Arkansas State University

In-depth with Arkansas State at the Cure Bowl

Part Two of the trip inside with the Red Wolves at the Cure Bowl.

This is part 2, if you missed part one, click here.

Game Day

There isn’t an easier morning to wake up than on a game day morning.  Add to it that it was the first time I’ve been to bowl game and it was easy to beat the alarm clock.  I knew I was too early for breakfast but I headed down to the team area of the hotel to see who I might bump into to start the day.

The person I bumped into first was Defensive Coordinator, Joe Cauthen.  We talked about a few different topics.  He told me he had a great time during the week with his family.  Actually, he remarked that he was having a great month.  His son was just recently named the defensive MVP of his football state championship game, his defense was on a roll and helped win a second straight Sun Belt championship and he was getting married next week.  Not a bad couple of weeks.  Would he like to add anything to that list?

He got all serious and said, “Absolutely.  A bowl win would be the perfect addition to an unforgettable month.”

Coming into this game all of the pundits had thoroughly discussed UCF’s defense and how tough it would be for the underdog Red Wolves to win.  Coach Cauthen responded to that notion, “You know what?  Their defense is good, but I like my guys.  Our defense closed this season strong and I like the game plan we have for this game.  My guys are ready.  I’m ready for the football part of this trip.”

Breakfast

On the way to breakfast I encountered the mad scientist, I mean Matt Shadeed, Arkansas State’s Strength and Conditioning coach.  He had the music loud and some of the players “activating.”  It’s a series of exercises to get the players’ bodies up and awake; to get them activated for game day.  He offered for me to participate but I told him I was going to activate my senses with some coffee instead.

When I walked into breakfast I sat down with a few Red Wolves’ coaches.  Tight Ends Coach Dan Dodd was sitting next to me and I asked him how he thought the game would go Saturday night. 

He responded, “Honestly, this is going to be a tough road for us.  I think we need to score a non-offensive touchdown or two, maybe on special teams.  Then we need to protect the ball.  If we can find a way to score 28 to 31 points I think we’ll have a chance to win.”

Offensive Coordinator Buster Faulkner chimed in, “I agree.  I like our game plan.  I think we may be able to hit some things over the top for some long plays to open things up.”  His young son was sitting next to them and looking at them like they were crazy.  Apparently he felt like the Red Wolves would win no matter what.  The coaches appreciated his confidence but were not as naïve as him.

Defense Team Meeting

After breakfast the team broke up into offense and defense team meetings for some final pointers and film review.  I headed into Coach Cauthen’s meeting.  The players were quiet but confident as they ran through some last responsibilities with the coaches.  One thing that stood out is that anything the coaches brought up the players were on the same page as them.  They were ready.  My takeaway from the film session was that this defense felt like they would be able make some big plays in the game.

After the film review was over Coach Cauthen gave the guys some parting words.  He had the seniors stand up and gave them a chance to say something.  Each of them mainly said that they loved the guys in that room and they wanted to go out the right way with their teammates.

Coach Cauthen added, “Seniors, you’ve meant a ton to this program and to me.  Guys, I want these seniors to go out the right way with a win tonight.  All I hear about is their defense.  Well, guess what? The guys I’m looking at in this room are pretty good too.  Let’s go take care of business.”

Final Pregame Team Meeting

After having some time to rest and get packed up, the whole team reconvened one last time before leaving for the stadium.  Coach Faulkner sat next to me and you could see the excitement in his eyes.

“I feel like a “good one” is coming right now,” he said.

The “good one” he was referring to was Coach Anderson’s speech we were about to hear.  Coach Faulkner said those speeches are an art form in a way.  Timing and content are important.  He said the speech Coach Anderson gave before the game at Troy was one of the best he’d ever heard.

“We won that game before we even got on the field after that speech.  It was over,” he said.  Indeed, the Red Wolves went on to win that night in dominating fashion on the road against #25-ranked Troy.

Video and graphics’ extraordinaire, Chris Rodriguez, put together a “hype video” for the team to watch first and it hit the mark.  Then Coach Anderson stepped in front of his team.

