ATLANTA — A big defensive play, Kivon Bennett's 80-yard fumble return for a touchdown, gave Arkansas State a chance in the final minutes of Saturday's game.
The Red Wolves never got their hands on the football again, though.
Georgia State took the ensuing kickoff and ran out the remaining four minutes, 22 seconds with 10 running plays. The Panthers picked up three first downs and 32 yards on their last drive to seal a 28-20 victory in Sun Belt Conference football.
ASU (2-9, 1-6 Sun Belt) held Georgia State without a first down on five possessions and forced three turnovers, but the Panthers (6-5, 5-2) generated four touchdown drives and held onto the ball at the end.
"Defensively I think we continue to get better. It was disappointing at the end. We fought, we scratched, we clawed," ASU head coach Butch Jones said. "We were in the football game. Kivon does a great job of scooping and scoring, and now we have an opportunity to generate a three-and-out and have an opportunity to go down and score, try to force overtime, and we weren't able to do that."
Bennett’s score was ASU’s first fumble returned for a score since 2019 and was the third-longest in program history, but it wasn’t the only 80-plus-yard touchdown of the day for the Red Wolves.
Lincoln Pare notched an 83-yard touchdown reception on a screen pass in the second quarter as part of a career day as a pass-catcher. The Germantown, Tenn., native caught all six passes thrown his direction for 118 yards.
Kicker Blake Grupe scored eight points and became the school’s all-time scoring leader with 344 career points. He connected on both of his field goals and a pair of extra points to move past former running back Richie Woit (342 points, 1950-53).
ASU turned the ball over twice on interceptions on Georgia State's end of the field in the third quarter.
"A lot of missed opportunities and really not just the second half, but it started on the first drive. The defense does a great job of taking the football away and you have to play complementary football and you have to turn that turnover into seven points, and we had to kick a field goal," Jones said. "You look at the management of the first half. We have an opportunity to jump-start (at the end of the half), go in and get a touchdown, then get the kickoff to start the second half. We dropped two touchdown passes and then you have to settle for a field goal."
Georgia State outgained ASU 434-270, including 282 yards on the ground behind 125 yards and a pair of scores by Jamyest Williams. Tucker Gregg rushed for 98 yards while quarterback Darren Grainger earned 46 yards. Grainger also passed for 152, completing 10 of 21 passes. Jamari Thrash was the Panthers’ top receiver, hauling in four catches for 103 yards.
The Panthers sacked ASU quarterback Layne Hatcher six times among 15 tackles for loss. ASU finished with minus-3 rushing yards after 62 yards in losses were subtracted.
"When you throw the ball, everything is about rhythm and spacing and timing, but it starts with protecting the quarterback. We didn't have much time to throw at times," Jones said. "Also, on the perimeter, when you have opportunities to make plays, you need to step up and make plays and we weren't able to do that. Way too many dropped passes and a lot of them were game changers."
Grupe put ASU ahead first, drilling a 40-yard field goal early in the opening quarter. GSU then scored 14 unanswered on rushing scores by Williams and Gregg, putting the Panthers ahead 14-3.
Pare’s 83-yard touchdown reception off Hatcher's screen pass made it 14-10 with 9:44 remaining in the half.
"I slipped under the guy, caught it, looked in front of me and didn't really see anybody, so I hit the gas and Jeff Foreman on the left was able to pick up a really big block at the end and that really sprang me for the touchdown," Pare said.
The Red Wolves’ defense kept the Panthers off the board the rest of the half, paving the way for Grupe’s record-breaking kick. The Sedalia, Mo., native drilled the 36-yard field goal to become ASU's all-time leading scorer. Georgia State led 14-13 at the half.
After a scoreless third quarter, the Panthers picked up a pair of quick scores on the ground by Williams and Grainger to make it a two-score lead again.
A-State’s next drive ended on downs, but on a completion from Grainger to Roger Carter, the ball was knocked loose and Bennett returned it the other way for a defensive score to put the Red Wolves down 28-20 with 4:22 remaining.
"I don't even remember who the DB was, but they made a great play and got the ball out. It was perfect," Bennett said. "All I saw was the ball and green grass. I scooped it and just kept running. Nothing was going to get between me and that touchdown."
Also on the defensive side of the ball, sophomore linebacker Melique Straker recorded 14 total tackles (2 for loss), while redshirt freshman Charles Willekes tallied 10 stops, both notching career highs.
ASU returns home for its final game of the season next Saturday, facing Texas State. Kickoff at Centennial Bank Stadium is set for 1 p.m.
"It's a big game for a number of reasons. First of all, it's an opportunity for our seniors, their last opportunity to compete in Centennial Bank Stadium and in front of our great fans. Everyone remembers your last game," Jones said. "It's on the program to send them out winners. The other thing is momentum in moving forward and the third thing is it serves as the final evaluation tool that started last December in our football program and what we need to do to get Arkansas State football back to where it needs to be."