ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Arkansas State senior wide receiver Kendall Sanders admits that he was pushed by his coaches and even teammates when he didn’t want to be at times this season.
The Texas transfer came around as the Red Wolves’ season progressed in his lone year with the program. Sanders finally put it all together in his final appearance Saturday night, catching five passes for 127 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-13 rout of UCF in the AutoNation Cure Bowl.
It was almost like vindication for Sanders who missed two years of football after leaving the Longhorns under the controversy of a sexual assault case in which he was acquitted last year.
“I just had to continue to fight,” said Sanders, who also took home the Cure Bowl MVP. “I just thank God for giving me another opportunity and I just tried to make the best of it.”
Sanders speed opened up opportunities for big plays all night with quarterback Justice Hansen connecting with Sanders on touchdown passing plays of 12, 75 and 17 yards for a career night. His 75-yard touchdown reception on the third play of the second half set the tone for remainder of the game as the Red Wolves (8-5) went up by a commanding 24-10 just 51 seconds into the third quarter.
Sanders got by the safety, broke a tackle and outran the secondary to the end zone.
“Initially in my route I had to run a 20-yard route but I had just had the conversation with him (Hansen) and he was like just get past the safety,” Sanders said. “So I kind of cut it short and tried to past the safety so he could see me and he hit me right in stride. From there I just used my God-given abilities.”
It was a fitting ending to college career that was about perseverance.
“I really don’t think he started out the season with too much confidence, he was rusty and had to get his feet underneath him,” Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson said. “What you’ve seen him do the last five or six weeks he started playing better and better. That explosive play we had on the very first series of the second half, we desperately needed that to gain the momentum back.”
The Red Wolves also received major contributions from their defense and special teams.
Arkansas State’s defensive front, led by defensive end Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, swarmed UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton all night, giving him little time to find open receivers. But the special teams unit also came through big, contributing two turnovers that led to touchdowns and also blocking a punt for a touchdown.
“When you look at a team that is as good (defensively) as Central Florida is you know special teams has to come up huge,” said Anderson.
For first-year UCF coach Scott Frost the biggest takeaway was learning how much more his team has to grow to take the next step.
“We got to get a lot better,” said Frost, who team finished the year 6-7. “I think our payers gave us absolutely all they had and I think this group got about everything they could out of themselves.”
UCF: Clearly, Frost wasn’t comfortable letting Milton throw the ball down field and that hurt the offense. Jawon Hamilton found little running room with Arkansas State stacking the box and the short passing game to Tre’Quan Smith rarely produced the desired results in a disappointing showing in front of the Knights home crowd.
Arkansas State: While the special teams units made most of the highlight plays, the defense was dominant throughout. Defensive end Ja’Von Rolland-Jones and linebacker Chris Odom kept the pressure on Milton and didn’t give Hamilton any running lanes.
UCF: The Knights could be a contender for the American Athletic Conference title next year but Milton has to take some big steps, especially with his mechanics. Too often he throws off his back foot which leaves passes well short of the receiver. Defensively Frost will have to find a way to replace his entire secondary.
Arkansas State: The Red Wolves lose quite a bit along the offensive line and on defense, but they have enough explosive players to run their string of postseason appearances to seven next season.
More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25