Two weeks into the season and it’s safe to say Red Wolves’ fans have already learned a lot about Blake Anderson’s team. I think a lot has been learned now about the direction he is taking the program and the goals they have set and have already reached along the way.
Last night’s strong performance and the entire atmosphere were a culmination of what Anderson and his staff have been building in their short tenure in Jonesboro. First, he has said since day 1 that he wants Arkansas State to be on the national map. The program has done an excellent job of expanding its brand outside of the local region. Making big facility upgrades and bringing in a big-time SEC team to the Vault made for great television last night nationwide on ESPN3. Second, Anderson, since day one, has also worked tirelessly to generate internal excitement within the Red Wolves’ fan base, not just in Jonesboro, but in the entire state of Arkansas. That has paid dividends as the program crossed the 10K threshold in season ticket sales, a feat that can’t be overstated and was simply remarkable. It showed too as last night’s atmosphere was electric. Finally, all of that other stuff is good but these guys are ball coaches and what happens on the field is what they think about day in and day out, so let’s take a look at what has happened on the field.
Starting out the season on the road in Los Angeles against a strong Top 10-ranked USC team is a tall task for any team. The score wasn’t close, but there were clear signs of improvement and things to build on moving forward. The line play was better, highlighted by picking up 5 sacks, on both sides of the ball. The offense may not have put up the points it expected but it racked up the yards and moved the ball deep into USC territory, particularly in the first half. A few missed tackles for big plays overshadowed the fact that more guys were in position to make plays on defense. The Red Wolves also left L.A. relatively healthy as they started preparing for last night’s game against Missouri.
The first thing that stood out to me last night was that the Red Wolves passed the eye test. They looked like they belonged on the same field as the Tigers. Throw the P5/G5 labels out the window. Recruiting success already showed on the field and the intensity shown from the opening kickoff was a step above anything I remember from last season. That intensity wasn’t a fluke. This team looked the part because they believed they belonged on the same field as Missouri. They believed they could win the game, and they played like it.
From the beginning, they didn’t need any gadget plays(although I love those plays) or smoke-and-mirrors to shock and awe the Tigers. No, they played them straight up and matched the physicality of the SEC East’s defending champs. By half time ASU led the Tigers 17-10, and it wasn’t a fluke. A few things stood out at that point. First and foremost, the Red Wolves’ lines on both sides of the ball were winning the battle in the trenches. Again, the new additions and players returning from injury showed that the difference between last year’s lines and this year’s lines is night and day. Missouri’s running game couldn’t get going and Tiger QB, Maty Mauk , was pressured into multiple first half interceptions. Second, ASU’s playmakers matched Missouri’s speed and outplayed their playmakers in the first half. J.D. McKissic, Mike Gordon, and human highlight reel, WR Tres Houston, were making plays every time they touched the ball. Quarterback Fredi Knighten didn’t have his best game, but he did what Offensive Coordinator Walt Bell always says he can do, which is overcome adversity to make plays when they need him to and those touchdown passes were not your average throws. Third, it is evident that Coach Joe Cauthen’s defense has grown leaps and bounds over last year. It starts up front, but the back end, where the concerns were in the preseason, made multiple plays on the ball and made it hard on the Tigers’ passing game. The other concern lingering from last season was the ability to stop the run and Cauthen’s crew showed the ability and the resolve to do just that last night. Finally, the team was winning the “want to” battle. Coach Anderson remarked postgame, “We played harder than they did,” and he was right.
The second half found the Red Wolves on the verge of making more key plays but the bounces just didn’t go their way. Losing Knighten to an injury didn’t help and a few matchup problems on deep passes were too much to overcome in the end. The offense couldn’t recreate some of the magic from the first half and time ran out on ASU. The clock was the only thing that could stop the will of Coach Anderson’s team to fight for the win. In fact, Missouri Head Coach, Gary Pinkel, commented postgame, “We could easily be sitting here talking about a loss,” and he was right too.
I mentioned above that there are differences already making themselves apparent between last season and this season. That was evident after this game. Last season, following a tough loss at Tennessee, the feeling after that game felt more like, “Well, we played hard and maybe if some luck went our way we might have had a chance to win.” Kind of that “Oh well” feeling. Last night’s postgame vibe was different. The Red Wolves played harder and matched the physicality and speed of Missouri. The vibe was more of one where the guys in that locker room know they played an SEC team straight up and in the end had chances to win the game, not because they were lucky, but because they played well enough to win and had the talent to do so.
Now, it’s time to look forward. A few weeks back I wrote about the 5 keys to success for the Red Wolves this season. One of the points I made was their ability to manage the “season within the season.” These first two games were big opportunities on big stages and they almost came out of it 1-1. Well, those games represented Season 1, and that season is now over. Now begins Season 2. Now begins the chance to build off of last night and fight for a conference championship. Their whole season is ahead of them. If they can bottle up last night’s intensity and “want to” and unleash it each and every week, this season could be a special one.