MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - It was yet another high-scoring affair in the fourth edition of the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl. Middle Tennessee came out on top with a 35-30 win over Arkansas State, the highest scoring game in Raycom Media Camellia Bowl history.
Arkansas State intercepted Middle Tennessee quarterback Brent Stockstill on the opening drive but the Blue Raiders would only give up a field goal.
Following that field goal, Middle Tennessee answered with a 4-play touchdown drive capped by a Terelle West 45-yard touchdown run.
Both teams were locked in a 7-3 stalemate until just under six minutes were left to play in the half. At that point, Arkansas State was driving into Middle Tennessee territory when Red Wolves quarterback Justice Hansen fumbled and the ball, scooped and scored by D.J. Sanders of Middle Tennessee.
Arkansas State answered back with a touchdown drive to pull within four points, but then Middle Tennessee pushed the lead back to 11 when Stockstill connected with Ruben Garnett for a 31-yard strike. Stockstill finished with 232 yards in the air on 19 completions and two touchdowns.
With the previous three Camellia Bowl games decided by a combined 10 points, the Blue Raiders carried an 21-10 lead into the half.
After the break, Arkansas State punted to open the third quarter, and Middle Tennessee turned an 11-point lead into an 18-point lead. The Red Wolves would answer on both the offensive and defensive end.
Justin McInnis would haul in a Hansen touchdown pass to bring the deficit back down to 11 and the defense followed by intercepting a Middle Tennessee pass in Blue Raider territory.
The Red Wolves would to within five early in the fourth quarter, but a failed two-point conversion would keep it there. With the pressure seemingly on from the Red Wolves defense, Middle Tennessee was unfazed. The Blue Raiders swiftly answered with a 75-yard touchdown drive in just six plays to push the lead back to twelve.
With that score, Middle Tennessee now led 35-23 and held the new record for most points scored in Camellia Bowl history.
Arkansas State pulled back to within five with five minutes remaining when Christian Booker caught a 41-yard pass for a touchdown. From that point on it was up to the defense. Hansen finished with 337 passing yards on 31-of-57 attempts and three touchdowns.
After giving up a few first downs, the Red Wolves finally forced a Middle Tennessee punt but on the punt a flag was thrown and the Blue Raider punter was down. Running into the kicker was called which meant it was still fourth down and the Red Wolves would get another chance to get the ball back before game's end.
The drive began on the Arkansas State two-yard line with 1:15 to play in the game. Hansen and the Red Wolves offense moved the ball past midfield and into Middle Tennessee territory. But with under 30 seconds to play, Hansen was sacked twice by the Blue Raider defense to end the game falling short of an eighth win on the season.
Arkansas State seemed to have the statistical advantage in nearly every major category to end the game (total yards and passing yards) and both teams were even with three turnovers each, but the scoreboard favored Middle Tennessee in the end.
Middle Tennessee head coach Rick Stockstill praised his defense following the game.
"The defense played really well," Stockstill said. "Only thing they completed were a bunch of screens. They called 100 pass interferences on us. It seemed like every time. I thought our guys played really well. They got behind us on that one ball there at the 5-minute mark, but we played really well."
Middle Tennessee linebacker Darius Harris was named the Bart Starr Most Valuable Player, after he recorded 12 tackles, two pass breakups, one tackle for loss, one sack and forced one fumble. He spoke about his forced fumble in the second quarter, which led to a touchdown for Arkansas State.
"It was an inside blitz for me," Harris said. "I kind of shook it out and I guess the guard and the tackle kind of had some miscommunication and he kind of chipped me and he started rolling out. I never gave up on the play and DJ (Sanders) did a good job taking away the screen, because that was his first look and he took it away so he put the ball down, didn't have anywhere to throw. I got the fumble and DJ came back and scoop and score."
Arkansas State head coach Blake Anderson talked about Middle Tennessee's Terelle West's 45-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, the longest rushing touchdown in Camellia Bowl history, which came one play after Arkansas State was called for roughing the punter.
"That can't happen," Anderson said "You want to go for blocks, we blocked one last year and it was a huge block. We have blocked them along the way this year. You want to be aggressive, but you also have to be smart enough to stay off of them. It did create momentum for them, and allowed them to drive and get a touchdown."
Their Camellia Bowl win is Middle Tennessee's first bowl win since 2009.