JONESBORO – The Bryan Harsin Era is underway, starting with four Arkansas State University players rushing for more than 100 yards as the Red Wolves cruised to a 62-11 season-opening victory over Arkansas-Pine Bluff (UAPB) this Saturday (Aug. 31) evening in front of 30,451 spectators at Liberty Bank Stadium in Jonesboro.
Senior David Oku paced A-State with a game-leading 124 yards rushing while senior Sirgregory Thornton ran for 112 yards, sophomore Michael Gordon gained 102, and sophomore Fredi Knighten rushed for 101 yards as the Red Wolves tied a NCAA Division I FBS record for most players on one team gaining at least 100 yards. A-State’s 509 rushing yards in the game represented the fifth time in which the Red Wolves have reached the 500-yard plateau in a contest.
Arkansas State, which is 1-0 on the season, snapped three-game losing string in season openers as the Red Wolves put on an impressive offensive performance against UAPB (0-1) with a 509-rushing yards output in their first home season-opening contest since 2009.
UAPB came into the first-ever meeting with A-State as the defending Southwestern Athletic Conference Champions and the preseason favorite to win the SWAC Western Division title. UAPB was also missing several key players, including a handful of starters, because of eligibility issues that cropped up earlier in the week.
“I was very proud of our players with the mindset they came out with tonight,” said A-State head coach Bryan Harsin, who was making his collegiate head coaching debut.
“I think the crowd was electric,” Harsin said. When we had the Order of the Pack earlier in the week, I felt like if we had that many people and that type of atmosphere by game time then our guys would be excited to get out there and play.
“Today was all about us going out there and doing our jobs. Really just taking everything we’ve done through spring ball, summer, and fall camp into tonight’s game. I’m really proud of our coaches and the effort they put in preparing the players, the type of organization they showed throughout the week,” added Harsin.
Arkansas State dominated the first half as the Red Wolves scored 48 unanswered points while rolling up 480 yards in total offense, including 344 on the ground, to hold a commanding 48-0 at halftime.
The Red Wolves led 14-0 after the first quarter on touchdowns runs by quarterback Fredi Knighten and redshirt sophomore wide receiver J.D. McKissic. Knighten’s 21-yard scoring run at 10:33 on Arkansas State’s opening possession capped a seven-play, 60-yard scoring drive giving the home team a 7-0 lead. A-State added its second score of the game as McKissic went into the end zone from 14 yards out with 2:13 remaining in the opening frame.
Arkansas State continued its dominance in the second quarter by erupting for 34 consecutive points with all but one TD coming on the ground. David Oku scored his first of two TD’s in the stanza on a two-yard scamper at 13:47 to give A-State a 21-0 lead after senior quarterback Adam Kennedy hooked up with running Michael Gordon on a 48-yard pass. Fredi Knighten broke through the UAPB defense on the ensuing play for a 79-yard gain to the UAPB one-yard line before netting the score on a one-yard keeper with 9:33 remaining. Oku would hit paydirt again for the second time on a 17-yard rush as the Red Wolves extended their lead to 34-0.
UAPB’s threatened to score midway thru the quarter as the Golden Lions moved the ball down to the A-State five-yard line, but turned the ball over on downs as quarterback Benjamin Anderson’s pass on fourth down was incomplete. On the next A-State possession, Michael Gordon broke a tackle on the second play and outraced all defenders down the sideline for a 91-yard TD run to make it 41-0. The Red Wolves’ final score before the half occurred with 2:09 left as Adam Kennedy connected with senior wideout Julian Jones on 22-yard TD pass play. Michael Gordon (102 yards) and Fredi Knighten (101 yards) combined for 203 rushing yards through the first half.
Arkansas State picked up right where it left off to start the second half as the Red Wolves scored two third-quarter TD runs by running back Sirgregory Thornton, covering six and 31 yards, respectively. UAPB, trailing 62-0, would get its first points of the game with 6:23 to go in the stanza as the Golden Lions’ Jer-ryan Harris scored on a 37-yard fumble recovery. UAPB came back to score again in the frame on a 39-yard Tyler Strickland field goal with just over two minutes in the third to account for the final margin.
