End Of Season Review: Arkansas State Needs To Do Better (And So Do We)
The 2017 season exceeded some expectations, but it left too much glory on the table.
Fantasy football stories are the most boring stories. (If you ever read a Mathew Berry column, you know what I mean.) But indulge me here, because mine bears some relevance.
With only a minute remaining for the last two games of the NFL Christmas Eve slate, my fantasy team was down exactly one point to my friend’s team in the championship game. None of my players had possession. It was over. I was about to lose the championship by one measly point to Mike, my good friend (and momentary enemy). I turned off my fantasy football app and moodily sat down to Christmas Eve dinner, sourly eating egg rolls and Kung Pao chicken.
Then I received a text message from my brother, Rex Steele: “OMG, Mike’s crap defense just surrendered another score! You won!”
Somehow, the San Francisco 49ers tacked on another score to further humiliate the Jaguars, and I had my fantasy football championship. It was a Christmas Eve miracle.
Were it not for a freak 49ers score, my season would have ended ingloriously. It made me reflect upon all the freak and chance occurrences that shaped the 2017 Red Wolves season.
What if Kendrick Edwards and managed to haul down that high pass in the end zone against Nebraska?
What if Hurricane Irma had shifted harmlessly into the Atlantic, allowing the Red Wolves/Miami game to proceed as planned?
What if Blake Mack hadn’t fumbled at the end zone versus SMU?
What if the Jaguars’ Bull Barge hadn’t forced that goal line fumble from Justice Hansen?
What if the defense had managed to hold the Trojans to zero points on the final drive of the of the season?
What if the rumbling, stumbling Scoop Six had counted in the Camellia Bowl?
I can guarantee you that the tone of this column would be a lot different. In fact, had half of those crazy, fluke moment had not occurred, we might be celebrating one of the finest (if not the finest) Red Wolves’ season in memory. Instead, fans are left gnashing their teeth, wondering if the program has been surpassed by the likes of Troy and Appalachian State while fretting that Georgia State and ULM aren’t too far behind.
Where did it go wrong? Or maybe more accurately said, where did it not quite go right? As a fan, I have all kinds of opinions, most rooted more in emotion than fact. I’m willing to share them anyway.
The coaching staff needs to buckle down
On another blog, I wrote a post debating the merits of Coach Blake Anderson’s mantra, Faith, Family and Fun. The slogan cleanly splits me in two. On one hand, football is a game, and on the college level, it is supposed to both entertain and teach. On the other hand, college courses aren’t meant to be fun, nor foster faith or family. It’s about growing up and becoming adults. One cannot imagine Nick Saban bouncing onto the practice field with fun in his steps.
On that note, I sometimes find Anderson’s “aw shucks, we’re just having fun” attitude frustrating, even if the attitude isn’t without merit. Among us fans, there is a suspicion that Anderson viewed the bowl game against Middle Tennessee as a kind of vacation – he admitted that he and his players didn’t see the Blue Raiders as a rivalry. But fans don’t really see bowl games as vacations – nobody drives to Montgomery in December for R&R. Rather, fans arrived to Cramton Bowl expecting their dim feelings for Middle Tennessee to be reciprocated by the coaching staff and the team. The Blue Raiders played with anger and purpose. The Red Wolves seemed confused and disorientated, and attempted to make up for it with reckless aggression.
As a result, Red Wolves fans watched in horror as the rest of the Sun Belt destroyed their post-season opponents, leaving us to doubt the stability of a program once considered the class of the Sun Belt.
Ironically, the coaching staff seemed finely focused in the season opener against Nebraska. And it felt great! The Red Wolves lost, but not for a lack of preparation and drive. Despite the loss, the fan base was energized by the performance. Finally, Coach Anderson seemed deadly serious about playing OOC opponents.
The loss to SMU was a troubling step backwards. Once again, when faced with adversity, the team responded by losing its cool and racking up penalties. There is a school of thought that believes that the strength of the Red Wolves lies in the heat of its emotions – that to temper its recklessness would somehow dampen the team’s effectiveness. Maybe, but the penalties cost the Red Wolves time and time again. Discipline comes from preparedness and respect. Is it possible that the coaching staff isn’t properly preparing the team? More disturbingly, is it possible that the team doesn’t fully respect the staff?
Among fans, there is grumbling that the coaching staff is too friendly with the players. Coach Anderson is too decent and kind a man to distance himself from personnel. He genuinely cares for his kids, which I respect and admire. “Player coaches” can succeed – Jim Harbaugh and Les Miles are two guys that come to mind. But can Anderson?
