Before the season began, Head Coach Blake Anderson and his Red Wolves set their goals for this season. The big one on the board was winning the Sun Belt Conference Championship. This senior class had already won 3 of the last 4 titles and they wanted to go out as a champion one more time. This past Saturday was Senior Day in Jonesboro for this group of seniors, the winningest class at Arkansas State in the FBS era. They have experienced a ton of wins, but they also have endured more trials and tribulations than any group of seniors in all of college football. However, the adversity they faced didn't tear them apart. Instead, it brought them closer together and allowed them to become the leaders that this program needed this season. When the final whistle blew Saturday evening, this group of seniors looked up at the scoreboard and saw that they were victorious; and that they were the sole owners of the 2015 Sun Belt Conference Championship Trophy.
Football seasons are long and can wear a team down as time goes by. That's not what happened with the Red Wolves. In fact, this team, powered by the savage preparation of their Strength and Conditioning coach, Matt Shadeed, has gotten stronger and faster as the weeks went by. They are playing their best football during this stretch run as they finished the conference season in dominant fashion over the last month. The pollsters and playoff committee all say that the Top 10 should reflect teams that pass the “eye test” and not only have a strong body of work, but are clearly playing the best football at this point in the season. Well, they should treat ranking the Top 20-25 teams the same way. If they did that, then the Arkansas State Red Wolves deserve to be in the Top 25. They've earned that through a lot of hard work, which is why there was a big celebration after Saturday’s game, both in the locker room, and on the field with the fans. As Coach Anderson has said before, “We work too darn hard to not have some fun at the end of the day.” One thing was clear from the faces of the players, the staff, and the fans…winning a championship is fun.
AStateNation is happy to bring you the final regular season edition of The 5th Quarter with Coach Anderson as his team begins to prepare for the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.
The 5th Quarter –
1st Quarter: You went into this game with a chance to win the outright conference championship. When you think back to halftime of the South Alabama game, could you envision this being possible this season? – “To be honest, at that point I don’t think I was looking that far in advance. We were in a dogfight in that game and I did feel like what we did in the second half would be a factor in determining the direction this team would take moving forward. It's easy to look back now at that moment as a turning point, but at the time we were just trying to get that win. Once the guys responded and really how they responded in the second half of that game, I knew that experience would mean something moving forward. Then I got a sense of how good we really were heading into the App State game just by seeing the confidence in their eyes and how they took care of business in that game. After closing them out in the way that we did I knew we would be a hard team to beat down the stretch.”
2nd Quarter: How would you describe the job your staff did week in and week out with this team to turn them into a championship team? – “Man, we don't have enough time for me to explain just how much this staff has done on and off the field this year with our guys to put them in position to win the conference. They got these guys ready to play their best every week. We brought in a lot of new guys, and these coaches were able to get our whole team moving forward together in a short period of time. Our guys got dramatically better in every way on defense and on the offense. What the coaches did is got each position group to buy in to what our plan was and then brought them all together as one. We set really high expectations and they met them and exceeded them. When people were ready to throw the towel in on this team, the kids never quit. They never quit because the coaches never quit. My staff found ways to get this group of players to work like they've never worked before and continue to improve every week. It's hard to describe the pride I feel when I see my coaches with these players doing the things they did this season.”
3rd Quarter: After this game you got to climb on stage with your guys in front of the fans and accept the trophy for winning your first conference championship as a head coach. What was that like to you on a personal level? – “It was absolutely amazing. I feel like I'm blessed beyond measure. It's hard to put it into words. I have great support from the administration and the fans. I have an incredible staff that put us in this position. I have an incredible family and a wife that has followed my all over their country coaching. And then we have just a great group of kids that bought into everything we asked them to do. The whole experience was really fun and just so satisfying to see the joy on everybody's faces during the celebration. The smiles on the kids faces was priceless.”
4th Quarter: Tell me why Arkansas State deserves to be ranked in the Top 25. – “Well, first, we’re definitely not the team we were at the beginning of the season. We had a ton of new guys and Fredi was injured. We weren't ready to be the team we became just yet. But then you watch the way this team has grown on both offense and defense is incredible. I think we are a complete team right now. I'd love to think that people notice that which is why we played hard and didn't let games even get close down the stretch. We wanted to leave no doubt. We just went undefeated in our conference in a dominant fashion which is incredibly hard to do. We are a different team now and belong in that conversation. All five Group-of-5 conferences are solid and play great football. I'd like to think the five conference champions from those conferences deserve to be in the Top 25. But you know what, we have a chance to finish this thing off with a bowl game and I hope people consider what I believe to be a deserving team to be in the Top 25.”
OT: How do you balance celebrating the bowl invite and excitement around that with getting the team to focus on it as “the next game in front of us?” – “We’re not going to reinvent the wheel. We will do what we have done the whole season to get ready. But I do think bowl games are for celebrating the kids that got you there. It's a time to celebrate with your fans and we’re going to do that. We’re going to have fun and enjoy the entire experience. But we will be ready to play. Louisiana Tech is a good football team and we’re going to have to bring the same intensity and focus we have over the last 9 weeks. I want to send these seniors out right. We showed Saturday night that we can take care of business and have fun doing it and that's what I want our guys to do in New Orleans.”