“When our players came out on all sides of the ball, we did a great job of establishing the run game which is what we wanted to do,” said Harsin. “I thought Adam (Kennedy) did a great job of operating the offense. I know he didn’t get that many chances to throw the ball tonight, but when he did it was the right way and the way we wanted him to.”
The Red Wolves generated a program fifth-best ever 509 rushing yards and averaged 8.9 yards per carry to account for the bulk of their 672 total offensive yardage. A-State also totaled 163 yards in passing. ASU’s defense held UAPB in check by limiting the Golden Lions to 173 yards of total offense, which consisted of 12 rushing yards and 161 through the air.
Adam Kennedy was nine-of-12 in the air for 149 yards in his A-State debut as seven different receivers caught at least a pass. UAPB’s Benjamin Anderson threw for 161 yards on 13-of-26 passing with Dezmond Beverly on the receiving end of six aerials for 113 yards.
Defensively for A-State, senior tackle Ryan Carrethers posted a team-high eight tackles while junior middle linebacker Qushaun Lee contributed seven tackles. Jer-ryan Harris was tops for UAPB with a game-leading 14 tackles to go with his TD fumble recovery.
“Arkansas State is a very good football team. They are well coached and they did a lot of good things out there,” said UAPB head coach Monte Coleman. “We didn’t execute like we did in practice. Even being without some of the guys we needed, we just didn’t execute.”
“We have to be ready and we didn’t do it. We can’t look over anybody. We can’t under judge anybody and we can’t expect folks to have pity on us because we don’t have all of our guys playing. It’s the game of football and when you’re down, you kick’m and that’s what they did.”
“The thing we have to do is go back and rebuild. We have to play harder than what we really played in this particular ballgame,” Coleman continued. “This is just one game. It’s not the end of the season, it’s not even a conference game. The thing we have to do is go back and play hard and practice hard getting for McNeese State.”
Although much of the evening was a nightmare for the Golden Lions, there were some bright spots to build on. “We actually had some guys that actually played well. It didn’t look like it, but we actually had some guys that played well,” Coleman pointed out. “There were several guys that normally wouldn’t have played a certain position played and played well.”
“Julian Morgan came in, he’s an undersized linebacker, we had to put him at the defensive end position and he actually played well. Morgan finished the evening with four tackles (3 solos), a tackle for loss and a forced fumble that was returned for the only touchdown of the night for UAPB.
The Lions also hit the road without a punter or placekicker, but Tyler Strickland stepped into that role well. “Tyler Strickland came in and kicked the ball extremely well,” said Coleman. “He punted the ball well, he kicked the ball well, they didn’t have an opportunity to get a return because he kicked the ball out of the endzone. Then he came in and bailed us out punting the football. Strickland averaged 41.6 yards on 10 punts with three over 50 yards. He also hit a 39-yard fieldgoal that banged in off of the uprights.
There was one more bright spot for the Golden Lions’ head coach. Coleman had an opportunity to speak with son Kyle leading up to Saturday’s game. However, during the postgame, the two met on the field in a moment caught by the ESPN3 cameras. “I gave him a hug and a kiss, told him I love him and that I didn’t have any money for him,” Coleman said with a chuckle. “I told him that I hope he has a great season.”
Arkansas State is on the road next Saturday, Sept. 7, as the Red Wolves square off against the Auburn Tigers in Auburn, Ala. Opening kickoff is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. (CT) at AU’s Jordan-Hare Stadium and the non-conference matchup will be televised by the Fox Sports Network (FSN). The game will be available for viewers in Arkansas on the Fox Sports Southwest channels.
UAPB faces McNeese State in Lake Charles, La., Sept. 7, at 7 p.m.
Red Wolves Tracks: A-State extended its winning streak to nine games, the second longest in the nation … The Red Wolves have won nine consecutive home openers to date … A-State’s 672 yards total offense were the second most in school history behind a 681-yards output vs. Louisiana-Lafayette in 2007 … Bryan Harsin became the Red Wolves’ first head coach to win his inaugural game at A-State since Larry Lacewell in 1979.
Here are video highlights of the game.
Courtesy Arkansas State University and UAPB Departments of Athletics