“Guys, this is it. Last trip, last game.  This is the last time this family will ever be together.  Look around and take this in.  We’ve got guys that just graduated and are going to go on and do great things.  You ask me if I’m emotional, you dang right I’m emotional.  This is my family.  It’s like I have kids leaving the house.  But I know you’re prepared.  There’s no way you could have gone through what you have in your career here and not be prepared to do great things in life.”

His voice broke a bit and he fought to hold it together.  I looked around the room and you could see that emotion in the seniors’ eyes and the coaches as well.  Coach Faulkner was right, it was a good one.  Some of what he said next is better left inside those doors, but I was ready to put a helmet on myself.

On to Camping World Stadium

The players exited the meeting and were ready to roll.  They were met by a ton of Red Wolves’ fans lining the hall way as we made our way to the buses.  Once we were loaded up we followed our police escort to the stadium.  When I say police escort, I should really say presidential escort.  We had multiple police motorcycles leading the way.  They literally shut down the entire highway in Orlando for our buses.  I have to admit, a guy could get used to that type of service.

When we arrived, the Head Equipment Manager, Jason Jones, directed everybody to their respective locker rooms, one for the players and one for the coaches.  The coaches’ locker room is really no different than the players’ locker room.  There isn’t a lot of game talk going on.  Some small talk here and there to keep the mood light.  There was no need to game plan anymore.  Everybody knew their role and what to do.  What remained was whatever pregame rituals each of them had and then head out for warm-ups.

Pregame Warm-ups

There is an ever-present clock that counts down the timing of every action the team takes right up until kickoff.  Each player knows their routine.  I walked around the field with some of the coaches and checked out the stadium.  It was fun to look around where so many Citrus Bowls of the past had been played.  I loved watching all bowl games as a kid growing up and the Citrus Bowl was always one of the better ones to watch.  Walking around this part of college football history was an added bonus to this experience.

“This never gets old.  It never fails to get my juices going,” Coach Anderson remarked.  “This is the part I like.  There’s nothing more to say at this point.  It’s time to go out and play the game.”

That’s when I noticed something.  As I looked around at the UCF players warming up, I didn’t see the same look and demeanor I saw in the Arkansas State players.  Not all, but some of the Knights were sort of going through their drills half-heartedly.  Not overly laid back, but the Red Wolves had a different look in their eyes.  It reminded me again to ask myself, “Which team wants to be here more?”  Well, we were about to find out.

Last Locker Room Speech

The Director of Football Operations, Jason Andrews, gave the final countdown.  He had already sent Coach Trooper Taylor in first to get the players fired up.  If you know Coach Taylor, you know why he’s the man for that job.  Then with a few minutes to go he let Coach Anderson know it was time.

He looked at us and simply said, “Let’s roll.”

Coach Anderson gathered the players up one last time before kickoff.  The message was simple.  “Guys, you don’t need me to say anything else.  It’s time to go out there and give each other 60 minutes of your best effort.  You’re going to get 60 minutes of everything I’ve got.  Let’s all do that for each other as this is the last time this family will ever take the field together.  It’s time to do what we came here to do and that’s win this game.  They don’t want it like you do.  Let’s go!”

Time for Kickoff

After the coin toss, which was won by the Red Wolves, the captains came back and said one of the UCF players wouldn’t shake their hands.  That was it.  That was the last trigger needed to pop the top off of their emotions.  They were ready to burst out of their shoes and hit somebody.

The game started just like Coach Cauthen had hoped.  A huge sack by Ja’Von Rolland-Jones and Kyle Wilson capped off a great first series for the Red Wolves with a three-and-out.  However, they weren’t able to take advantage of good field position and had to punt it back to UCF.

We were only three minutes into the game and already the roller coaster of emotions was in full motion on the sidelines.  To the naked eye the offense didn’t do much in the first series.  But what really happened was a missed read here or there on one play that was set up perfectly to score.  A fan might have said the coach didn’t make the right call, but the coaches actually had the exact play call set up against the exact defensive set they wanted to run it against.  It was just a misread away from working.  I say “naked eye” because I was experiencing this game in a new way.  Coach Anderson granted me permission to go under the headset for the game.  I’ll dive more into that experience later.

