The Red Wolves pushed the injury-riddled Cardinals to the brink Saturday, but where there was a Will there was a way for UofL.
The Cards treated the 21,497 fans (less than 10,000 of whom were around for the final horn) at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium to their third win in four home games Saturday - a 21-13 victory over their Sun Belt Conference foe in walk-on Will Stein's first start at quarterback.
"I'm swear, I don't get nervous. I mean I get butterflies in warm-ups, but I don't get nervous when it comes to football I've been playing it since kindergarten," Stein, a 5-foot-10 redshirt freshman, said.
Stein, a last-minute replacement for starter Adam Froman, completed 20 of 39 passes for 232 yards with an interception for the Cards (3-5, 0-3 in the Big East Conference).
"Froman was a game-time decision, but I practiced all week with the (first team) and the coaches told me to be ready if he couldn‘t go," Stein said.
Despite those absences the Cards still had over 400 yards of total offense. UofL rolled up 408 yards against Arkansas State (2-5, 1-2 in the Sun Belt), which came into the game leading the Sun Belt in total defense, rushing defense and scoring defense. The Red Wolves' streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher continued, but Bilal Powell and Darius Ashley combined for 170 yards on the ground (Powell 93, Ashley 77) and two touchdowns, both by Ashley.
"I'm proud of Will and the way he played," UofL coach Steve Kragthorpe said. "I thought he did a good job for us...he managed the game well.
"My expectations for Will at the beginning of the season were if he'd get this opportunity he'd go out and do what he did...I had total confidence in him and I think the team had total confidence in him."
Stein, the Trinity High School product, got the nod at quarterback after injuries to Adam Froman and Justin Burke. Stein tried to make a splash with his first pass, a long one down the right sideline intended for Doug Beaumont, who couldn't come up with the catch.
The new QB looked good on his first drive, but penalties and a big drop by Darius Ashley ended the Cards‘ scoring opportunity.
Ashley made up for it on UofL's second possession, scampering around the left end for a 26-yard TD run with 5:34 to play in the first quarter to complete an eight-play, 65-yard drive.
Arkansas State answered, though, with a 12-play, 63-yard scoring drive that Josh Arauco finished off with a 24-yard field goal to make it 7-3 49 seconds into the second quarter.
UofL's offense came up empty on its third possession of the game, but the Cards' defense came up big on the Red Wolves' third. On second-and-6 from UofL‘s 24 junior linebacker Brandon Heath picked off Corey Leonard's pass and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown 5:57 before halftime to make it 14-3.
The Cards tried to add to their lead just before intermission, but couldn't. UofL went for it on fourth-and-goal from the ASU 2, but Stein's pass intended for Trent Guy fell short.
However the Cards bounced back on their first possession of the second half, going 64 yards in 10 plays and taking a 21-3 lead on Ashley's 1-yard TD run with 8:23 remaining in the third quarter. Stein was 3-for-4 on the drive, including a pair of big connections (23 and 24 yards) with Guy. The senior wide receiver finished with four catches for 61 yards.
UofL seemed to be in control. But the Red Wolves weren't ready to give up. They pulled within 21-10 on Leonard's 4-yard TD toss to Brandon Thompkins with a 4-yard TD pass late in the third quarter, then made it 21-13 on Arauco's 21-yard field goal with 7:47 to play. They had a chance to tie to potentially tie the game (with a TD and two-point conversion) in the final seconds, but on fourth-and-goal from the UofL 14 Leonard scrambled and threw to Trevor Gillott in the back of the end zone before cornerback Chaz Thompson broke up the pass to keep UofL's bowl hopes alive.
"I don't see why we can't go 5-0 the rest of the way," Thompson said.
The Cards return to Big East action next Saturday when they travel to West Virginia. The 20th-ranked Mountaineers, who were upset by South Florida 30-19 Friday, will kick off against UofL at noon.