MOBILE, Ala. — Arkansas State was down to an interim coach, a backup quarterback and less than a minute remaining in the game.
None of it fazed the Red Wolves, who are used to a little bit of postseason adversity.
Allen Muse caught a 13-yard touchdown pass from Fredi Knighten with 32 seconds remaining to lift Arkansas State past Ball State 23-20 at the GoDaddy Bowl on Sunday night.
Ball State had a chance to tie at the end of regulation, but Scott Secor’s 38-yard field-goal attempt was blocked by Ryan Carrethers as time expired.
For a second straight season, Arkansas State shrugged off a coaching change to win the GoDaddy Bowl.
Arkansas State lost coach Bryan Harsin to Boise State in December. He’s the latest in a string of three ASU coaches, including Hugh Freeze (Mississippi) and Gus Malzahn (Auburn), who have left the program for a more high-profile job.
John Thompson was the team’s interim coach for a second straight season, and the veteran defensive coordinator led a staff that managed to cobble together a workable offense with Knighten, who replaced injured starter Adam Kennedy in the second quarter.
Thompson was not retained by new coach Blake Anderson — the former North Carolina offensive coordinator who is Arkansas State’s fifth head coach in five seasons — but is confident he left the program in good hands.
Despite all the coaching changes, Arkansas State has won 28 games over the past three seasons, turning into one of the Sun Belt Conference’s best programs.
“Arkansas State is not just that little football team up there in northeast Arkansas,” Thompson said. “Arkansas State should now have a national brand. I don’t think there were many other football games going on tonight. There are a lot of good things about (this win).”
Knighten rescued Arkansas State’s offense on Sunday after Kennedy left the game in the second quarter with a knee injury, finishing with 115 yards passing and 97 yards rushing. Muse, who considered quitting football following his father’s suicide three years ago, wound up with the biggest catch of the night just five plays after Ball State scored what appeared to be the decisive touchdown.
“I’m extremely blessed,” Muse said. “It’s really hard to put into words what this means.”
Ball State (10-3) went ahead 20-16 with 1:33 remaining on a 1-yard touchdown run by Jahwan Edwards, but couldn’t hold the lead. Edwards finished with a game-high 146 yards rushing, but had to watch as Arkansas State rallied for the win.
“It’s not over until the time’s over,” Edwards said. “It’s hard to swallow.”
Keith Wenning capped his Ball State career with 215 yards passing, one touchdown and one interception. He’s the first Ball State quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards in a season.
Arkansas State moved the ball well throughout the third quarter, but had to settle for two short field goals to take a 16-10 lead.
It nearly came back to haunt them. But Knighten’s clutch throw to Muse proved to be the difference.
Ball State still had a chance to tie. The Cardinals drove downfield — and with the help of a 15-yard personal foul penalty on Arkansas State’s Andrew Tryon for a late hit — lined up for the 38-yard field goal with 2 seconds left.
But it never got past the line of scrimmage, smacking off Carrethers hands and setting off an Arkansas State celebration that quickly spilled onto the field.
“It was crazy,” Carrethers said. “I’ve never experienced anything like that. To put everything on the line and then come through like that — it was an amazing feeling. I couldn’t have written it any better.”
Ball State’s normally prolific passing offense struggled early in the game. Wenning missed on four of his first five pass attempts — and also took a vicious hit on a sack by Rocky Hayes.
“When we pressured him, our guys brought some steam,” Thompson said. “Just hitting him. (Quarterbacks) don’t like to get hit.”
Edwards rushed for 92 yards in the first half, including 44 yards on a 14-play drive that ended with Wenning’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Willie Snead.
It helped Ball State push out to a 10-3 lead by late in the second quarter, but Arkansas State responded with its own long drive just before halftime, capped by Sirgregory Thornton’s 1-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 10.
Wenning, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound senior, holds just about every passing record in Ball State history, but struggled in his finale. He completed 23 of 44 passes.
“The seniors and the rest of the team — that’s who I’m hurting for right now,” Wenning said.