JONESBORO — The Arkansas State team that finished the Sun Belt Conference season is a far cry from the one that started it three months ago.
On Saturday, before an announced Liberty Bank Stadium crowd of 31,243, the Red Wolves sent a loud message to anyone who would listen with a 45-0 pounding of Middle Tennessee in a meeting of Sun Belt Conference co-leaders. It was the seventh straight league victory and the 15th of 16, for the Red Wolves, who had opened defense of their title with a 26-13 defeat against Western Kentucky.
But since that loss to the Hilltoppers, A-State (9-3, 7-1) has rolled to its second straight conference title behind a potent offense. For its next game, it must wait until today to find out its bowl destination, which most likely will be Memphis’ Liberty Bowl or Mobile’s Go Daddy Bowl. Bowl bids are officially announced at 7 this evening.
This one was decided with a near-perfect first half. ASU steamrolled to a 35-0 halftime advantage. In the process, the Red Wolves scored on all five possessions, had no penalties, punts or turnovers and settled the issue way by intermission.
"There was tremendous pressure," said ASU coach Gus Malzahn. "And we put together our best performance in the biggest game of the season for the conference championship."
Surrounded on the field in the post-game celebration, Malzahn said, "It was perfect."
Malzahn said his team played a complete game.
"We ran the football, and we had some pace going," he said. "We played a very good team and we played our best game," he said.
"When you win a conference title, you have to think about the players. We had some leaders that won last year and knew what it took. We didn’t have a lot of them, but the ones we did led this group. As a coach, when you win a championship, you think about the players and the appreciation you have for them."
Ryan Aplin, the Red Wolves’ senior quarterback playing his final home game, was 13 of 14 for the half for 174 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 61 yards and a score in the half.
Malzahn had high praise for Aplin.
"Our quarterback played as good of a championship game as any quarterback you’ll ever see," he said.
In the second half, ASU added 10 points, mostly running the clock. But while the offense was busy with a more time-consuming approach, John Thompson’s defense remained relentless.
"Getting a shutout in college football today is almost unheard of," said linebacker Nathan Herrold, who led the defense with 10 tackles, an interception and a pass break-up.
The ASU defense was almost as good as the Red Wolves’ offense. Middle Tennessee (8-4, 6-2) never came close to scoring, reaching the ASU 25 on its first possession that ended with Herrold’s interception. In the final quarter, the Blue Raiders reached the Red Wolves’ 27, where defensive tackle Dexter Blackmon made an interception off a deflection.
"That offense has been playing very well against some good teams," said Malzahn. "They have put up some points and for us to shut them out, that was really big. Coach (John) Thompson, the defensive staff and the players, that was an unbelievable job."
For the game, MTSU, one of two Sun Belt teams that announced this week it would bolt for Conference USA in 2014, finished with just 203 yards and 12 first downs.
Meanwhile, ASU finished with 512 yards and averaged 7.5 yards per play.
Aplin, was 19 of 21 passing for 238 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran for 64 yards on six carries and a touchdown.
"They were good today," said MTSU coach Rick Stockstill. "They got good skill players; their running back is probably the best running back in the conference. They have good receivers and they got a really good fifth-year senior quarterback. This is a good football team."
David Oku ran for 102 yards on 19 carries and Rocky Hayes added 52 yards on 12 carries and each scored a touchdown. J.D. McKissic finished with eight receptions for 60 yards while Josh Jarboe, Julian Jones and Kedric Murry all caught touchdown passes.
In fact, the Red Wolves" first drive almost looked too easy. A 75-yard, seven play drive opened the game and Aplin scored from the 4 less than 3 minutes into the game. Brian Davis kicked the extra point for a 7-0 lead at 12:22 mark.
"Well they took their first possession down and scored," said Stockstill. "We came down on our possession and threw an interception and they ran it back and you’re down 14 before it got 10 minutes left in the first quarter. They’re an explosive offense and we could never get them stopped defensively. That put more pressure on us to make plays. They handled us pretty good up front and we didn’t have enough weapons out there to combat what hey were giving us."
After Herrold’s interception and 45-yard return, Oku scored on a 9-yard run to cap a 33-yard drive. Davis kicked it 14-0 at 7:05. Jarboe grabbed a 6-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the first quarter and Davis made it 21-0.
Julian Jones caught his seventh touchdown pass of the season, a 59-yard the next play after the Red Wolves had stopped MTSU on downs at the 41. Jones had just 13 receptions on the season, but more than half of them have been for scores.
Hayes, a freshmen who was converted to running back after the season-opening Oregon game, scored on a 12-yard run with 23 seconds left in the half.
In the second half, the Red Wolves scored on a 6-yard pass from Aplin to Murry with 9:49 left in in the third and Davis added a 21-yard field goal with 6:38 left.