Illinois opener plays role in 2011 success

There are several defining moments in this past football season for Arkansas State University. We are AStateNation.com will take you the fans behind the scenes for some key moments that truly changed the 2011 season for the better for the Red Wolves. This season has definitely been one to remember. Join us as we look at some of the reasons why.

There is no doubt that this 2011 football season has been one to remember for all Arkansas State Football Fans.

AStateNation.com will take a look back at several key highlights of this season, including what our thoughts are on some key turning points of the season. Sit back and relax and enjoy our take on some of the key highlights and key moments of this past season.

Arkansas State opened the 2011 season on the road at Big 10 opponent Illinois. It was a game that the Red Wolves would have loved to play at the end of the regular season instead of the beginning.

Many feel, including this writer that if the game had been played in November instead of September that results would have definitely been different.

I look back at this game and feel it had a lot to do with the overall success that the Red Wolves accomplished this season.

Many may think I'm a little crazy when you first read this, but bare with me for a moment and let me explain myself.

First year head coach Hugh Freeze was not satisfied with playing Illinois within 18 points, the Red Wolves lost a 33-15 decision to the Illini.

Freeze was visibly disappointed when he spoke to the media following the game. While not many expected Arkansas State to win it's opener against Illinois, no one really knew what to expect from this team or first year head coach.

Freeze told this writer that one of the main things that disturbed him the most about the Illinois game was the fact that he didn't see players hurting after the loss. No one seemed to mind that they had just lost a ballgame. Not saying they expected to lose, but it didn't seem to bother them very much.

A lot of fans may not be fully aware of how Freeze responded to his team the following week.

"I took a calculated risk," Freeze admitted to AStateNation. "The next week my team and players saw a different side of me. They probably didn't know what to think at first. I wasn't very nice to them. I told them I expected more out of them and that they had to expect more out of themselves. I challenged each one of them the following week. I told them that they were better than what they showed against Illinois and if they lose a game it better be because they had given everything they possibly could give, if they did that, I wouldn't be disappointed in them like I was after the Illinois loss."

The next week Freeze wasn't his friendly charismatic self around his players. He admitted later that he was tougher on his team than he ever thought was possible from himself.

"I guess I could have lost them," Freeze said. "It could have ended up working differently, but I thought this team could be special. They didn't disappoint me.I knew they had more to give this team and coaching staff."

They responded by drilling rival Memphis 47-5 in a game that could have been 70-5 if Freeze hadn't decided on taking out the starters early in the third quarter.

"They showed that they were capable of good things," Freeze said. "At first I wasn't sure if we were just that good or Memphis was just that bad. It was really hard to tell."

It appears he was right on both accounts.

The next week after the Memphis win, the Red Wolves went back on the road against a nationally ranked Virginia Tech team. This my friends is probably where this Arkansas State team made the biggest change in its early season.

The 11-2 Hokies used a couple of first half mistakes by Arkansas State to answer the Red Wolves who took an early 7-0 lead against the home team. After a couple of mistakes and turnover Virginia Tech led 23-7 at the half.

"I really challenged them at the half," Freeze remembered. "I told them that hadn't played their best half of football yet."

That they hadn't.

Arkansas State responded in the second half, holding Tech to just three points, more importantly the Red Wolves defensive unit held David Lewis the nation's number 1 running back in the country to less than a 100 yard and less than five yards per carry. That would be the only time that would happen the rest of the season.

"I realized after the game that this season was going to be a special one," Freeze said. "They played a great second half against one of the best teams in the country. When I walked into the locker room after the game, the room was full of sad faces and broken hearts. There were several players in tears, they were hurting. I knew then that they had bought in, I told them it was good to hurt when you lose. It makes you work that much harder not to lose again."

That's exactly what happened next, the Red Wolves didn't lose again in 2011. They went undefeated in Sun Belt action and has a chance to win 11 games, a feat that no Sun Belt team has ever accomplished.

That my friends was the first turning point for this 2011 Arkansas State Football team.

Stay tuned to AStateNation.com as we continue to look at some key moments that helped lead this team to a 10-2 season.

Arkansas State will take on Northern Illinois in the Go Daddy.Com Bowl January 8th in Mobile, Alabama.

AStateNation.com will be there the entire week beginning January 4th when the ASU team arrives to bring you the very best Bowl Coverage you will be able to find anywhere.