Fourth-quarter burst lifts Arkansas State over Louisiana-Monroe

The exterior of Malone Stadium in Monroe, La., is shown in this undated courtesy photo. The stadium used by the University of Louisiana-Monroe has a seating capacity of 27,617 people. (Photo courtesy University of Louisiana Monroe Athletics)

MONROE, La. -- Arkansas State used a dominant fourth quarter performance to run away from Louisiana-Monroe 34-24 for a victory Saturday afternoon in front of an announced crowd of 14,006 at Malone Stadium.

"In the second half, we give up a long scoring drive, but we scored 24 unanswered points," ASU Coach Butch Jones said. "We were able to establish and run the football, which was great to see. We took care of the football."

The two teams exchanged punts on the first five possessions of the game. On the second ASU punt, Warhawks return man Bugs Mortimer's 73-yard punt return for a touchdown was wiped out by a holding penalty.

Louisiana-Monroe was plagued by penalties throughout the game, something ASU struggled with a week ago in its loss to Coastal Carolina. The Red Wolves only committed three penalties Saturday, while the Warhawks committed nine, including several that wiped points off the board.

"We talked about coming in here having a desire for success, a desire to win and overall discipline," Jones said. "We only had three penalties the entire game, which our players responded."

Louisiana-Monroe did eventually open up the scoring on a 50-yard field goal from Derek McCormick with 3:26 left in the first quarter. ASU responded with a touchdown on the next possession.

Following a 58-yard reception by Corey Rucker, quarterback Jaylen Raynor capped off a 75-yard scoring drive with a 2-yard touchdown run to put the Red Wolves ahead 7-3 with 1:36 left in the opening quarter.

Rucker had a huge first half, hauling in four receptions for 122 yards in the first 30 minutes. He would finish as the game's leading receiver with six receptions for 160 yards.

"He played awesome," Raynor said of Rucker's performance. "Shoutout to the O-line for giving me time to get him the rock. He got open and made plays."

Louisiana-Monroe regained the lead with two more field goals from McCormick in the second quarter. His third make came with 5:27 left before halftime and gave the Warhawks a 9-7 advantage.

"Our defense kept us in the game in the first half," Jones said. "Defense did a great job of limiting them to field goals."

Charles Willekes and Javonte Mackey lead the Red Wolves defensively, finishing with 12 and 11 tackles, respectively. Tre Thomas also made big plays from his safety position, finishing with eight tackles.

The fourth lead change of the game came with 2:02 remaining in the first half as Dominic Zvada made a 49-yard field goal to give the Red Wolves a 10-9 edge. Looking for more, ASU got a defensive stop and the ball back at its 37 with 1:34 before the break.

With 25 seconds left in the half, Raynor was intercepted by David Godsey Jr. at the Warhawks' 10-yard line, ending a promising drive as the teams went to the locker room with the Red Wolves hanging onto the one-point lead.

"We started off slow," Raynor said. "We know it was going to be hard, but we made some corrections at halftime and it showed."

Louisiana-Monroe opened the third quarter by going on a 13-play, 75-yard drive that resulted in a 32-yard touchdown pass from Blake Murphy to Nolan Quinlan, giving the Warhawks a 16-10 lead.

ASU responded with an impressive drive of its own, also driving 75 yards for a touchdown in 13 plays. Raynor capped off the drive by connecting with Courtney Jackson on a 5-yard scoring pass with 4:10 left in the third quarter. The extra point from Zvada put the Red Wolves back up 17-16.

That score would hold up until early in the fourth quarter, when ASU extended the lead 24-16 on a 34-yard touchdown run by Zak Wallace. One play before the touchdown, Raynor hit Rucker for a 36-yard gain to move the ball into Warhawk territory.

Following a three-and-out by the Warhawks, the Red Wolves got the ball in the end zone again to take a 31-16 lead. Jeff Forman made a spectacular catch down the sideline that put the ball at the Warhawks' 1. A play later, Wallace walked in for his second touchdown of the quarter with 9:20 remaining in the game.

"I thought Jeff Foreman, his catch really kind of was the exclamation mark to really close the game," Jones said. "We needed that play."

Wallace led ASU in rushing, finishing with 118 yards and 2 touchdowns on 18 carries. Raynor completed 15 of 30 passes for 298 yards and 1 touchdown with 1 interception. He also rushed for 25 yards and another score.

"You need a rhythm and I was able to catch that rhythm," Wallace said. "Obviously, the O-line was just moving them. Coach was calling a good game plan and we knew we had to run it."

With 4:36 left, Louisiana-Monroe appeared to get a spark with a blocked punt return for a touchdown. However, the play was flagged because the Warhawks had 12 players on the field.

The penalty gave ASU a first down, which would eventually lead to a 42-yard field goal from Zvada that would push the Red Wolves lead to 34-16 with 2:08 left.

The Warhawks added a late score with 22 seconds left as Murphy hit NyNy Davis for a 12-yard score. Murphy's 2-pt conversion set the final score at 34-24.

"Great team win," Jones said. "This is an extremely challenging place to play, so I can't say enough about our players. I thought our staff did a good job. I thought we made some good adjustments at halftime. Offensively, we pushed the ball down the field. I thought Jaylen did a really good job in the second half of managing the game."