The Spark that Lit the Fire

Once again the Red Wolves’ defense forced a three-and-out and another punt.  This time, Arkansas State’s Johnston White burst around the corner and blocked the punt and Arkansas State recovered it for a touchdown.  The sideline erupted into absolute mayhem.  The large contingent of Red Wolves’ fans in the stadium erupted as well as a stunned UCF crowd looked on.

The defense held again, and after a long pass play over the top to Blake Mack, the Red Wolves kicked a field goal to go up 10-0.

On the ensuing kickoff that fire was lit again as the Red Wolves forced and recovered a fumble.  Three plays later, quarterback Justice Hansen completed the first of three touchdowns to Kendall Sanders to put Arkansas State up 17-0.  At that moment I walked over to one of the fans on the sideline, and said, “UCF doesn’t want to be here.”  Moments later I was afraid I had spoken too soon.

A Shift in Momentum

After a fantastic start to the game where everything went right for the Red Wolves, the second quarter may have been just as frustrating as the first quarter was exciting.  The offense couldn’t get anything going, but the defense was keeping things in check until a shift in field position favored UCF.  The Knights scored their first touchdown, and then after a Red Wolves’ fumble late in the quarter, they added a field goal to bring the score within a touchdown heading into halftime.  The Red Wolves had the lead and were getting the ball to start the second half but you could sense the change in momentum. 

The Solitude of the Coaches’ Locker Room

After conferring with each other the coaches headed to the players’ locker room to go over adjustments with their position groups.  I found myself left behind in the coaches’ locker room with Coach Anderson.  He sat there staring at the floor, obviously frustrated with the way the first half ended.  He knew there was a lot of game left to play.  The silence was painful, but he finally spoke.

“We need to get that momentum back on this first drive,” he said quietly.  “We only gained 12 yards in the second quarter.  12 is unacceptable.  The plays were there to make.  We just have to dig down deep and see the play and execute it.  We have got to find a way to wrestle this game back and close it out.  We’re not losing this game,” he declared as he headed to the players’ locker room.

Time to Turn It Around

Coach Anderson went to speak to the players, who were already giving each other pep talks.  The seniors in particular were telling their teammates it was time to give everything they got and not let this opportunity slip away.

Coach Anderson simply said, “Guys, this is it.  It’s time to take it up a notch.  Seniors, this is the last 30 minutes of your college football career.  How do you want it to end?  If you want to walk out with a victory then it’s time to go and take it.”

First Drive for the Rest of the Game

The players came back onto the field.  The smiles from taking an early lead were gone.  They had serious looks on their faces and they were ready to fight for the win.  After two plays that went nowhere, that fire was lit again.  Hansen hit Sanders over the middle and he broke a tackle to take it 75 yards for a touchdown.  The sideline erupted again and just as Coach Anderson had hoped, they seized the momentum back from UCF and never gave it back.

The emotions on the sideline were high all night.  Guys would not allow each other to let up.  Seniors paced the sidelines to keep their teammates’ energy up.  Coaches kept challenging them to close out the game and finish them.  After that first drive got the momentum back it was hard to argue which team was the better team.  It was hard to argue which team wanted to be here more.

The Game Within the Headset

I’ve watched football my entire life.  I’ve watched it on television, in the stands, and even on the sidelines like I did at this game.  But I’ve never worn the headset.  I’ve never had a peek behind that curtain of the coaching world.  It was intense.  It was insightful in seeing how coaches watch a game and what they’re seeing.  It was even funny and entertaining at times because what you’re listening to is the raw emotions and expression of those emotions from the coaches doing what they love to do.

For obvious reasons, I won’t go into specific details of what I heard on the headset.  What I can describe is how the coaches are watching a different game than the fans are watching.  It reminded me just how good these guys are at what they do.  As the cliché goes, “The coaches have forgotten more football than I’ll ever know.”

