Fredi Knighten and Arkansas State denied Ball State its first ever bowl victory on Sunday night.
The calm before the national championship storm was anything but that, as the sophomore quarterback led a late comeback drive to propel the Red Wolves to a thrilling 23-20 win over the Cardinals in the GoDaddy Bowl.
Filling in for Adam Kennedy, who left the game with an injury in the second quarter, Knighten threw for just 115 yards through the air. But many of those came when it mattered most, as he orchestrated a five-play, 59-yard touchdown drive and threw the game-winning score with just 32 seconds remaining.
It appeared, however, even that wouldn't be enough.
Ball State drove right back down the field, but after a late hit put the Cardinals in position for a 38-yard field goal, the Red Wolves blocked it to secure to amazing, roller-coaster win.
It was the Cardinals who got the scoring started late in the first quarter. Thanks to a heavy dose of Jahwan Edwards on the ground, they went 89 yards over 14 plays and more than six minutes, eventually scoring on a Keith Wenning-to-Willie Snead nine-yard TD connection.
Edwards finished with 146 yards and a score.
After the teams exchanged field goals, Arkansas State tied things up before halftime with a late touchdown drive that was fueled by a little Gus Malzahn-inspired trickeration:
The Red Wolves took the 16-13 lead early in the fourth quarter, but things got crazy in the final 10 minutes.
Wenning threw an interception that seemingly sealed it for Arkansas State, but Knighten responded with a pick of his own—this one in the end zone. Ball State drove 80 yards and an Edwards touchdown looked to give the Cardinals the win with 1:33 remaining.
But then came Knighten's magical touchdown drive, followed by the game-winning blocked field goal, giving Bryan Harsin an 8-5 season and bowl victory in his first campaign filling Malzahn's shoes.
Fredi Knighten, Arkansas State: A-
Taking over for Kennedy, Knighten stepped up in a big way.
Although he didn't do a ton of damage through the air, tallying just 5.8 yards per throw, he managed the game (75 percent completion percentage, just one turnover) and made his impact on the ground. Running Arkansas State's tricky offense, he carried the ball 19 times for 97 yards.
As the A-State Game Day Twitter feed pointed out, it was a career night for the youngster:
Soph. QB Fredi Knighten has recorded a career-high 143 yards of total offense through three quarters. A-State leads Ball State 16-10.— A-State Game Day (@AStateGameDay) January 6, 2014
Throw in the game-winning drive, and it's clear Arkansas State is in very good hands for the future.
Keith Wenning, Ball State: B-
In the windy conditions, Wenning had a tough night throwing the ball. He completed just 23 of 44 throws for 215 yards (4.9 yards per attempt), a touchdown and a late interception.
But as Ball State announcer Pat Boylan noted, he found other ways to make a positive impact:
Wenning's a warrior. Hands off to Edwards, then becomes his Fullback.— Pat Boylan (@PatBoylanBEK) January 6, 2014
Overall, it was hardly the ideal ending for Wenning, who enjoyed such a prolific collegiate career. But he had solid pocket presence and made some nice throws that showed why he has potential as a late-round NFL draft pick.
After a late drive that set the team up for the game-tying field goal, has nothing to be ashamed of.
Qushaun Lee, Arkansas State: A
Playing on a Sunday night, Qushuan Lee looked a little bit like Sean Lee in the middle of Arkansas State's defense.
The junior middle linebacker was all over the place, as he recorded double-digit tackles and then came up with a huge interception late in the game.
It's difficult for one player to make more of an impact on the defensive side of the ball.
Jahwan Edwards, Ball State: A
Where would the Cardinals' offense have been without Edwards? As Wenning struggled to find a rhythm and move the ball with consistency, Edwards was a true threat in the running game.
The junior running back not only showed some impressive elusiveness and cutting ability, but he ran hard, often dragging tacklers for some extra yardage. This run was a good example of that:
In the end, he finished with 146 yards on 28 carries and one crucial fumble recovery late in the game, stealing the show from Ball State's high-powered pass offense.