A-State rally falls short against Tulsa

Arkansas State's Johnnie Lang Jr. reaches the end zone on a 63-yard punt return during the first quarter of Saturday's game at Tulsa.

TULSA, Okla. — Dominance on special teams couldn't make up for Arkansas State's deficiencies in the ground game on both sides of the football Saturday.

ASU yielded 308 yards rushing while producing only 38 in a 41-34 loss to Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane closed with 663 total yards after finishing the game on a 76-yard drive that took the final 6:34 off the clock.

The Red Wolves kept the game close by returning a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns, but big plays proved costly again in their third consecutive loss to close non-conference play.

"I thought we played exceptionally well on special teams. That gave us an opportunity to win," ASU head coach Butch Jones said. "I bet you we were well over 100 yards in hidden yardage, which we speak about, but really if you think about it, football never changes. It's a line of scrimmage game. When you can't stop the run and you can't run the football, it's really hard to win football games."

Tulsa scored 10 points in the final two minutes of the first half to take a 24-14 halftime lead. The Golden Hurricane opened the second half with a 75-yard touchdown drive and led by 17 points on two occasions before the Red Wolves closed the gap.

Davis Brin completed 17 of 25 passes for 355 yards and three scores for Tulsa (1-3). Two of Brin's receivers — Josh Johnson and Sam Crawford Jr. — racked up 127 and 105 yards receiving, respectively.

Tulsa's Shamari Brooks rushed 22 times for 155 yards while Anthony Watkins amassed 115 yards on just seven carries.

Big plays continued to haunt ASU (1-3) as the Golden Hurricane had three one-play touchdown drives, including Brin's 88-yard pass to Crawford and Watkins' 75-yard run.

"I think a lot of it comes down to one-on-one matchups," Jones said. "We had a number of times where we just missed tackles and everything is about your run fit. When you get to an eight-man front, your safety becomes your eighth hitter, and we missed a couple of tackles at the second level. Instead of it being a 15-yard run and you recover from it, it becomes a catastrophic run.

"Make no mistake about it, everybody gets it, everybody knows it, everybody is determined, but it's unacceptable. It's inexcusable to give up 308 yards rushing in a game and it's unacceptable to have 38 yards rushing the football. It's a line of scrimmage game and we'll continue to work it."

ASU's James Blackman passed for 321 yards and a pair of touchdowns while completing 23-of-37 attempts. Corey Rucker hauled in four passes for a team-leading 115 yards. On special teams, Johnnie Lang Jr. scored on a first-quarter punt return while Alan Lamar returned a kickoff for a score in the third.

Saturday marked the first time since Nov. 11, 2000, against North Texas that ASU returned both a punt and kickoff for a score in the same game. It was also only the second time a Sun Belt Conference team accomplished the feat (Louisiana-Lafayette, Sept. 12, 2020, at Iowa State).

"I thought we dominated the special teams game," Jones said. "We work exceptionally hard in special teams."

Defensively, ASU safety Elery Alexander collected a career-best 14 tackles, while Kivon Bennett posted a big day at defensive end with 11 tackles, 2.5 for loss. End Joe Ozougwu made 3.5 tackles for loss and a pair of sacks.

ASU scored first as Lang fielded a punt and returned it 63 yards for a touchdown. Tulsa responded with an 88-yard touchdown pass from Brin to Crawford, but Blackman found Dahu Green for a 39-yard touchdown strike to give the Red Wolves a 14-7 lead after one quarter.

Brooks tied it at 14 with a 25-yard rushing score before Brin connected with Santana on a 34-yard touchdown pass. Zack Long drilled a 41-yard field goal with a second remaining to end the half.

Tulsa extended its lead to 31-14 on the opening drive of the second half on a 17-yard pass from Brin to Crawford. Blackman found Jeff Foreman for a 7-yard strike, but the Golden Hurricane punched back on the next play with a 75-yard rushing touchdown by Watkins to make it 38-21 less than five minutes into the third.

ASU got its second special teams touchdown when Lamar returned the ensuing kickoff 93 yards to cut the deficit to 10 at 38-28. Blake Grupe added a 38-yard field goal to make it a one-score affair late in the third, giving Tulsa a 38-31 lead entering the fourth quarter.

Long connected again on a 45-yard field goal before Grupe drilled a 50-yard field goal to make it a one-score game on what would be ASU's final possession.

ASU concludes its three-game road swing next Saturday, traveling to face Georgia Southern to open Sun Belt Conference play. The Eagles (1-3, 0-1 Sun Belt) opened conference play Saturday with a 28-20 home loss to UL Lafayette.

Jones said the Red Wolves made strides leading up to the Tulsa game after suffering a 52-3 loss at Washington the previous weekend.

"I thought this football team made a monumental change this week," Jones said. "I could see it, I could feel it, in the way we practice, our expectations, even this road trip, the intensity, the pride in preparation. This was a completely different team this week.

"I'm hoping when we start Sun Belt play at Georgia Southern next Saturday, this can lead to some momentum, that we've learned from this challenging non-conference schedule and we're better for it."