Tampa Bay Sports Day

BOWLS: Arkansas State Defeats UCF in Cure Bowl, 31-13

ORLANDO- Arkansas State wide receiver Kendall Sanders stayed in his quarterback’s ear through the final games this season.

When the Red Wolves took the field in the second half of the AutoNation Cure Bowl, Sanders and his quarterback discussed how they would attack the Central Florida Knights’ defense. The team needed a big play to start things off and put a big dent in a stout defense.

The Red Wolves helped do that with several big defensive plays and a big touchdown throw in a 31-13 win over the Knights at Camping World Stadium on Saturday.  After failing to complete a long pass on the first play of the second half, quarterback Justice Hansen turned right back to the air, this time to the talented Sanders.

Hansen delivered a perfect pass to Sanders, who made a defensive back miss. From there it was all green as Sanders scored on a 75-yard touchdown in the first minute of the second half, regaining a two-score lead and helping Arkansas State glide easily to a victory.

“It was a big play for us,” Hansen said. “Obviously big plays lead to momentum. Really, just busting out some big plays kind of gets the energy going for the offense. And also, it helps the defense out a little bit to catch their breath.”

Sanders took home MVP honors with five catches for a career-high 127 yards and three touchdowns. Hansen completed 12 for 26 passes for 205 yards.

That big play gave Arkansas State’s stout defense plenty of support to hold down UCF’s struggling offense.

The Red Wolves recorded six sacks and, along with special teams, forced three turnovers. The Knights had 223 yards of total offense, just 11 fewer than the Red Wolves, but could not consistently move the ball into scoring position.

Arkansas State put UCF deep in its own territory and came away with several big special teams plays. The Red Wolves’ first score came on a blocked punt recovered in the end zone by B.J. Edmonds. UCF also fumbled twice on kickoff and punt returns, setting Arkansas State up with good field position each time, and eventually a score.

“When either team’s defense was on the field, it was the superior unit on the field,” UCF coach Scott Frost said. “When it’s a game like that, we knew we had to hit shots and make some plays. We didn’t know if we were going to be able to sustain drives against their defense. … They got the big plays. They earned them, we didn’t. We made the mistakes that got us beat.”

Mckenzie Milton led the Knights with 175 yards on 22-for-39 passing. But the offense could not get itself going. Senior wide receiver Taylor Oldham caught five passes for 56 yards, including his first career touchdown.

The Knights mounted a small rally thanks to a fumble recovery of their own, cutting a 17-0 first-quarter deficit down to seven at halftime. The UCF defense held Arkansas State to 12 yards in the second quarter. But the Knights could not sustain that momentum as the Red Wolves defense made big plays after that initial touchdown.

Arkansas State’s defense played with an edge, spurred perhaps by some perceived slights during the bowl week and before the game. Red Wolves players said they were upset UCF did not send its entire team to a charity event and other activities during the bowl week. They said UCF captains did not shake their hands before the game.

Whether that was intentional or not, it gave Arkansas State added motivation. As did the team’s struggles earlier in the season in non-conference play. And they performed, stifling UCF completely defensively.

“They’ve been that way all year,” coach Blake Anderson said. “Every game we’ve won and been close in along the way, we’ve leaned on the defense.”
The defense did its job the entire game. And delivered Arkansas State a satisfying win, giving a player like Sanders one last victory.

BOWL NOTES: The AutoNation Cure Bowl announced a $1.15 million donation to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation during the game, matching the record charitable donation made during last year’s game.  The Cure Bowl set an attendance record with 27,213, up from 18,536 during the inaugural game in 2015. The game marked UCF’s first game at hometown Camping World Stadium, formerly the Citrus Bowl, in 10 years. The Knights left the Citrus Bowl for an on-campus stadium in 2007