What at one time looked unlikely, now seems possible, the Arkansas State Red Wolves defeated New Mexico State 41-22 Saturday in Jonesboro for their fifth straight victory.
That triumph set up a battle for first with Troy, now ranked 25th in the Associated Press poll, on Thursday. It is the first time two teams that are 5-0 in Sun Belt play have met.
“We found a way to get to this point where Thursday night matters,” said coach Blake Anderson. “At the start of the season that was not a forgone conclusion. Took a lot of work to get here.
“I just think they have worked to get better. Obviously we have protected the ball better. Not that we have not turned the ball over at all but we have protected to ball better. We've gotten to the point where we have created turnovers. We have gotten back to that. A huge part of our success is the turnover ratio. We just got back to the basics and trying to play physical every week.”
The Red Wolves started 0-4, including a 28-23 loss at home to FCS Central Arkansas.
“We have definitely grown,’’ he said. “I dont think we are finished I’ve seen a group pull together and fight through adversity, something a lot of people would not be willing to fight through. I have seen them be critical of their own mistakes and improve and that is in every spot. We are tackling better than we have all year , communication on defense is better. Offensively we have round a different way to win each week . One week it is pushing the ball down field, the next week running the clock. It’s been a process and its not over.
Knowing Vic Keening
Just four years Anderson and Vic Keening were the coordinators at North Carolina. Anderson is now the Red Wolves’ head coach and Keening is having his second stint as Troy’s defensive coordinator.
“Defensively Vic and I worked together for 2 years at Carolina,’’ said Anderson. “What you see them do is different. It’s multiple. It’s four-down and three-down and you are going to see some coverage looks that are very unique that for a quarterback in a normal week is hard but in a short week it’s tough. There are some things back there that are just different in terms of how they rotate and who is rotating where. How it looks compared to what they are actually doing. I've seen it create problems in the past having coached against it and seeing it on a daily basis it is a challenge for our guys to know where to push the ball and what is happening on the backend.”
Anderson saw rise of Troy
“We have not played them but we saw them a lot in crossover film,’’ he said. “I talked to Neal (Brown) on the phone a couple of times late in the year and I thought they were actually playing as good as anybody. I think they lost some early … those guys were mostly sophomore and you look at their roster now it's almost all juniors. So they are going to be really good next year.
“It doesn't surprise ,me. Watching them down the stretch last year you knew they had a quarterback who could do the things they wanted to do, which gives you a lot of freedom and they were getting better each week.
“I knew they would be among the top three or four teams in the league. I don’t know if I expected them to be 8-1 but I did expect them to be in the mix for a conference race.”
The top 25
The Trojans made history by being the first Sun Belt team to make the top 25 rankings. Troy is in the Associated Press ranking. Anderson said that adds little to the game.
“Whether they were or were not, it is a chance to be 6-0 and the only 6-0 team in the league,’’ said Anderson. “it’s a step closer to a league championship and I think that is enough.
“ I think it is cool to have someone in the league. It is always something we fight for in the league. I think we've had teams that are worthy of being in the top 25 in the past and haven't been ranked. I’m glad to see that they are. But it doesn't change the game for us and it would be just as important if they weren't,
Where have you been?
This is the first meeting between the Red Wolves and the Trojans since 2013 and A-State carries a 3-game series winning streak into the meeting. A-State leads the series 8-5 and the two teams have been a part of 9 of the last 10 Sun Belt titles.
“Other thing seeing them on film we don’t know a lot about them,’’ said Anderson. “I’m sure there will be some feeling each other out by both teams.”
A better Ja'von
Anderson cited the improved play of defensive end Ja'von Rolland-Jones, who had 3 sacks, 4 tackles for loss and 7 tackles against the Aggies. He’s seeing more playing time.
“He's playing better against the run,’’ Anderson said. “He has always been a pass rush specialist and he has been encouraged by us that if you really want to be on the field more you have got to be a more complete player and he has really taken it to heart. He’s worked hard and has probably played the run the best he has the past two weeks since he has been here. It's been a lot of work. He loves to rush the passer but he has got to be a complete player.
“Everybody's in this league is going to run the ball at you and we have got to be able to stop the run. He can't be a liability when he's out there. He has worked at it; played way more physical and has made him a better player. It has made us a better defense when he can play more downs and play better in both phases.
“He’s built more for pass rushing but when tempo offense you don’t always get the luxury of substitutions.
Anderson said he thinks the redshirt junior is also healthy.
“ I don’t think completely healthy when he started the season was still fighting to back issues.”
Missing extra points (twice) of field goals (twice), Red Wolves’ placekicker JD Houston has had some trouble in the last three games. He did miss a short field goal against New Mexico State but made all five extra point attempts.
“Screaming at him is not going to do a lot of good,’’ said Anderson. “ He knows he missed it. Just trying to find some small technical issues to take his mind off missing it. To think more about the approach in the process
“He’s worked through the before and came out on the right end. We are going to try and help him through it the best we can and we dont have a lot of choices. He has every intent to make them and he works really hard.