The main challenge for Arkansas State this opening weekend of college football will be forgetting anything that has been said or happened in the past.
The Red Wolves, coming off a 4-8 season, travel to play Illinois on Saturday in Champaign under the new regime of first-year head coach Hugh Freeze, who will try to help Arkansas State break a seven-game non-conference losing streak on the road. The task won't be an easy one though, considering the Red Wolves are 0-5 all-time against Big Ten opponents and 1-6 on the road overall last season.
Since moving to Division 1-A in 1992, the Red Wolves have started 14 of 19 seasons against an opponent from the SEC, ACC, Big Ten or Big 12. The only victory in those 14 games came in 2008, when Arkansas State knocked off Texas A&M 18-14 under then-head coach Steve Roberts. The Red Wolves fell by just eight points (21-13) against Texas in 2007, seven points (38-31, two OT) to North Carolina State in 2000 and three points (17-14) versus Minnesota in 2008.
"I haven't thought about the past at all, just what we want to become this year," Freeze said of ASU's past woes on the road and against BCS opponents. "Certainly ASU is known for going into some places like this and playing very tough. That speaks a lot of our former staff and players here, and hopefully we can continue that."
Freeze, who was hired as Arkansas States 27th head coach on Dec. 2, 2010, most recently served as ASU's offensive coordinator last season, guiding the Red Wolves to a record-breaking year in 2010 in which the offense posted at least 300 yards of total offense in all 12 games, the longest streak in school history after having only six such games before his arrival.
The Red Wolves' offense returns all of its statistical leaders from last year's team that ranked second in the Sun Belt Conference, while the defense returns seven starters to take part in the new scheme being installed by new coordinator Dave Wommack, the former Arkansas and Georgia Tech coordinator.
Freeze added he is not at all worried about making his Arkansas State or Division 1-A coaching debut on the road against a major opponent, saying it all comes down to how the team prepares itself the week in advance mentally and physically.
"We will get in the hotel then we have a specific plan on how we will go through Friday and Saturday. It's a mindset of how we talk to ourselves, really," Freeze said. "It's a special time for us to be together on the road where I'm sure we will have a group of our fans come and be very excited. We will certainly be out numbered there. I don't like to use the us-against-the-world mentality on the road. I just want us to understand there is an opportunity for greatness. We don't talk about the past negatives on the road."
Hugh Freeze will have the opportunity to accomplish something that hasn't been done by an ASU coach since 1979 when the Red Wolves play Illinois, and that's to win his first game. Larry Lacewell was ASU's last coach to win his debut game, leading Arkansas State to a 24-14 victory over East Texas State 32 years ago. ASU's previous five coaches all suffered setbacks in their first game.
C Tom Castilaw is on the 2011 Rimington Award Watch List issued annually to the nation's top center, while senior LB DeMario Davis is the fifth player in school history to be named to the Lombardi Award Watch List. Senior WR Dwayne Frampton is the first player in school history to ever be named to the Biletnikoff Award Watch List for the nation's top receiver.
Saturday's game will be the third meeting ever between Arkansas State and Illinois. The Red Wolves and Fighting Illini last met during the 2002 season, with Illinois winning 59-7. ASU and Illinois also met in the 1999 season opener, with Illinois taking the game 41-3. Both games were played in Champaign at Memorial Stadium.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE
The Red Wolves return their leading passer in junior QB Ryan Aplin, top five rushers and three of their four most productive receivers from last year's team that finished second in the Sun Belt Conference in total offense and broke nine school records. ASU also returns starting TE Kedric Murry. All of the positives don't come without a negative though, and that is only one returning starting offensive lineman from last year in Castilaw. Look for the Red Wolves to rotate 4-5 running backs in this game, as coaches are still trying to sort out returning senior starter Derek Lawson, sophomore Sirgregory Thornton, senior Jermaine Robertson and freshmen Frankie Jackson and Rod Smith.
"We have depth at tailback and people say we have depth at receiver, but I want to get deeper at receiver," Freeze said. "I don't think we are as deep as I would like to be in the future there, but it is certainly comfortable going into a game that I know that we have several people on our offense that have played in types of atmospheres like this and there won't be any fear of it."
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE
ASU returns seven starters on defense, including four of its top six tacklers, seven players that accounted for 17.5 of its 27 sacks and five more that recorded eight of its 11 interceptions. Not included in that group is CB Darron Edwards, who led ASU last season with 10 pass breakups. Senior S Kelcie McCray is the team's leading returning tackler with 79. Brandon Joiner anchors the defensive line after recording four sacks last year to go along with fellow senior Dorvus Woods' three.
QUOTE TO NOTE
"It's been a three-week grind for our coaches and players. As with every team that's in this sport, you get to a point where you are tired of hitting each other, and it's time to move on and see how we stack up against our opponents. I'm very excited about this being our first game week." -- Arkansas State head coach Hugh Freeze.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL THIS WEEKS GAME
Arkansas State at Illinois, Sept. 3 -- Through two games in this series, Arkansas State has been outscored by Illinois 100-10 but the Red Wolves look to be more competitive this time around under Freeze.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Arkansas State must find a way to protect QB Ryan Aplin, as the Red Wolves will be breaking in four new starters on the offensive line on the road in Big Ten country. The line must give Aplin enough time to complete enough passes to his receiving corps of talented ball catchers, including former Oklahoma signee Josh Jarboe. Last season, Aplin completed 61 percent of his throws.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
QB Ryan Aplin -- Aplin is coming off a year in which he threw for 2,939 yards, 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He completed 252 of 410 passes while also coming in second on the team in rushing with 477 yards net, though he did lead with 685 yards gained to go with a team-high 11 touchdowns. He also completed 33 passes last season at another Big Ten opponent, Indiana.
WR Dwayne Frampton -- Frampton looks to have a strong senior season after he finished his first season at ASU out of junior college with 69 receptions and 738 yards, the second- and seventh-most in school history. He caught 12 balls at Indiana last season.
LB Demario Davis -- Davis, a key member of the ASU defense the last two seasons, posted 63 tackles last season to place fifth on the team after leading the Red Wolves the season before. Davis also registered a sack last season to go with two interceptions, a fumble recovery and two forced fumbles. He returned an interception for a touchdown at Iowa two years ago.
QB Phillip Butterfield is lost for the season after suffering a torn ACL, the same injury he suffered in the fall of his freshman year in 2009. The redshirt sophomore completed 13 of 26 passes in 2010 for 114 yards and a touchdown while also rushing for 157 yards and a touchdown on 27 attempts in certain packages. He was expected to see an increased role this season. Junior Andre Smith is listed as the backup quarterback against Illinois. In his four years at Arkansas State, Smith has played quarterback, receiver and most recently tight end last season.