JONESBORO — Butch Jones didn't like the way Arkansas State started Saturday night's game, but he had no issues with how the Red Wolves finished on Homecoming.
After seeing fourth-quarter leads vanish the previous two weeks, ASU made the plays needed to put away Louisiana-Monroe in a 45-28 victory at Centennial Bank Stadium. A 12-play, 67-yard touchdown drive, a fourth-quarter march that lasted nearly seven minutes, sealed the victory.
After a start senior quarterback James Blackman described as "drowsy," ASU (2-3, 1-1 Sun Belt) led for all but a few minutes of its 13th consecutive victory over ULM (2-3, 1-1 Sun Belt). A touchdown in the final minute of the first half pushed the Red Wolves' lead into double digits to stay.
"I thought we had some grit at the end. We played together," said Jones, ASU's second-year head coach. "To be the team that we want to be, we have to start fast and the opponents that we play in this conference, they're all good. Monroe is a good football team, and you are responsible for your own self-determination every single time you go in a competitive arena.
"I think we learned a great lesson from that, but also you can never take winning for granted. Half of college football will lose (Saturday). What we've been through the last three weeks, being so close, it was great to see the joy, see the response in the locker room."
Senior running back Johnnie Lang was one of the stars as the Red Wolves snapped a three-game losing streak.
Lang became the third player in Sun Belt history to score a rushing touchdown, a receiving touchdown and a kickoff return touchdown in the same game, and the first since T.Y. Hilton in 2010. He concluded the night with 254 all-purpose yards, improving on the 170.5 average that had him third nationally entering Saturday's game.
"I just give credit to my O-line for the screen pass, and it's just being an athlete after that. With the kick return, what you don't see is the other 10 guys who are working their butts off in order to make that happen and give me creases to hit," Lang said. "I really appreciate those guys and Coach (special teams coordinator Jake Schoonover) making the right call. We saved that call for halftime. I wanted to go with it early in the game and he said no, let's do it at halftime. That was a great call by him and for the rushing touchdown, I just thank my O-line."
Blackman was 25-of-32 passing for 254 yards and two touchdowns, orchestrating a turnover-free offense that kept the football more than 35 minutes. ASU was 9-for-17 on third down, 2-for-2 on fourth down, and scored a touchdown on all five possessions inside the ULM 20-yard line.
With Blackman and his receivers connecting on short and intermediate throws, the Red Wolves drove 65, 85, 53, 78 and 67 yards for touchdowns even though they averaged just 2.3 yards per rushing attempt.
"This is my sixth year in college and a lot of people know that James Blackman wants to go deep," Blackman said. "I feel like a lot of teams have been playing top down, making us take the long drives, making us execute because in college football, when you have to drive the length of the field with 12, 13-play drives, there's going to be somebody make a mistake and you might get a turnover. That's what they were itching for, but tonight I feel like we were 11-for-11. We were executing and we got the job done."
Brian Snead led the Red Wolves in rushing with 74 yards and two touchdowns. Returning from an injury that kept him out of the previous game at Old Dominion, Te'Vailance Hunt had six receptions for 60 yards and a touchdown.
Defensively, the Red Wolves held the Warhawks to 290 total yards. Special teams also made a difference with Lang's 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and a fumble recovery on a punt that led to a field goal.
"I didn't like the way we started the game. I thought we were flat, I thought we lacked some intensity. I thought we lacked some energy," Jones said. "As we talk about, this is a football team learning how to win. It's another nuance in learning how to win, but I thought what you saw was a team start to create its own momentum.
"We talked about playing complementary football in all three phases ... and we were able to do that. Once we got the momentum going, we were able to capitalize."
While ASU converted just over half of its third downs, ULM was only 3-for-12.
ULM quarterback Chandler Rogers was 12-of-20 passing for 138 yards and two touchdowns, also adding 57 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries. Malik Jackson led the Warhawks on the ground with 89 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries.
ASU's first drive flickered out after crossing midfield, but the Red Wolves scored on their next possession as Blackman threw to Hunt on a 5-yard touchdown pass. The 7-0 lead lasted little more than a minute as Rogers found Alred Luke running free on a 58-yard touchdown pass with 5:02 left in the first quarter.
A fumbled punt led to Dominic Zvada's 46-yard field goal and a 10-7 ASU lead with 2:12 left in the first quarter. The Warhawks put together a 69-yard touchdown drive after an exchange of punts, taking a 14-10 lead on Rogers' 5-yard pass to Zach Rasmussen in the second quarter.
ASU scored on its last two drives of the first half to lead 24-14 at halftime. Snead scored on a 13-yard run to cap an 85-yard drive and, after a ULM punt, Lang took Blackman's pass 18 yards to the end zone only 43 seconds before intermission.
"I thought that touchdown right before halftime was monumental," Jones said. "Everyone remembers the plays in the fourth quarter, but there's a lot of plays that dictate the outcome in the first and second quarter that nobody thinks about. I thought scoring right before half was big for us, and our players were excited."
ASU's momentum continued into the third quarter as the Red Wolves stopped the Warhawks cold on their first possession, then drove 78 yards for a 31-14 lead. Lang pushed his way into the end zone on a 1-yard run with 8:32 left in the quarter.
After Jackson scored on a 1-yard run for ULM, completing a drive of more than five minutes, Lang took the momentum back for the Red Wolves with his 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown with 2:48 left in the period.
"Every time he goes back or every time he touches the ball, everyone on our sideline expects something great to happen," Jones said.
Up 38-21, the Red Wolves still had more work to do. The Warhawks cut their deficit to 10 points with 11:22 left in the game on Rogers' 22-yard touchdown run.
ASU kept the football six minutes, 54 seconds on its ensuing possession before Snead scored on a 10-yard run with 4:28 left in the game. Blackman passed to Hunt for 9 yards on third-and-5 from the ASU 38, then connected with Seydou Traore for 13 yards from the ULM 29 on fourth-and-4.
Rather than have Zvada attempt a field goal of about 46 yards, Jones wanted to keep the ball away from ULM on fourth down.
"We liked our matchup, we liked the play we had, and I think it's another opportunity to learn how to close games out," Jones said. "It would have been a challenging field goal. Could he have made it? Absolutely, but it was just kind of a gut feel that we needed to possess the ball. We liked the play that we had and hats off to our players. We were able to execute it.
Snead scored four plays later and ASU's defense stopped ULM on downs with 2:02 left in the game.
ASU hosts Sun Belt newcomer James Madison (4-0, 2-0 conference) next Saturday at 6 p.m. The Dukes drubbed Texas State 40-13 on Saturday.