Losing is always frustrating, even if you lose to Bama.
Saturday held special pain. It denied the Red Wolves a chance to take the Sun Belt outright, it was a loss to a conference rival, it denied the Red Wolves a chance to soothe over a miserable start by winning out in conference and maybe a bowl game.
The box score just adds to that frustration. The Cajun offense had only three drives of more than 22 yards and produced 17 points from them. AState had 7 drives of 47 or more yards and produced only 19 points. The Cajuns fourth longest drive was 21 yards, AState had 9 drives longer than that.
AState out-gained the Cajuns by 229 yards, gained nearly 2.5 yards more per carry, hit more than 61% of pass attempts and completed 11 more passes than the Cajuns attempted.
Unable to score on two chances from the one, three from two or less and four from 5 or less yards became the critical drive of the day. AState seemed ready to knock the Cajuns out, instead with the successful stand, Louisiana drove 99 yards to change the momentum of the game.
That stand highlighted the absence of Weh-Weh. The Red Wolves were unable to push into the end zone on a pair of rushes each from Voytik and White.
Enough of that.
What’s the problem with the Red Wolves this year?
I’m sticking to my guns. I don’t believe the staff’s work/life balance is the issue. If you don’t have a solid plan by Tuesday afternoon you are in trouble. Going home at a reasonable hour on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday just isn’t a problem.
I’m not going to nitpick things like not using Voytik to pass often enough to make defenses respect that possibility.
I’m not going to argue that the offense lacks an identity. I believe great teams identify a play or type of play that represents their identity and they build toward doing that. I think AState has developed it’s signature, I think our bread and butter is to get the ball to Wand headed right whether it’s by handoff, pitch or pass.
I’m not going blame Buster or Rudolph, well maybe Rudolph considering the inability to do anything on the ground against UCA. The Red Wolves are still oriented toward explosive plays and swap between being run first and pass first based on what film review causes the staff to think they can exploit from week to week.
Watching UNC-NC State this weekend what I saw was an offense that looked much like AState this year, especially from game 5 and forward. Rather than committed to a scheme, they were rotating through several plays and variations probing for the combination that would work. The longest UNC drive of the first half was 44 yards on the opening drive. In the second half they had drives of 93, 62, 61, and 35, NC State just slowed the game down. That’s not an unfamiliar story for the Red Wolves this year, starting slow and assembling better drives as the game progresses.
The Red Wolves simply don’t have one big thing wrong. It has been like the roof at the old ASU Fieldhouse where each attempt to patch a leak in the roof has resulted in creating new leaks.
It started with an unsettled QB situation. Hansen failed to convince the staff he was THE guy in spring or fall camps but obviously there was belief in his potential. Hansen is currently 8th on the AState single season pass yardage chart and needs 29 yards on Saturday to take 6th and 387 yards for 5th. Voytik made it 8 quarters without a pick or a fumble then lost the job in the second quarter at USU after two turnovers and anemic passing attack. Only one pick and one fumble in 9 ½ quarters as a starter. Hansen by contrast in his first 6 ½ quarters turned it over 3 times and put the ball on the ground three times more though none of those were lost.
The passing upside ended up out-weighing the ball protection issues.
Going safe with less production has some merit. Against UCA, AState lost the ball four times (two picks and a fumble each by Stowers and White) and another three fumbles by Hansen that netted minus 14 yards and failed to gain a first down after any of those fumbles.
The impact of Fredi Knighten as a rushing threat on defenses made defenses stay more honest and may have created too much confidence in the offensive line. With basically the same line-up rushing yardage is almost half of last year and the Red Wolves are gaining nearly a yard and half last per carry. That confidence may have played a role in changing the blocking schemes which have generally been simplified since UCA.
Over-confidence in the defensive front helped create the problem. The inability to run effectively in scrimmages was chalked up to the strength of the front four. Then it was easy to think problems running against Toledo and Auburn were because of the quality of opponent, and at USU a function of being behind against an opponent that felt they could come hard with little risk holding a significant lead.
Even the oft-criticized decision to not be as physical in fall camp wasn’t a clearly bad decision. Avoiding the possibility of nagging injuries wasn’t a bad decision in and of itself. In hindsight the decision was wrong because of the situation. Voytik hadn’t gone through spring camp, Hansen had only a spring of experience with the team. Echols-Luper hadn’t been in a game since 2014. Sanders hadn’t been on the field since 2013 and wasn’t able to participate in spring camp. None of the three RB’s had been the feature back. Booker and McInnis were newcomers.
The offensive backfield needed contact to get up and running as a unit. Several of the players needed the experience to shake off the dust or to aid in their adjustment to FBS competition.
AState has two games left in 2016. A win on Saturday clinches a share of the Sun Belt, making it five titles in six years and clinches a sixth straight winning season. AState has only posted 6 consecutive winning seasons once, with the 1912 to 1917 seasons. The impending bowl bid provides the Red Wolves with a chance for extra practice and get extra reps to prepare for 2017 and maybe patch some of those leaks.