Football: Blue Raiders defeat Arkansas State 35-30 to claim Camellia Bowl title

Redshirt junior Brent Stockstill throws a pass downfield with pressure in his face against Arkansas State on Dec. 16, 2017, in Montgomery, Ala. (Andrew Brown / MTSU Sidelines)

Photo by Andrew Brown / MTSU Sidelines 

The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (7-6, 4-4) defeated the Arkansas State Red Wolves (7-5, 6-2) by a score of 35-30 in the fourth annual Raycom Media Camellia Bowl.

MTSU snapped a four-game bowl losing streak and picked up its second bowl win in the Football Bowl Subdivision era.

After intercepting Middle Tennessee quarterback Brent Stockstill on the game’s opening possession, Arkansas State opened up the scoring on a Sawyer Williams 20-yard field goal for an early 3-0 lead.

Middle Tennessee’s next drive appeared to stall, but they allowed to keep possession of the ball after a roughing the punter call. Running back Terelle West galloped into the end zone on the following play to make the score 7-3.

West’s 45-yard run was both the longest of his career and the longest in the history of the Camellia Bowl.

The Red Wolves defense picked off Stockstill twice in the first quarter, the second of which occurred on an odd back-and-forth play, in which Middle Tennessee receiver Shane Tucker was stripped by Arkansas State defensive back Justin Clifton. This gave ASU the ball at their own 1-yard line.

Middle Tennessee’s defense preserved a 7-3 lead heading to the second frame and allowed just 48 yards in the first quarter.

Both defenses stood strong in the second quarter with MTSU’s defense creating offense when it needed it most.

With just over six minutes until halftime, linebacker Darius Harris stripped Arkansas State quarterback Justice Hansen of the ball. Fellow linebacker D.J. Sanders scooped it up and ran it back 54 yards to give MTSU a 14-3 advantage.

The Red Wolves quarterback responded by bullying his way across the goal line from a yard out just before halftime to make it 14-10 in favor of the Raiders.

After a pair of face mask penalties that kept a Middle Tennessee drive alive, Stockstill found Ruben Garnett on a 31-yard touchdown toss, the first of Garnett’s career, to give MTSU a 21-10 lead at halftime.

Garnett enjoyed a career-high in catches (four) and receiving yards (57) in the win.

MTSU running back Tavares Thomas found the end zone on MTSU’s first drive of the second half, running it in from two yards out to stretch the lead to 28-10.

On the ensuing Arkansas State possession, Hansen threw his first touchdown pass of the game to Justin McInnis to knife into the lead and make it a 28-17 ballgame.

Arkansas State’s B.J. Edmonds second interception of the day set the Red Wolves up with good field position on their next drive. After getting inside the Middle Tennessee 10-yard line, MTSU defensive back O.J. Johnson recovered a fumble forced by safety Jovante Moffatt to deny a scoring opportunity.

At the beginning of the fourth quarter, Hansen found running back Warren Wand for a 2-yard touchdown to narrow the gap to 28-23.

In the fourth quarter, Stockstill hooked up with Shane Tucker for a 30-yard touchdown catch to expand MTSU’s lead to 12 at 35-23.

The Red Wolves wouldn’t go quietly, as Hansen’s 41-yard touchdown strike to Christian Booker cut the MTSU lead to 35-30 with 5:03 to go.

A pair of sacks by Sanders and Darrius Liggins sealed the deal for MTSU as the clock struck zero.

“It was really fun to watch the way (MTSU) played and competed,” said head coach Rick Stockstill. “We never made excuses all year. As a coach, I’m proud of the toughness this team plays with.”

The younger Stockstill, who holds numerous school passing records, threw for 232 yards and two touchdowns in his first career bowl win.

“(The bowl win) is at the top (of my career accomplishments),” Brent Stockstill said. “Those 20 minutes that we just spent on that field interacting was amazing and that’s the things you’ll never forget.”

Harris’ career-night preserves bowl win

Harris wreaked havoc on the Red Wolves offense, collecting a career-high 12 tackles and a sack. In coverage, Harris also broke up two passes.

In the first half, Harris’ strip-sack was the third forced fumble of his career, and it gave MTSU its first two-possession lead of the night.

For his efforts, the linebacker earned the Bart Starr Most Valuable Player Award.

“I’m honored to be the MVP,” Harris said. “I can’t give enough credit to the team and the hard work and preparation they put in prior to this game. It’s an honor to get this win as a team.”

Sanders, Tucker end careers on a high note

The Blue Raider defense swarmed the high-powered Red Wolves offense all throughout the night, and Sanders led the charge.

In the second quarter, the senior linebacker scored the fourth and final touchdown of his career via the Harris strip sack. The 54-yard “scoop-and-score” was the first fumble returned for a touchdown in Sanders’ career.

“It was an inside blitz for me,” Harris said. “The guard and tackle had a miscommunication, and I never gave up on the play. (Sanders) did a good job of taking away the screen and picking up the fumble for the ‘scoop and score’.”

In the fourth quarter, Sanders stopped Wand at the goal line on a two-point conversion attempt to keep MTSU up by five.

Sanders and the Middle Tennessee defense also came up with a pair of turnovers.

The Georgia native finished the game with 10 tackles and a sack with his touchdown.

Tucker also found the end zone in his final game. His fourth quarter touchdown reception put MTSU back on top by two possessions after Arkansas State scored two unanswered touchdowns.

“(The touchdown pass to Tucker) was awesome,” Brent Stockstill said. “Shane’s given so much to this program. There’s nobody I wanted to score a touchdown tonight more then Shane Tucker.”

The Memphis native caught four passes for 63 yards.

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