MTSU outguns Arkansas State for Camellia Bowl win
There are people who maintain that the prevent defense only prevents a team from winning.
After Saturday night, count Middle Tennessee defensive coordinator Scott Shafer in that category.
“I’ve never liked the prevent, and we got beat on a prevent the series before,” he said. “So I felt if we were going to go down, let’s go down swinging.”
To take the baseball analogy a step further, the Blue Raiders connected on their last swings of the Camellia Bowl. They ended Arkansas State’s last, desperate drive with consecutive sacks of quarterback Justice Hansen, preserving a 35-30 win.
The Red Wolves reached their 42-yard line on a 28-yard pass from Hansen to Chris Murray, but Middle Tennessee (7-6) slammed the door. After an incomplete pass, Hansen was sacked for a 4-yard loss by D.J. Sanders and Jahmal Jones, then was strip-sacked on third down by Darrius Liggins.
Time expired shortly after Arkansas State recovered the fumble, wrapping up the Blue Raiders’ first bowl win since the 2009 New Orleans Bowl.
“Just stay on the field and finish,” Middle Tennessee linebacker Darius Harris said of the ending. “We got the job done, so goal accomplished.”
Although the Blue Raiders coughed up 462 total yards and 29 first downs to the high-powered Red Wolves, it was their defense that won the game. They sacked Hansen six times and forced three turnovers, one of which resulted in a 54-yard touchdown on a fumble return by Sanders for a 14-3 lead with 5:41 left in the second quarter.
Hansen completed 31 of 57 passes for 337 yards and three touchdowns with an interception, but Middle Tennessee broke up nine passes. Harris was named the bowl’s Most Valuable Player after finishing with 12 tackles, two pass breakups, a sack and a forced fumble.
“It’s about what we do on our end,” he said when asked about the matchup with Arkansas State. “We put three good phases together and got the win.”
The Blue Raiders’ offense might have qualified more as up-and-down in this game than good, but it made enough plays to cancel out three interceptions by Brent Stockstill. He did complete 19 of 35 passes for 232 yards and two scores, including a 30-yarder on a seam route to Shane Tucker with 12:08 left in the game that expanded Middle Tennessee’s lead to 35-23.
Middle Tennessee also ran the ball just well enough. Terelle West got it on the board just over 5 1/2 minutes into the game, bursting 45 yards up the middle for a 7-3 lead one play after a roughing-the-punter call kept a drive alive.
That was just one of a spate of errors that hampered both teams. Besides the half-dozen turnovers, the teams combined for 17 penalties for 168 yards and 41 incomplete passes. The game took a leisurely 3 hours, 57 minutes to complete.
Perhaps the most damaging sequence for Arkansas State occurred as it tried to answer Stockstill’s touchdown pass to Tucker. The Red Wolves reached the Blue Raiders’ 2-yard line with third-and-goal, but Hansen was stopped for a 3-yard loss and then sailed a fourth-down fade pattern well over the head of Dijon Paschal.
“As our strength gets better in the offseason, we’ll be better in the red zone,” Red Wolves coach Blake Anderson said. “We just have not found that maturity and consistency. This is not the end, it’s the beginning. I think we have the makings of a special football team next year.”
Hansen found Christian Booker for a 41-yard scoring strike with 5:03 left, cutting Middle Tennessee’s lead to five points. But Arkansas State didn’t get the ball back until there was only 1:27 on the clock and 91 yards to negotiate against a defense that wasn’t going to play not to lose.
“The physical and mental toughness this team has shown all year to overcome the adversity we’ve faced ... I’m proud of the toughness we showed,” Blue Raiders coach Rick Stockstill said.
NOTES: Middle Tennessee’s defense made significant strides this year, rising from 96th to 30th in total defense. ... Arkansas State played just 11 regular-season games in 2017 because its home game with Miami (Fla.) on Sept. 9 was canceled. The Hurricanes opted not to travel because of concerns about getting home following Hurricane Irma. ... Blue Raiders QB Brent Stockstill threw a TD pass in his 23rd straight game, the third-longest streak in FBS behind Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma) and Trace McSorley (Penn State).