The dynamic between the coaches on the headset was fascinating.  With so many voices available I expected it to be more chaotic but it wasn’t at all.  Everybody knew their role and the manner in which they collaborated had obviously settled into a rhythm long before this game.  The other aspect that I guess surprised me a bit was the complete lack of egos between coaches.  They attacked each situation together and were open with sharing and seeking opinions. 

The amount of time they study their opponents was never more evident than when I listened to them work this game.  The defensive staff could almost predict the play that was coming.  The offensive staff knew the minute they lined up if they had the right play against the formation the defense was showing them.  If they didn’t like it they quickly checked it into something else.  It was exciting to know what was coming before the ball was snapped.  You see for yourself what they mean about player execution and how that determines the success of a play, maybe even more than the play call itself at times.  Players are the ones that make plays work.  The coaches can call the play but they can’t make the play.  It was amazing to see it through their eyes.

I gained a new respect for how a head coach has to juggle his role.  The other coaches get to focus mainly on their side of the ball.  Coach Anderson has to toggle between the two, and he did it effectively.  His level of engagement was high and rotated from 10,000-foot view levels to right down to specific play calls.  He kept in tune with the play concepts being called and added in the perspective of knowing the situations in the game at every moment.  When he took his headset off it was usually to correct something with a player coming off the field, or to attempt to correct something with the officials, who were a special kind of bad in this game.  Either way, I don’t know how a head coach can keep his composure outwardly after hearing the emotional ebb and flow throughout the game over the headset.  Basically, beyond the enjoyment from a football perspective, wearing the headset was an entertaining study of the psychology of a coaches’ mind.

Closing the Game Strong

The Red Wolves ended up winning the game 31-13 after dominating the second half much like they did the first quarter.  The defense was unstoppable, holding UCF to a total of 12 yards rushing, a team that had rushed for 245 yards earlier in the year against Michigan.  They had the quarterbacks running for their lives all night long in amassing a staggering 15 tackles-for-loss and 6 sacks.  The offense hit big plays over the top, just as Coach Faulkner had predicted would be there.  And the special teams scored that touchdown Coach Dodd had said they needed to win.  Actually, they scored two touchdowns, but a fake punt that went for a touchdown was called back for what Coach Anderson told the referee was “…just a wonderful call.  Nice job.  Way to go.”  It’s hard to type out the amount of sarcasm in that statement and I can’t repeat what was said before that.

Raise the Trophy

The Red Wolves surrounded the stage that Coach Anderson and game MVP, Kendall Sanders, were standing on.  When he raised the Cure Bowl Championship trophy it felt like he was lifting the weight of the world off of their shoulders.  Or at least the weight of a roller coaster season off of their shoulders.  This team was counted out.  After an 0-4 start to their season they could have easily gone off the rails and never recovered.  In the postgame press conference the players mentioned that they got together and asked each other, “Are you committed, or are just interested?”  From that point on they played for each other and the coaches in that locker room.  You could see the emotions of the season play out on this field as coaches and players shared emotional moments with one another on the field after the game.  Players and their families were able to finally celebrate their success.

Defensive standout, Rolland-Jones, said, “We wanted to win this game for Coach Anderson and the seniors.  I really wanted this one for Coach Anderson.”

As he waited to take the podium for his press conference, Coach Anderson sat to the side, soaked in Powerade, pondering what had just happened.  I asked him how he felt.

“Man, to be honest?  I’m exhausted.  I’m ecstatic for our guys and our fans, but I’m emotionally and physically drained.  It was a long season, but I’m just so proud of how we turned it around.  How we finished it.  I love these guys more than they’ll ever know.”

He was right.  The Red Wolves finished their season the right way.  They finished it on top.  I thought all week about how the team that wanted to be here more would win the game.  I was right.  Everybody associated with this program wanted to be here more, and it showed all week.  Graduate Assistant Bobby Dodd’s prediction was right.  They crushed them tonight.