ULMWarhawks.com Online Columnist
JONESBORO, Ark. – Arkansas State snapped ULM’s four-game winning streak and took down the Warhawks 31-17 Saturday afternoon at Centennial Bank Stadium.
With the loss, ULM (6-5, 4-3) allowed the Red Wolves (7-4, 4-3) to draw even atop the Sun Belt Conference West Division standings.
“We just didn’t play good offensively at all. We never really got anything going,” ULM coach Matt Viator said. “I thought we played good on defense, except on third down. I thought we had a lot of third-down chances, and they made great catches when we had a chance to get off the field. But other than that, I thought we played really solid defensively.”
The game certainly wasn’t the same wild shootout as played last year in Monroe, when Arkansas State won 67-50 in a game that featured 58 first downs and 1,371 yards total offense.
Linebacker David Griffith led ULM with 12 tackles, including four tackles for losses. The Warhawks tallied 13 tackles for losses, with one sack by Ty Shelby.
“We ran to the ball and did all the things you have to do,” Viator said. “But I don’t know how many in a row they hit on third down. Other than that, we didn’t play good enough to win.”
The Red Wolves finished with 404 yards total offense, as quarterback Justice Hansen hit 21-of-27 passes for 246 yards and three touchdowns. Arkansas State was 9-of-17 on third down and scored on three-of-three red-zone trips. Marcel Murray’s 94 yards on 17 attempts led a ground game that gained 158 yards
“Our run defense was pretty hefty,” said ULM linebacker Rashaad Harding, who recorded nine tackles. “We stopped the run really well. But when it comes to passing, we’ve got to get better at it. We’ll get better and get back in the lab.”
In this matchup, ULM’s offense never found a steady rhythm. The Warhawks gained just 276 yards on 54 plays with 58 yards on the ground. Quarterback Caleb Evans completed 17-of-28 passes for 218 yards and one touchdown but also tossed three interceptions.
“We kind of came out a little slow and a little flat,” ULM tight end Josh Pederson said. “They made a few more plays on defense this week. We were just a little slow. Next week, we’ve got to come out hot and firing like we’ve usually been doing these last couple of weeks.”
Arkansas State cracked the end zone first on Hansen’s 49-yard touchdown pass to Kirk Merritt with 4:41 to go in the first period.
The Red Wolves then used favorable field position to extend their lead to 10-7 in the second quarter. After forcing a three-and-out that led to the Warhawks punting out of the end zone, Arkansas State started its fourth possession at the ULM 31. Eight plays and 22 yards later after a stiff defensive stand, Blake Grupe kicked a 26-yard field goal with 7:58 left in the first half.
The Warhawks punted three times and were stagnant on offense until putting together a six-play, 81-yard scoring drive late in the first half. Evans connected with Pederson on a 34-yard touchdown strike with 5:25 showing in the second quarter to cap a strange series. One play earlier, Pederson was going in for a score on a similar call but had the ball stripped away near the goal line. An inadvertent whistle wiped out the play and gave ULM the ball and a first down. Evans came right back to his tight end to narrow the gap to 10-7.
“That was a weird play,” said Pederson, who set career highs with five receptions for 60 yards. “The ball slipped up on me a little bit. I’ve got to hold on to the ball a little better. But that was good that we got the ball back with a first down. That was awesome.”
Arkansas State answered with a 12-play, 77-yard drive capped by Hansen’s 7-yard touchdown pass to Merritt with 31 seconds left in the quarter. ULM was flagged for three personal fouls during the drive to aid the Red Wolves, who carried the 17-7 lead into the break.
“We’ve got to get some stuff going offensively,” Viator said as he left the field at halftime. “We had a few untimely penalties on defense that really hurt us. But we’re hanging in there.”
Arkansas State outgained ULM, 248-120, in the first half and limited the Warhawks to just 3 yards rushing on eight attempts.
Momentum swung firmly in Arkansas State’s favor on ULM’s opening offensive series of the third quarter. With Evans under pressure, Justin Clifton picked off ULM’s quarterback and returned it 43 yards for a touchdown and a 24-7 lead with 11:58 remaining.
ULM came back with a sense of urgency, scoring on a five-play, 53-yard drive that took 2:17 off the clock. Brandius Batiste set up the touchdown with a 41-yard kickoff return and Evans powered in for a 1-yard run, his 10th rushing score of the year, to narrow the gap to 24-14.
The Warhawks made it a 7-point game on Craig Ford’s 37-yard field goal with 5:23 left in the third quarter. ULM needed 10 plays to cover the 51-yard march to pull within 24-17.
The Red Wolves answered with a 9-play, 93-yard drive and moved ahead 31-17 on Hansen’s 10-yard touchdown toss to Justin McInnis with 40 seconds remaining in the third.
“We’ve got a lot of football left and that’s the main thing,” said Viator, whose team became bowl eligible last week with its sixth win. “We didn’t play as well as we could have for sure, but they had something to do with it. We’ve got a great opportunity next week, and that’s what we’ll talk about.”
Up next: ULM plays host to Louisiana-Lafayette on Nov. 24 in the final game of the regular season. Kickoff at Malone Stadium is 2 p.m.
“It will be a big game for us,” Viator said. “A chance to win seven games, and who knows what will happen with Arkansas State next week. So yeah, it’s a huge game for us no doubt.”
Said Pederson: “The word this week is focus. We’ve got a good opponent coming to our place, and I think we need to focus and get it done.”