When a team starts off the season there are usually a lot of questions that are unanswered until the ball is snapped on the field and season play starts.
That's how it was Saturday as Coach Hugh Freeze took his Arkansas State Red Wolves on the field to fight the Illinois Fighting Illini. A big question that was left to be answered was which running back out of the four will stick out and get more snaps this season.
Senior running back Derek Lawson didn't get the first handoff of that game as many expected he would. It was actually Sirgregory Thornton who received the first snap but was quickly wrapped up in the backfield for a four yard loss. Thornton didn't get much more handoffs after that one if any. It the second quarter before the Red Wolves could establish somewhat of a healthy run game as Senior Jermaine Robertson rushed up the middle for five yards and immediately after than had another rush for 8 yards.
After a Ryan Aplin incomplete pass Robertson had another rush for two yards. Those runs set up a Bobby Zalud field goal attempt that was made. As the Red Wolves went into the half though the Red Wolves could only squander up 16 rushing yards off of 17 attempts.
When the Red Wolves took the field for the second half they looked to establish a better running game as they handed it off to Lawson during their first drive on the field which yielded only two carries for a gain of 3 yards and then a gain of two. Success in the third quarter didn't come until after a long touchdown drive by the Illini. After a three yard rush by Aplin, Redshirt Freshman Frankie Jackson got the handoff and took it for a nine yard rush. After Aplin completed a 17 yard pass the Junior Josh Jarboe, Jackson took the ball again resulting in an eight yard run.
Jackson had another carry in the drive for three yards, but the drive was ended shortly after a crazy fumble by Aplin.
The fourth quarter was pretty dry when it came to the running game, but Jackson did manage to score a one yard touchdown run after Aplin completed a number of passes to put them in the red zone.
As time expired on the clock the Red Wolves were looking at a total of 32 rushes for 60 yards with Jackson being the front runner with 39 total yards on the ground and also a touchdown. Coach Freeze realized the lack of running game and commented on that after the game.
"Well we are young up front, and [Illinois] is pretty dang good and physical. They were stacking the box a little bit and allowing us to get throws outside, and we are going to keep taking those if we have them. I did think there were some glimpses in the second half. Frankie Jackson definitely showed some bursts, but I really wish we were able to effectively run the ball a little earlier. I know Jermaine Robertson had a few good runs but we didn't come in thinking that was going to be the bread and butter for this game," Freeze said. "I really thought they were strong and physical up front and I wasn't sure with our young offensive line that that was going to be the ticket. We did think we could play action them and we had our chances earlier, but hopefully we can improve on that."
Hopefully coming off this loss to a tough team the Red Wolves can find their running game as they take on Memphis at home September 10th. Like Coach Freeze said Illinois had a strong defensive line, but there is hope that has came from this game.
If Jackson and Robertson continue to make strong athletic plays like they did in Illinois then the running game will only get better as the season goes on. Also having four running backs provides the Red Wolves a chance to attack defenses in different ways as each running back brings their own style to the line of scrimmage.