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Kendall Sanders caught three touchdown passes and earned MVP honors to lead the Arkansas State Red Wolves over the UCF Knights 31-13 Saturday in the AutoNation Cure Bowl presented by Florida Hospital. The game, which featured teams from the American Athletic Conference and Sun Belt Conference, was played in front of a crowd of 27,213 at Camping World Stadium.
“I thought that the biggest play of the game momentum wise was the explosive touchdown that we had in the very first series of the second half,” Arkansas State head Blake Anderson.
Sanders caught five passes for 127 yards and set an AutoNation Cure Bowl record with a 75-yard touchdown reception at the start of the third quarter. ASU quarterback Justice Hansen completed 12 of 26 passes for 205 yards, including the three Sanders touchdowns.”
A-State jumped out to a 17-point lead and then outscored the Knights 14-3 in the second half. The Sun-Belt co-champions started the season 0-4 but rallied to finish 8-5, while UCF dropped to 6-7 with its third consecutive loss.
“We were treated with class, respect and it is one of the best trips that I’ve been able to be a part of in my career and we’d love to come back,” Anderson said. “I saw the size of that check that was written and to me that makes it all worth it.”
The AutoNation Cure Bowl is the signature event for the Orlando Sports Foundation (OSF), an organization dedicated to raising funds and awareness for those working to find a cure for cancer. Checks totaling $1.15 million from AutoNation and OSF were presented to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation after the first quarter, bringing the total donations from the AutoNation Cure bowl to $2.3 million in its first two years.
UCF starting quarterback McKenzie Milton completed 22 of 39 passes for 175 yards and one touchdown before being replaced by Justin Holman late in the game.
“I congratulate Arkansas State they made a turn around mid-season and have been a different team since,” UCF head coach Scott Frost. “I’m proud of our team and our guys and what this team has accomplished. I’m proud of them; happy for them. I’m hungry to accomplish more.”
Turnovers and big plays proved to be the difference for A-State. The Red Wolves scored 14 points off three UCF fumbles and scored on a blocked punt in addition to the Sanders 75-yard touchdown.
The defensive battle saw both teams combine for six conversions on 35 third-down attempts. They also struggled on the ground with a total of 41 yards on 68 attempts.
The Red Wolves scored first when Johnston White blocked a Caleb Houston punt at the 2-yard-line and B.J. Edmonds recovered it in the end zone with 10:59 remaining in the opening quarter. A-State extended its lead to 10 points with 4:24 left in the first on a 22-yard Sawyer Williams field goal. That kick was set up by a 67-yard pass from Hansen to Blake Mack, who was pushed out at the 5-yard line.
UCF’s Hayden Jones fumbled the ensuing kickoff and the Red Wolves scored three plays later on a 12-yard pass from Hansen to Sanders at the 2:48 mark. A-State led 17-0 after the first period.
UCF got on the board with 9:31 remaining in the second quarter on an 11-yard pass from McKenzie Milton to Taylor Oldham. It was Oldham’s first career touchdown pass. The Knights trimmed the deficit to 17-10 on a 45-yard field goal from Matthew Wright with 1:04 left in the first half. That score was set up by the Red Wolves’ only turnover. UCF’s Demeitre Brim hit Chris Murray in the backfield and Mark Rucker recovered the fumble at the ASU 30-yard-line.
A-State wasted no time extending its lead to 24-10 in the second half. The Red Wolves took the opening kickoff and scored three plays later when Sanders eluded a tackler in the middle of the field and streaked past the UCF secondary for the longest reception of his career and the bowl-game record.
Wright kicked his second field goal, a 34-yarder, with 4:54 left in the third quarter as UCF cut the lead to 24-13. That’s where the score stood as the teams entered the final period. Hansen threw his third touchdown pass to Sanders to open the quarter. The 17-yard strike at the 14:54 mark of the fourth quarter put the Red Wolves up 31-13 and wound up the game’s final scoring play.
This was the second meeting between the schools. UCF came back from a 14-3 halftime deficit to win 31-20 in Jonesboro, Ark. in 1991.
It was the sixth consecutive bowl appearance for ASU and the third under head coach Blake Anderson. UCF rebounded from a 0-12 season in 2015 to finish 6-6 in the regular season to qualify for a bowl in its first season under head coach Scott Frost.
It was UCF’s first return to the formerly-named Citrus Bowl, where it played for 27 years. UCF has been playing in its on-campus Bright House Networks Stadium since 2007. The Knights previously played from its inaugural season in 1979 until 2006 in the city-owned facility. It was ASU’s third bowl appearance in Orlando. The Red Wolves previously lost to Stetson in the 1952 Tangerine Bowl and tied East Texas State in the 1954 Tangerine Bowl.