The team needs leaders
If you were asked to identify the leaders on the 2017 Red Wolves roster, who would you choose? Justice Hansen? Blaise Taylor? Kyle Martin? All good choices, but really just shots in the dark because it’s hard to tell whose voice rises in the locker room.
One gets the impression that Coach Anderson would like Hansen to take the reins of this team, and with his play, Hansen has. He’s played brilliantly and he’s played hurt. When he makes mistakes, he pushes the moment aside and keeps slinging. He seems as chill in the huddle as he appears on camera fielding questions.
Chill is Hansen’s strength, but sometimes a team needs fire, too.
In 12 games, the Red Wolves committed 94 penalties, nearly eight per game, costing the team 828 yards. How many times did we see a needless face mask penalty or running into the punter call lead to an immediate score from the opposing team? It seemed way too often.
Often, lack of field discipline is placed at the feet of the coaches, but it’s the players who make plays, good and bad. The coaches can teach technique, but the players can police their own. You can’t play a game without penalty, but a little peer pressure from a team leader can reduce the more egregious yellow flags.
Perhaps the Red Wolves have that leader, the one who can rouse with a word as much as he can with an icy glare. I just don’t know who that guy is. I do know the Red Wolves are among the most penalized team in college football. Somebody needs to stand up and say, “Not cool, bro.”
Red Wolves fans need to step up, too
True confession: I expected a 7 win season, maybe worse. We had loss too much on defense, the offensive line was too new, and the OOC slate was too strong.
The near-win against Nebraska changed all expectations, maybe to the detriment of us all. In Lincoln, we saw just how good Hansen and the wide receivers could be. The effect was immediate. Fans demanded a magic season.
The Red Wolves next clobbered UAPB 48-3, which was not enough of a throttling for some fans, who would have rather seen double the points. These same fans’ fears were validated after a lackluster 44-21 loss to SMU, a game marred by drive crushing penalties, goal line turnovers, and an injury to Hansen.
SMU was supposed to be a solid OOC victory for the Red Wolves and Blake Anderson, signaling Arkansas State’s arrival to the G5 elite. Instead, it was another L added to a dismaying out-of-conference record – 5-16 since Coach Anderson took over, which includes a 1-3 performance in bowl games.
Fans have a right to be surly. We were told the goal was to be among the G5’s best, and to date, we’re no where close. Yet, the program is relevant, forcing itself into the state’s athletic conversation by consistently winning Sun Belt titles and obtaining bowl berths. Athletic director Terry Mohajir continues to generate excitement with intriguing facility upgrades and madcap, stream-of-conscious media interviews. Red Wolves football matters more than ever.
I won’t lecture fans. We’re told too many times how we ought to behave. But we could always be better, right? We could have had a more robust crowd against Troy, for example. Our student section could be more rabid. We could stand to be less negative on social media. These are selfish quibbles from a guy who, for many years, used to sit virtually alone in general admission.
As fans, we’ve become bored with ordinary success and I get it. I’m bored, too. I want the Arkansas State storyline to evolve far from “five coaches in five years.” Is it demanding too much, though? Look at the Arkansas Razorbacks, with all their fans and fortune, forever doomed to haunt the bottom half of the SEC. They have the Bruce Wayne resources and influence to do virtually anything they want. For the love of God, they’re currently spending $250M to add a couple thousand seats to an already beautiful stadium.
If a wealthy, unencumbered school like Arkansas has trouble collecting six wins, who are we to demand more than just a conference title at Arkansas State?
Because I’m in love, I believe 2018 will be a terrific season
By every season’s end, I find myself wary of the Red Wolves. But as soon as Spring arrives, I’m back on the bandwagon, ignoring the team’s weaknesses and inflating the program’s strengths. (Perhaps I’m part of the problem.)
Arkansas State enters 2018 with a veteran QB coming off a SBC Offensive Player of the Year season. The offensive line emerges bigger and wiser. We’ll have lost some celebrities on defense, but others are rising to fill the empty slots. And have you seen the schedule? Sure, we meet Alabama in Week 2, but the remaining OOC slate of Tulsa, UNLV and the Southeast Missouri Redhawks is a buffet of good wins.
It gets even better. We’ll open the season in a refurbished stadium that has a freaking waterfall. (A high-level source confided in me that the “waterfall” is more like a “water feature” but who cares, it’s water!) In addition, the new Sun Belt scheduling format divides the conference into dueling divisions, with the winners from each meeting in an honest-to-God championship game. Conference intrigue shall never be greater! 2018 could be the best season ever.
Forgive me, readers, for I am in love.
A former notary public, Jeremy Harper is a professional writer and Chief Instigator for Storm the Castle Creative. He spends much of his free time staring blankly into space.