True freshman QB delivers for Red Wolves in win

Arkansas State quarterback Jaylen Raynor (1) races past Southern Miss defenders for a 62-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter of the Red Wolves 44-37 win on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, at Centennial Bank Stadium in Jonesboro. .(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

JONESBORO -- Behind 366 total yards, 3 touchdown passes and 2 scoring runs by true freshman Jaylen Raynor, Arkansas State pulled out a 44-37 shootout victory over Southern Miss on Saturday night in front of a crowd of 16,601 at Centennial Bank Stadium.

Raynor became the first true freshman to start at quarterback for ASU since Elliot Jacobs in 2001. His performance was key as the Red Wolves were able to hold off the comeback effort of the Golden Eagles to secure the win.

Raynor finished 11-of-21 passing for 233 yards and 3 touchdowns with one interception. He also rushed for 133 yards and 2 touchdowns on 17 carries, including a 62-yard score that put the game out of reach.

"Great win for our football team and our football program," Coach Butch Jones after the win. "The resolve, the resiliency, the grit that we talk about in trusting the process. The process of building our program. I think that was really kind of revealed tonight."

Southern Miss opened with a 13-play, 84-yard drive that took 5:42 off the clock and ended with a 2-yard touchdown run from Frank Gore Jr.

In the week leading up to the game, Jones would not disclose his plans as to who would start at quarterback for the Red Wolves. He kept it close to the vest all the way up to the opening kickoff, going as far as having all three of the quarterbacks who have played so far this season featured on the scoreboard during the pregame as the starting lineups were announced.

Raynor got off to a hot start, leading a 78-yard scoring drive on the Red Wolves' first offensive possession, capping it ofby connecting with Jeff Foreman for a 33-yard touchdown to even the score at 7-7.

"The poise, the unwavering confidence," Jones said of Raynor's performance. "His disposition is incredible. Very consistent. He don't get rattled. The other thing is we asked a lot of him tonight. There is a lot of things that we asked of the quarterback position tonight, and he executed it"

With just over five minutes remaining in the first quarter and the Southern Miss offense working deep in its own territory, Arkansas State generated its first turnover of the season as Princeton transfer Nate Martey hit Southern Miss quarterback Billy Wiles as he was throwing out of his own end zone and the ball ended up in the arms of ASU's Melique Straker, who returned the interception inside the Golden Eagles 10 yard line.

"It felt great," Straker said of the interception. "We've been emphasizing that [generating turnovers] for quite some time. To go out there and do that, to have ourselves go get that was amazing."

Three plays later, Raynor hit Courtney Jackson for a 5-yard touchdown on an out-breaking route towards the left sideline that gave Arkansas State its first lead at 14-7. Jackson finished with three receptions for 94 yards.

The positive momentum continued for the Red Wolves as the special teams unit came up with a blocked punt by freshman Reed Linder that set up Arkansas State at the Southern Miss 26. That led to a 36-yard field goal from Dominic Zvada early in the second quarter that extended the Red Wolves' lead to 17-7.

Southern Miss responded by going on a seven-play, 65-yard drive that culminated with a 28-yard touchdown pass from Wiles to Latreal Jones that cut the deficit to 17-14 with 11:06 remaining in the first half.

The teams exchanged field goals on the next two possessions, including a 53-yarder by Zvada, the sixth longest field goal in school history. Raynor and Wiles both threw interceptions inside the last two minutes of the first half and the game went into halftime with the Red Wolves hanging onto a 20-17 lead.

On the first play from scrimmage of the second half, Raynor connected with Jackson for a 60-yard touchdown to put the Red Wolves up 27-17.

The offensive explosion continued for the Red Wolves on their next possession, with Raynor finishing a seven0play, 89-yard drive with a dazzling 8-yard touchdown run that built the lead to 34-17. On the scoring drive, Raynor connected with Jackson on a 29-yard pass and Corey Rucker for 38 yards.

The Golden Eagles responded on their next possession, with Dreke Clark running for a 59-yard score following a critical fourth down conversion by Gore that cut the Red Wolves' lead to 34-24 with 6:28 remaining in the third quarter.

Southern Miss continued to chip away at the lead as place kicker Andew Stein converted on a 42-yard field goal to pull the Golden Eagles to within one score at 34-27 with just over three minutes left in the third.

Southern Miss tied the game at 34-34 a minute into the fourth quarter on a 22-yard touchdown pass across the middle from Wiles to Jakarius Caston.

The Golden Eagles had erased the Red Wolves' 17-point lead in just 7:28 game minutes.

"The thing I'm most excited about is we weathered the momentum," Jones said. "We weathered the ebbs and flows of the football game and our kids didn't blink. I think that shows how much we've grown in our competitive character and our competitive makeup."

Arkansas State regained the lead on a 21-yard field goal from Zvada to go up 37-34 with 3:50 remaining. The Red Wolves defense then forced Southern Miss into a three-and-out that was aided by a critical offensive holding call that wiped out a long competition for the Golden Eagles.

With 2:28 remaining, Raynor sealed the victory for Arkansas State by keeping the ball on a read option play and racing past the entire Golden Eagles defense for an electric 62-yard touchdown.

"Go! I just wanted to score for my teammates and seal the game," Raynor said. "I give a lot of credit to my teammates. Our defense, they give us great looks in practice, so we're prepared for everything that we do in games. So it's like second nature to us in the game"