WKU falls in final minute 26-22 to Arkansas State

Senior linebacker Ben Duvall tries to tackle Arkansas State wide receiver R.J. Fleming but is unable to stop him during the third quarter at Smith Stadium on Saturday. Arkansas State won 26-22. WKU’s home losing streak extended to 18 games.

Brad Stephens

Head Coach Willie Taggart sat at the media room podium Saturday with a fatigued look on his 35-year old face.

“I thought I was going to have some good stuff for you tonight, and I thought you guys were going to have some good questions for me,” Taggart said. “Damn.”

WKU looked like it was going to end a 17-game home losing streak Saturday, leading Arkansas State 22-19 late in the fourth quarter.

But after a controversial call, a failed fourth down attempt and a backbreaking Red Wolves’ touchdown drive, the Toppers (0-4, 0-1 Sun Belt Conference) dropped a 26-22 heartbreaker.

“Our guys were really crushed,” said Taggart, who addressed media alone following the game. “We were right there and the football gods wouldn’t let us.”

A one-yard touchdown run by Arkansas State running back Derek Lawson with 43 seconds remaining proved to be the decisive score that capped off a strange night in WKU’s conference opener.

The Toppers had all the momentum when junior quarterback Kawaun Jakes rolled right and hit senior running back Bobby Rainey for a 42-yard touchdown.

Rainey came out of a full house backfield, slipped by the Arkansas State secondary and caught a perfect pass from Jakes in stride.

Jakes then put the Toppers up 22-19, diving into the end zone on a two-point conversion scramble.

He finished 13-of-23 passing for 142 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, while accumulating 60 yards on the ground.

The Red Wolves had the chance to tie on the following possession with a 44-yard field goal attempt from kicker Bobby Zalud.

But he missed wide right, giving the Toppers the ball back with 5:51 remaining.

WKU got a pair of first downs, forcing Arkansas State to burn all three of its timeouts.

The Toppers appeared to have their third first down of the drive when Jakes scrambled for 10 yards to the Red Wolves’ 31 yard-line on 3rd and 10.

But a booth review said the ball was at the 32-yard line when Jakes’ knee hit the ground, so the Sun Belt officiating crew re-spotted the ball at 32.

That nullified the first down and set up a 4th and 1 for WKU.

Taggart said he had never seen a first down call taken off the board.

“I guess the booth can review a spot,” Taggart said. “That’s been our luck.”

With less than three minutes remaining and one yard to gain, Taggart called to try for the first down with a Rainey run.

Rainey was met by defensive tackle Greg McCall and defensive end Jeremy Gibson for a one-yard loss, and WKU gave the ball back to Arkansas State.

“We wanted to go for it and run out the clock because we knew they were going to get the ball back anyway,” Taggart said.

Taking over on his own 34-yard line, Arkansas State quarterback Ryan Aplin marched the Red Wolves 64 yards in 1:56 for the winning score.

Aplin’s biggest play on the drive was an 18-yard completion to wide receiver Josh Jarboe down to the WKU 11 on a 3rd and 17.

“That really crushed us on that series,” Taggart said.

Two plays later, Lawson took the handoff from Aplin and fell into the end zone.

The game’s dramatic final 10 minutes overshadowed the rest of a strange Sun Belt opener for both teams that featured an ejection, two touchdown passes from non-quarterbacks and five lead changes.

 WKU took an early lead after a commanding opening drive.

The Toppers marched 81 yards in 11 plays before sophomore fullback Kadeem Jones dove forward for a two-yard touchdown.

Arkansas State matched with a long touchdown drive of its own, going 86 yards in 14 plays.

The drive was capped off when Red Wolves’ wide receiver Dwayne Frampton found Aplin on a reverse pass for a 23-yard second quarter touchdown.

On its next possession, Arkansas State had a first-and-goal on the Topper nine-yard line after Aplin hit Jarboe on a 38-yard completion.

But a false start on left guard Alex Kautai set the series back, and the Red Wolves had to settle for a 26-yard field goal from Brian Davis and a 10-7 lead.

It appeared WKU caught a break later in the quarter when senior defensive back Derrius Brooks recovered a punt muffed by Frampton at the Arkansas State 12.

But the Toppers were forced to re-kick because of an illegal formation penalty.

Taggart said officials told him a player supposed to be on the line of scrimmage was a step back, meaning there were too many men in the backfield.

“It was another mistake that hurt us,” Taggart said. 

Lack of discipline hurt the Toppers again before the half ended, as sophomore linebacker Bar’ee Boyd was ejected after throwing a punch at Red Wolves’ special teamer Artez Brown on a punt.

Trailing 10-7 in the third quarter, Taggart broke into his bag of tricks, calling a pass for Rainey.

Rainey hit junior wide receiver Dexter Haynes for a 17-yard touchdown, his second career touchdown pass.

Arkansas State struck back on the first play of the fourth quarter.

On a 3rd and 4 at the WKU 33 yard-line, Aplin rolled left and found wide receiver Dwayne Frampton, who leaped over junior WKU safety Kareem Peterson for the catch.

Frampton then shed a tackle from sophomore cornerback Tyree Robinson to get into the end zone.

Aplin finished 37-of-49 for 396 yards with one touchdown, while Frampton led all receivers with 126 yards on nine catches.

The Red Wolves added a 43-yard field goal from Bobby Zalud one possession later to stretch the lead to 19-14.

That set the stage for the game’s final stretch.

WKU must bounce back from the tough loss in a hurry, as the Toppers travel to Murfreesboro, Tenn., next week for a Thursday night showdown with rival Middle Tennessee.

Taggart has spoke in the past of a “24-hour rule,” calling for his players to move on from a loss within 24 hours.

He said Saturday that the short week would require his team to move on even sooner.

“We’re going to hurt for 16 hours,” Taggart said. “We’re not going to go for 24 tonight.”