Brent Stockstill and Middle Tennessee produced a triumphant finish to an injury-riddled season.
Stockstill passed for 232 yards and two touchdowns and the Blue Raiders came up with some key stops to hold off Arkansas State 35-30 in the Camellia Bowl on Saturday night.
A team that had players miss a combined 125 games with injuries earned its first bowl win since 2009.
“We never made excuses this whole year,” said Rick Stockstill, the quarterback’s coach and father. “A lot of people wanted to give up on us but this team never gave up.”
There were some chances to fold in this one, too.
The Blue Raiders (7-6) ran out most of the final 5 minutes with a series of short passes from Stockstill after losing much of an 18-point lead over the Red Wolves (7-5).
Punter Matt Bonadies pinned Arkansas State’s prolific offence 91 yards from the end zone with 1:27 left and no timeouts. Middle Tennessee defenders then sacked Justice Hansen three times, including one by Darrius Liggins on the final play.
That capped a wild game that included DJ Sanders’ 54-yard fumble return for a touchdown, six turnovers and 17 penalties.
“Stockstill, as we expected, played really, really well,” Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson said. “They made plays they had to make and we made too many mistakes to win a game against a good football team. I thought all along they were better than their record and they proved that tonight.”
The Blue Raiders won four of their final five games after Brent Stockstill’s return from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for half the season. He was intercepted three times.
“Not very often as a quarterback can you throw three picks and (have) your defence bail you out like that” the quarterback said.
The Red Wolves had cut a 28-10 deficit down to 35-30 on Hansen’s 41-yard touchdown pass to Christian Booker with 5:03 left.
Middle Tennessee linebacker Darius Harris was MVP after collecting 12 tackles, a sack and two pass breakups. He forced the fumble that allowed Sanders to scoop and score.
Hansen completed 31 of 57 passes for 337 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. He had a 2-yard touchdown pass to Warren Wand after Arkansas State converted a fake punt with Cody Grace’s 21-yard pass to Chris Murray on fourth-and-14. The 2-point attempt failed.
Stockstill then swiftly gave the Blue Raiders a bigger cushion with a pair of big plays. He hit CJ Windham on a 34-yard catch and then threw a 30-yard touchdown to Shane Tucker.
Arkansas State then marched down to Middle Tennessee’s 1 with help from a couple of pass interference calls but the Blue Raiders held with Darryl Randolph’s tackle for loss and an incompletion.
Middle Tennessee: Finished strong after only clinching bowl eligibility with a win over Old Dominion in the regular season finale. Had 10 penalties for 87 yards. Terelle West scored on a 45-yard run.
ROLLAND-JONES: Arkansas State defensive end Ja’Von Rolland-Jones finished his career with 43.5 sacks, just shy of Terrell Suggs’ record of 44. He had one sack negated by a penalty but didn’t get one that counted, though he did have a tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry.
WILD PLAYS: Sanders’ fumble return wasn’t even the wildest defensive sequence of the first half. Arkansas State’s Justin Clifton grabbed an interception and fell on his back late in the first quarter. He got up and ran most of the way down the field before fumbling. Darreon Jackson tried to pick it up but the ball bounced to Kyle Wilson in the end zone. Officials ruled Clifton down at the Red Wolves’ 1 so none of that counted.
Arkansas State’s Hansen and leading rusher Warren Wand both return on the offence, but tight end Blake Mack and left tackle Jaypee Philbert are seniors, and so is Holland-Jones and star defensive back Blaise Taylor.
Middle Tennessee returns virtually every key player on offence, including Stockstill, and loses four seniors on defence.