Red Wolves lose grip in Sun Belt opener
Published: Monday, October 1, 2012
Updated: Monday, October 1, 2012 14:10
Western Kentucky took its first step toward proving they are the Sun Belt’s best, coming back from a 13-point deficit in the second half to muzzle the Arkansas State Red Wolves 26-13 at Liberty Bank Stadium Saturday night before a crowd of 25,160.
ASU matched the Hilltoppers’ physicality early on and drove effectively down the field but stalled in the red zone, settling for two field goals before marauding down from their own seven to close out the first half with a vintage Gus Malzahn play – freshman quarterback Fredi Knighten lined up as a wide receiver, took the ball from a reverse and spiraled it to senior running back Anthony Kincy for a touchdown.
Just as ASU offensive line coach J.B. Grimes warned during the week, the ‘Toppers defensive front was quick and athletic, harassing senior quarterback Ryan Aplin and mitigating his ability to roll out of the pocket and find a receiver down field.
“Their defensive line is probably the best in the conference. They sack the other team’s quarterback quite a bit,” said Malzahn after the game. “We knew that going in. We knew he had to run the football and take some pressure off our line, but they got to us a few times.”
Though senior wide receiver Taylor Stockemer played for the first time since ASU’s Week one loss to Oregon, the vertical passing game was limited, and Malzahn turned to a combination of screens and slants to allow players such as freshman wide receiver J.D. McKissic to work in open space.
The Red Wolves led 13-0 entering halftime, but WKU roared back in the third quarter. Senior quarterback Kawaun Jakes left the game late in the second quarter with an injury and was replaced by redshirt freshman James Mauro, who energized the ‘Toppers’ floundering passing game in the third by tossing touchdowns to receiver Mitchell Henry – once after a short ASU punt and again after an Aplin interception – within a minute and a half to put WKU ahead 14-13.
The short punt was indicative of another poor night from the Red Wolves’ special teams, who repeatedly failed to secure suitable field position on punt and kickoff coverage. WKU’s punt unit consistently planted the ball near the Arkansas State goal line, putting Aplin and his offense in a bind each drive as they attempted to drive the length of the field.
This was apparent as ASU’s offense fell silent in the third, failing to enter Hilltopper territory. Where Arkansas State controlled the clock in the first half, the ‘Toppers shifted that advantage in their favor in the second, turning to running back Antonio Andrews to keep ASU defenders on the field and leave the offense helpless on the sideline. Andrews totaled 224 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries.
“We’re a work in progress. I’ve been saying that for a while.... Now, I’ve got to give those guys credit. We’re talking about a very good defense,” Malzahn said.
Having dropped their conference opener, the Red Wolves now turn their attention to a match against Florida International Thursday night.
Having no time to rest, the team must cram a normal practice schedule into a short week. The game is set for a 6:30 p.m. kickoff and will be broadcast on ESPNU.