Thompson, defense come up big in Mobile

By: Wally Hall
Published: Tuesday, January 8, 2013
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/RICK MCFARLAND --1/6/13-- Arkansas State head coach John Thompson against Kent State during their game at Ladd-Pebbles Stadiumj in Mobile, Ala.
Photo by Rick McFarland
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/RICK MCFARLAND --1/6/13-- Arkansas State head coach John Thompson against Kent State during their game at Ladd-Pebbles Stadiumj in Mobile, Ala.

— As soon as the black jersey with No. 48 came on the screen, it was almost for sure Qushaun Lee was going to stop Spencer Keith.

Lee, who grew up in Prattville, Ala., 180 miles from Mobile, site of the Bowl, had been all over the field the entire game.

It was almost as if John Thompson had centered his multifaceted defense around the sophomore linebacker.

And it was Thompson’s defense that was the difference in the game and allowed the Arkansas State Red Wolves to beat No. 25 Kent State, 17-13, giving ASU its first bowl victory as a BCS member and its first of any kind since the 1970 Pecan Bowl.

It would be easy to call it ASU’s greatest victory, but the Red Wolves have a long history of success under Bennie Ellender and Larry Lacewell.

Whether it was the program’s biggest victory can be debated, but the fact that it was a huge victory cannot.

When the Golden Flashes took a 7-0 lead in the second quarter, driving 67 yards in four plays, it would have been understandable if the wheels had come off for the Red Wolves.

This is a program that appears to have had great success the past two years only to have both head coaches leave before the Bowl.

Hugh Freeze jumped to Ole Miss and Gus Malzahn to Auburn.

Neither seems to have looked back after his farewell.

So it seemed to be in favor of Kent State that its head coach, Darrell Hazell, decided to stay and coach his team in the bowl game despite the fact he had accepted the head coaching job at Purdue the same day Malzahn bolted for Auburn.

Thompson, a 25-year veteran of college coaching, didn’t settle for being interim anything.

Mostly, Thompson has made his mark as a defensive coordinator, but there were two seasons as the head coach at East Carolina. Thompson pulled his team together, fired them up more than settled them down, and the offense put together drives of 60 and 88 yards to take a 14-10 halftime lead.

A 21-yard pass from Ryan Aplin to Darion Griswold, who also plays basketball and has a world of upside as a tight end, put the Red Wolves at the Kent State 19. After a run for a loss, Rocky Hayes and David Oku had runs of 12 and 10 yards on the Golden Flashes who were looking for a pass, with Oku getting the first touchdown.

ASU’s defense held Kent State on the ensuing drive, and the Red Wolves offense showed great restraint and ball control, driving the 88 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. Aplin was 6 of 6 passing for 73 yards, including 14 yards to J.D. McKissic, who was named to the Football Writers Association of America Freshman All-America team Monday. Then, on third-and-4, Aplin found McKissic for a 31-yard touchdown play.

By halftime, it was obvious the game was going to be loved by defensive-minded fans and not so much by those who like lots of visits to the end zone.

That meant the Red Wolves had an edge with Thompson, who stayed out of the offense except to inspire them to perspire more.

Getting 21 tackles, two for losses and an interception by the starting linebackers was the scheme Thompson brought to the field.

He featured his physical linebackers and they responded, especially No. 48 who seemed to be in on every play, but actually only had 13 tackles.

Both teams added a field goal in the third quarter, but the Red Wolves held the Golden Flashes to 151 offensive yards in the final 30 minutes, and came away with a hard earned first victory ever over a ranked team.

It was a great job by Thompson and the staff, and it was a great effort by a bunch of kids who have been though a lot.

The seniors are being lauded for their leadership and they should be. This is a group of players who had three head coaches during their careers and never lost sight of team goals.

When push came to shove, they decided to push and shove, and they earned a place in the ASU football history books.

Sports, Pages 15 on 01/08/2013