowns — we didn’t kick field goals. Seventy-seven points and we didn’t score one touchdown through the air. I’ve never been a part of that, I don’t know if I’ll ever be a part of something like that [again].”

It wouldn’t be long before Cross would score again. With 1:52 left in the first half, Cross once again displayed his speed as he broke off a 57-yard touchdown run to extend the Red Wolves’ lead to 35-17.

The offensive explosion continued into the third quarter as freshman Cedric Hawkins recorded two rushing touchdowns on the first two ASU drives of the second half. The first touchdown from nine yards out while the second was a 7-yard score.

The onslaught continued as Finley fumbled deep in ASU territory and Trevian Thomas scooped up the loose ball and returned it 91 yards for a touchdown to push the lead to 56-17 with 5:57 left in the third quarter.

Finley hit Cole Wilson for a 7-yard touchdown reception to cut the lead to 56-24. But Cross returned the ensuing kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown to put the Red Wolves up 63-24 at the end of the third quarter.

The ASU offense hardly saw the field the remainder of the game. Finley had two interceptions returned for touchdowns in the fourth quarter as the game got out of hand late.

Melique Straker and Dane Motley both returned interceptions for touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Straker’s return went for 87 yards, while Motley’s covered 50 yards. Finley passed for 366 yards and three touchdowns, but the turnovers proved to be damaging.

Aside from the interception return for a touchdown, Straker finished with 13 tackles, including nine solo, as well as 1.5 tackles for loss. The ASU defense generated four turnovers and scored three touchdowns.

“It was amazing, but that’s our style of play,” Straker said of the defensive performance. “I think today was just one of those days where we completed the task that we had wanted to complete for so long. It was just answering the call.”