By DAVID BRANDT
MOBILE, Ala. — Arkansas State’s offense was held in check Sunday night after piling up big numbers this season. It was the defense that led the Red Wolves to a breakthrough victory.
Ryan Aplin threw for 213 yards and a touchdown, J.D. McKissic caught 11 passes for 113 yards and Arkansas State edged No. 25 Kent State 17-13 to win the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
Arkansas State’s usually prolific offense struggled against Kent State, but the consistent Aplin-to-McKissic connection and a stingy defense was enough to help the Red Wolves (10-3) to their first bowl win since joining the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1992.
Kent State (11-3) was driving late in the game when quarterback Spencer Keith tried to scramble on fourth down and was stopped a few yards short of the marker with 52 seconds left. Linebacker Qushaun Lee made the shoestring tackle for the Red Wolves and finished with a team-leading 13 stops.
“That was a good one,” Arkansas State interim coach John Thompson said. “Our guys stepped up with a minute to go. We really needed a play, and our guys made one. It wasn’t anything except for ballplayers. It was anything special at all. We just made plays.”
Darrell Hazell roamed the Kent State sideline one more time in the Golden Flashes’ first bowl game since 1972. He is leaving the program to take over at Purdue.
Thompson, a veteran defensive coordinator, coached the Red Wolves after Gus Malzahn left to take the Auburn job last month. It was the second straight season Arkansas State had to play its bowl game without the coach that led it to a Sun Belt championship — Hugh Freeze left for Mississippi in 2011 before last year’s GoDaddy.com Bowl, which the Red Wolves lost 38-20 to Northern Illinois.
The results were much better this time — and the defensive-minded Thompson was especially pleased with that side of the ball.
Arkansas State’s offense was dominant during the last half of the regular season, averaging more than 41 points during a seven-game winning streak.
But the Red Wolves had to rely on their defense in this one while the offense slowly warmed up. Kent State took a 7-0 lead on Dri Archer’s 16-yard touchdown run and the margin could have been worse, but Arkansas State linebacker Nathan Herrold picked off a tipped pass in the end zone to end a promising drive for the Golden Flashes.
David Oku rushed for a tying 10-yard touchdown with 5:40 remaining in the second quarter, and then Aplin hit McKissic for a 31-yard touchdown minutes later to make it 14-7.
“Our offense did exactly what it was supposed to do,” Thompson said. “They did a great job. Ryan Aplin took some shots — I guess I can say it now — some unnecessary shots that weren’t good. But our defense — we’ve got men over there. Grown men.”
Kent State responded with a 42-yard field goal by Freddy Cortez just before halftime. The teams traded field goals in the third quarter, but neither team could score in the fourth.
The Golden Flashes put together one last drive in the final minutes, with Keith completing a clutch 15-yard pass over the middle on fourth down with less than two minutes remaining. He was headed for another fourth-down conversion just four plays later, but was tripped up on a scramble deep in Arkansas State territory. The Red Wolves then began to celebrate on their sideline.
“I saw their defense drop back really fast, and I thought I had enough room to get the first down,” Keith said. “But they were able to get me on the ankle.”
It was a disappointing end to an otherwise breakthrough season for Kent State, which set a school record with 11 victories, including a 10-game winning streak that lasted nearly three months. But they dropped their last two games, including a 44-37 double-overtime loss to Northern Illinois on Nov. 30 in the Mid-American Conference championship.
One reason Kent State was able to win 11 games was a dynamic rushing attack that averaged more than 250 yards per game. But the duo of Archer and Trayion Durham didn’t have a particularly good game against the Red Wolves.
Archer, who missed much of the second half with an apparent injury, led the Golden Flashes with 77 yards rushing while Durham added 68.
Aplin completed 21 of 30 passes in his final college game. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound senior owns nearly every school passing record and is the Sun Belt two-time player of the year.
This wasn’t one of his most spectacular games, but he was consistent, made very few mistakes and had no turnovers.
That was no small feat against Kent State, which led the nation with 38 takeaways coming into the game. The Golden Flashes couldn’t get one against the Red Wolves.
“That was a huge part of our game plan,” Aplin said. “We knew we couldn’t afford to give them momentum. Our guys did a great job taking care of the ball and giving our defense a chance to help us win.”