An interim coach, fill-in QB, salty seniors

By: Wally Hall
Published: Tuesday, January 7, 2014

In the final analysis of the Arkansas State Red Wolves’ 23-20 victory over Ball State in Sunday’s GoDaddy Bowl, it was a game of heroics, outstanding effort and great preparation.

All of which had to happen because almost everything favored the Cardinals.

ASU was appearing in the GoDaddy Bowl for the third consecutive season, and for the third consecutive time, it was doing so with an interim coach. Once again it was John Thompson, who led ASU to its first bowl victory last season. Starting quarterback Adam Kennedy was coming back from a serious knee injury and Ball State quarterback Keith Wenning had passed for more than 11,000 yards in his career.

The heroics started with Kennedy trying to play, but by the second quarter, it was dedecied he couldn’t play on the knee he dislocated in the regular-season finale against Western Kentucky.

Enter lightly-used sophomore Fredi Knighten of Little Rock’s Pulaski Academy.Knighten showed incredible poise, completing 15 of 20 passes for 115 yards and rushing 19 times for 97 (and J.D. McKissic had 9 receptions), but the real story line came with 1:33 to play after the Cardinals had taken a 20-16 lead.

Maybe Knighten had a flashback to those days back at Pulaski Academy when Coach Kevin Kelley taught him to play fast but think faster.

In 53 seconds, after R.J. Fleming returned the ensuing kickoff 26 yards to the ASU 41, Knighten drove the Red Wolves 59 yards in just five plays.

Knighten, who earned Most Valuable Player honors, ran twice for 9 yards and completed all three of his passes, including the game-winner of13 yards to Allen Muse with 32 seconds to play.

But it was far from over. The Cardinals, aided by a personal-foul call against ASU with three seconds to play, moved to the Red Wolves’21 to set up for a 38-yard game-tying field-goal attempt.

Except fifth-year senior Ryan Carrethers made the play of his life and blocked the kick.

It was not a fluke.

Carrethers, one of many who was recruited by Steve Roberts before he resigned, is an outstanding defensive tackle. He was a first-team All-Sun Belt Conference pick. Carrethers had 16 tackles against co-Sun Belt champion Louisiana-Lafayette.

So, ASU won its second consecutive bowl game, with interim coach Thompson, another hero in the tale of success, leading the way again.

Thompson, in his second season as ASU’s defensive coordinator, took over the head-coaching reins for the bowl for Gus Malzahn last year after Malzahn left for Auburn.

This year, Bryan Harsin became the third Red Wolves head coach to leave after one season when he accepted the Boise State head coaching job.

Thompson was immediately named interim coach, and interviewed for the permanent position, but was quickly told he was not a finalist.

Thompson didn’t sulk or complain. He refused to quit on the players he has come tolove and respect.

Thompson, a native of Forrest City, summoned all of his energy and enthusiasm and prepared ASU’s defense for Ball State’s Wenning with reckless abandon.

Wenning attempted 44 passes, completed 23, but he had the same number of touchdowns as interceptions, one.

Afterward, when bedlam was boss, Thompson said he was blessed, and then turned all the focus on the rest of the heroes, the players.

There were numerous reasons to believe the Red Wolves would have trouble winning a second consecutive bowl game, but Thompson, Knighten, Carrethers and everyone else who took the field for ASU believed in themselves, leaving the Sun Belt (2-0) the only conference to go undefeated in postseason play.

It was a historical and heroic victory for ASU.

Sports, Pages 17 on 01/07/2014