Arkansas State did everything within its power to lose its game against Georgia Southern Wednesday night in Jonesboro, Ark.
In the end, the Red Wolves walked away with their first victory of the season.
Georgia Southern won the turnover battle 5-0 and led all through the night, only to surrender a nine-point lead in the final 6:32 as the Eagles lost a 27-26 heartbreaker.
Trailing 26-17 midway through the fourth quarter, the Red Wolves (1-4, 1-0 Sun Belt) pieced together a drive that was capped by a 35-yard J.D. Houston field goal to draw within 26-20. Georgia Southern (3-2, 2-1) had two more possessions in which to run out the clock, but instead lost six yards in as many plays to give Arkansas State life.
Down to its final chance of the night, Arkansas State finally made the Eagles pay.
The Eagles forced a 4th-and-16 for ASU, only to watch Red Wolves quarterback Justice Hansen scramble for 17 yards and new life. Hansen then connected with Kendall Sanders for 29 yards to the GS 8-yard line before finding Omar Bayless for the winning touchdown with nine seconds to play.
Georgia Southern was afforded one play to respond, but Kevin Ellison was sacked before he was able to unleash a desperation pass.
After weeks of mulling over too many turnovers and big plays allowed, the Eagles dominated those categories against Arkansas State. The problem was that Georgia Southern netted just nine points on four trips to the ASU red zone.
Even worse, when all the Eagles needed was to move the chains a few times in the final minutes to secure a win, the two-time defending national rushing leaders totalled a loss of nine yards on the ground in the fourth quarter.
For most of the night, such a frustrating end didn’t seem to be a concern.
The Eagles recovered fumbles on each of the Red Wolves’ first two drives, but couldn’t manage any points for their trouble.
Georgia Southern finally got a big play from its running game which, while effective throughout the season, has lacked its usual explosiveness.
Midway through the first quarter, the Eagle defense forced a punt and took over possession on its own 39. On the first play of the ensuing drive, L.A. Ramsby slipped through the middle of the line untouched and outran the Red Wolves defense for a 61-yard touchdown romp.
Houston notched three points for Arkansas State with a 19-yard field goal before Younghoe Koo answered for the Eagles, connecting from 32 yards out.
Arkansas State drew even on a 6-yard strike from Hansen to Justin McInnis, but Koo struck again at the end of the second quarter, splitting the uprights from 53 yards out to send Georgia Southern into halftime with a 13-10 advantage.
Koo hit again from 24 yards in the third quarter before Georgia Southern produced another huge play to take its first two-score lead of the night.
After a short drop back, Ellison fired through traffic and found Myles Campbell on the right sideline. Campbell spun to create separation before juking his way around one defender. He stepped through another potential tackle and picked up a pair of blockers as he raced to the end zone for a 63-yard strike to give the Eagles a 23-10 advantage.
Backed up against a wall, the winless Red Wolves found their second wind.
On the ensuing Arkansas State drive, the Red Wolves neared midfield before Warren Wand broke loose. Wand found room to run off the left side of the line and turned upfield. Ironhead Gallon tracked him down, but he wasn’t able to hold on as Wand continued on for a 55-yard run to get ASU right back in the game.
The Red Wolves turned the ball over on their next two possessions - and turned the ball over on downs with 3:06 to play - but the Eagle offense couldn’t do enough to seal the win.
The Arkansas State defensive front seven spent the majority of its night disrupting running plays, limiting the Eagles to just 162 yards on the ground over 45 attempts. Ellison threw for 203 yards, but attempted just one pass - which was incomplete - in the final three drives.
The Eagles are now riding a two-game losing streak, dating back to their loss at Western Michigan on Sept. 24. Georgia Southern also drops to 2-1 in Sun Belt competition.
Georgia Southern now faces another long layover before travelling to Georgia Tech on Oct. 15.