Red Wolves' comeback leaves too much time

Published 4 December 2017

JONESBORO -- Arms stretched, Christian Booker caught a 39-yard touchdown pass that seemed to complete a comeback for Arkansas State University to give the Red Wolves its third consecutive Sun Belt Conference championship.

But suddenly, it didn't.

Troy, down 25-24 with 1:23 left to play, drove 72 yards with no timeouts to score the game-winning touchdown to beat ASU (7-4, 6-2 Sun Belt) 32-25 on Saturday night at Centennial Bank Stadium.

ASU redshirt junior quarterback Justice Hansen lofted a deep pass from the Troy 38 as time expired, but the football was swatted incomplete by a Trojans defender in the end zone.

That ended a game in which the Red Wolves came back from a 24-13 deficit and outgained Troy 606-293 in total yards.

"Honestly never been through a game quite like what we just went through," ASU Coach Blake Anderson said. "To move the ball the way we did up and down the field, double the yardage of the opponent and to come away with a loss."

Troy (10-2, 7-1) won a share of its first Sun Belt title since it won five consecutive titles from 2006-2010, and the Trojans now have their second consecutive 10-victory season under third-year Coach Neal Brown. Appalachian State (8-4, 7-1) earned the other share of the conference title with its 63-14 victory over Louisiana-Lafayette.

ASU was 4 of 8 in the red zone, which included failures to produce points on two first-quarter drives inside the Troy 20.

Down 17-13 with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Red Wolves reached the Troy 16 before Hansen was intercepted by freshman cornerback Marcus Jones, who returned the interception 100 yards for a touchdown.

But ASU rallied against a defense that entered the game with the nation's 10th-ranked scoring defense (16.8 points allowed per game).

"With our offense, it's never over until [the clock] is all zeroes," said Hansen, who finished 31 of 40 for 437 yards, 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions.

ASU drove 93 yards on 10 plays, and Hansen threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Omar Bayless in the back-right corner of the end zone.

An invigorated ASU defense needed a stop with 2:55 left in the game.

"We just tried to do what we could, man," said senior defensive end Ja'Von Rolland-Jones, whose sack brought him within a half-sack of the all-time NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision career sack record. "We knew the battle wasn't over."

Troy went three-and-out, punted, and ASU followed with a 6-play, 67-yard drive that ended on Hansen's 39-yard touchdown pass to Booker with 1:28 left in the game.

ASU led Troy 10-7 at halftime, although the Red Wolves outgained the Trojans 245-87 in total offense.

ASU drove within Troy's 20 on two of its first three offensive possessions, but Hansen was stopped short on an outside fourth-down run at the Troy 20 on the first drive. On the third drive, Hansen's pass to senior running back Johnston White was tipped in the end zone and intercepted by Troy junior cornerback Blace Brown.

After a scoreless first quarter, ASU took a 3-0 lead on a 26-yard field goal by sophomore kicker Sawyer Williams.

Immediately afterward, Troy's Jones returned the kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown to give the Trojans a 7-3 lead with 13:20 left in the second quarter.

It was the second consecutive game that ASU had given up a touchdown on a kickoff return, and it was the third time this season since Nebraska's JD Spielman returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown in ASU's 43-36 loss in the season opener.

ASU's defense held Troy's offense in check, forcing punts on each of the Trojans' six drives during the first half.

Troy senior running back Jordan Chunn entered the game with 741 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, but he was held to 7 carries and 28 yards in the first half. ASU held Troy to 1.9 yards per carry in the first half, which forced the Trojans into long distances in late downs.

ASU also held Troy to 2 of 7 on third downs in the first half, including when senior cornerback Blaise Taylor shed a block to stop an end-around run by Jones on third and 1 during the first quarter.

This forced Troy to shift to the passing game during the second half, and the Trojans scored on each of their first two drives.

Troy senior quarterback Brandon Silvers was 6 of 12 for 96 yards during those drives, which included more pass attempts than the entire first half (11). Silvers gave Troy a 17-13 lead with 3:36 left in the third quarter when he lofted a 44-yard touchdown pass to freshman receiver Tray Eafford.

Silvers finished 23 of 41 for 246 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Sports on 12/03/2017