LAFAYETTE, La. — Arkansas State can stretch the field, too.
For the first time all season, ASU significantly employed a downfield passing attack, going straight at Louisiana-Lafayette with an aggressive, vertical passing game that the Ragin’ Cajuns secondary couldn’t handle and the Red Wolves rolled to a 50-27 win at Cajun Field on Tuesday night.
ASU head coach Gus Malzahn said part of his game plan was to test Louisiana-Lafayette’s corners and safeties.
ULL didn’t make a passing grade, allowing 244 yards through the air in the first half as the Red Wolves surged to a 26-7 halftime lead.
"We were able to hit some passes," Malzahn said. "Any time we can hit some explosive passes in the passing game, it gets our momentum and our pace going."
In each of Arkansas State’s last six games, ASU redshirt freshman J.D. McKissic had led the receivers in catches with the majority coming on short bubble screens and quick passes at the line of scrimmage. While McKissic was again a key part of Arkansas State’s strategy, he was used often as a decoy while the deeper routes were clearly the preference.
ASU senior receivers Josh Jarboe and Taylor Stockemer each caught four passes and combined for 130 yards to lead the Red Wolves. McKissic also had four receptions, but was limited to just 20 yards as ASU focused on throwing the football down field rather than to the sideline.
"We finally brought it tonight," Stockemer said. "We scored 50 points on them. They’re a tough, tough team and this is a very tough place to play. … For us to come out and be as successful as we were is impressive. We can tell everything is starting to come together. We’re starting to click and things are starting to move."
Arkansas State went to the air from the start and didn’t back down the entire first half.
ASU quarterback Ryan Aplin completed 19-of-28 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown in the first two quarters. It was a season high in attempts and completions in a half for Aplin.
"We’ve got a really good receiving corps and we’ve got a really good O-line to top that off, guys that are going to protect you and give you time, and that makes it that much easier," Aplin said of the strategy. "Guys were getting open, running good routes, and I had a lot of time in the pocket tonight."
Arkansas State’s first two drives ended with field goals, but both gave a good indication what Malzahn and his staff had planned to exploit.
ASU threw the ball six times on its opening drive and three times on the following drive.
The Ragin’ Cajuns entered the Sun Belt Conference showdown dead last in pass defense and among the bottom 10 teams in the country. ULL was allowing 293 yards a game passing and gave up 269 to ASU, with only 25 coming in the second half after the Red Wolves were comfortably in front.
And that was the strategy, to throw it at and over the Cajuns and see how well they could cover.
"We game planned for that," Stockemer said. "We game planned for that, but we also game planned being ready to adjust. That was a big deal. We came out and we knew some of their weaknesses and we were going to try and attack them early. Whatever else they threw at us, we were going to try and adjust. Malzahn called a good game tonight."
One of the most telling moments came late in the first quarter when a fake punt went awry for Louisiana-Lafayette.
Arkansas State (5-3, 3-1 Sun Belt) took over near midfield at the 42 and Aplin dropped back to pass on five straight plays before shifting gears. Aplin completed a 13-yard screen to David Oku, a 10-yard toss to Oku over the middle and then threw a 20-yard completion to Stockemer on a post route.
Just when the Ragin’ Cajuns (4-3, 2-2) were thinking pass, ASU running back Frankie Jackson caught them backpedaling and carried for an 11-yard TD and 13-0 lead.
"They’re a cover-two type of team, and we were trying to vertically stretch them, and then they started going single high and bringing an extra guy down," Malzahn said. "But I was happy with our offense because when we had to run the football we were able to do it, and we were able to hit some explosive plays in the pass game, which definitely helped."
ASU’s final touchdown of the first half capped an explosive first half passing.
Tausean Holmes intercepted ULL quarterback Terrance Broadway to give ASU possession, and Aplin went to work deep. Junior receiver Julian Jones got behind the Ragin’ Cajuns and Aplin hit him in stride for a 35-yard touchdown and a 20-0 lead.
"I thought Ryan had a good night," Malzahn said.
Aplin finished the evening 21-of-31 for 269 yards and one TD.
Once the vertical passing game had been established, Arkansas State turned to its ground game in the second half.
The Red Wolves finished with 257 yards rushing, including 174 after the break. Freshman Rocky Hayes led ASU with 86 yards, including a 57-yard touchdown run on a wide receiver reverse, while David Oku had 83 yards and a TD run and Jackson had 77 yards and two touchdowns.
"Sometimes you run and they stack the box and force you to pass," Oku said. "Sometimes you pass first and then run. You never know with Coach Malzahn. Those were the second-half adjustments and things we’ve made and where we’ve gotten better at."
More important than the approach that was taken, through the air or on the ground, was what the win estasblished. The Red Wolves are a confident football team now.
"It’s very exciting to build on one week after another after another," Stockemer said. "We can tell we’re getting better and we’re still seeking another conference championship. … To come down here and win by the margin we did, it’s a wonderful feeling and it’s a big statement for our team.