Under Review: Arkansas State Red Wolves Four Games In
The Red Wolves have executed its best OOC record in over two decades. What does it mean?
Coach Blake Anderson entered the 2018 season with a gorilla latched firmly to his back. Despite delivering four winning seasons, two conference championships and four straight bowl game appearances, the program’s performance against non-Sun Belt competition was woefully inept. It wasn’t all on Anderson. The Red Wolves hadn’t won on the road against an FBS, OOC opponent since 2008, when Arkansas State upset Texas A&M. Since then, the program had seen incredible success within the division – and miserable failure outside of it.
Count the curse lifted this season, with the Red Wolves delivering an OOC road win at Tulsa, and a second OOC win at home against UNLV. For the first time during his tenure at Jonesboro, Coach Anderson can enter Sun Belt play without the specter of a grisly OOC loss (Alabama notwithstanding) hanging over his head.
But what does a 3-1 OOC record mean for the Red Wolves this season? Let’s knock it around, shall we?
Are the Red Wolves, at last, in the national conversation?
Nope. Not yet. After four weeks, the Red Wolves managed all of three votes in the Amway Coaches Poll – two fewer than Troy and 22 less than Appalachian State. Perhaps more distressingly, the Sun Belt was shut out completely from the AP Poll. Despite enjoying one of its best OOC runs, it appears the conference has yet to earn its respect.
Why aren’t the Red Wolves getting more props?
A 3-1 OOC record is nothing to belittle. Many programs would murder a stranger to be in Arkansas State’s shoes. But the Red Wolves’ 3-1 start to the season was executed without ceremony or flash. Tulsa and UNLV are solid opponents, but neither will challenge for their respective conference championships. Furthermore, putting only 48 points on SEMO seemed almost too polite.
But the real opportunity was lost in Tuscaloosa. Nobody will remember that, after the first five minutes, the Red Wolves played the Crimson Tide fairly well. History will only remember that Nick Saban chalked up a lopsided 57-7 win over an overmatched G5 opponent.
In the end, the wins over the Golden Hurricane and the Rebels were more business than signature victories. That’s fine, and honestly, Red Wolves fans are thrilled to have them. But Appalachian State will receive far more attention for barely losing to Penn State than Arkansas State will get credit for knocking off Tulsa.
Who are these Red Wolves, anyway?
Entering the season, Arkansas State was thought to be a high-powered, air raid offense fueled by Justice Hansen’s arm and a squad of insanely talented wide receivers. But thus far, the Red Wolves are defined by playmaking defense and a surprisingly effective run game.
It’s not that Hansen isn’t pulling his weight. The “YooHoo Hooligan” leads all Sun Belt slingers with 10 TD passes. The passing offense is ranked 29th in the nation, piling up 302 yards per game. Even in the wind and rain against UNLV, Hansen put up 200 yards and 3 TD strikes.
But the Arkansas State run game – which was horrendously inept in 2017 – is now a viable offensive weapon in 2018. Featuring a diverse trio of Warren Wand (lightning), Armond Weh-Weh (thunder), and the freshman Marcel Murray (a bit of both), the Red Wolves are putting up a very respectable 188 yards on the ground.
But offense isn’t the reason the Red Wolves enter conference play 3-1. That distinction belongs to Joe Cauthen’s defense. While not putting up particularly flashy numbers (the Red Wolves rank 92nd for Total Defense), the defense is fast and physical. We knew DE Ronheen Bingham and DB Justin Clifton would deliver a tremendous season. But I did not quite expect the rise of Forrest Merril, Kevin Thurman, Jerry Jacobs and Darreon Jackson.
Like all of Cauthen’s defenses, the Red Wolves give up yards. But they make big plays win it counts.
Three Huge Differences In 2018
1. The Red Zone offense is improved
Hey, it’s still not great – the Red Wolves are converting in the Red Zone about 72% of the time. But the newly revamped run game is making a red zone TD more likely for the Red Wolves. And that’s cool.
2. The Offensive Line has matured
There was some gnashing of teeth over the quality of the Red Wolves’ offensive line this off season. And while it had surprising trouble handling Tulsa’s three-man rush, the line has mostly kept Hansen clean while providing lanes for the running backs.
3. The Red Wolves aren’t melting down
Arkansas State is still piling up penalties – only South Alabama (393) has been assessed more penalty yards than the Red Wolves (391). But the Red Wolves seem to have engaged in far fewer dumbass fracases this year. Yes, you can count on Arkansas State committing a personal foul at least once a game. But the staff and the team seem to put a cork into the hellmouth before allowing all hell to break loose. Think about the SMU game last season, or Utah State the year before. Those games got out of hand once the coaching staff lost control of the team’s emotions. This year, the sideline has matured.
Looking ahead to the Battle of the Sun Belt
To my surprise, the Battle of the Belt projects to be an entertaining slugfest filled with heavyweights (Troy, Arkansas State, Appalachian State), upstarts (Coastal Carolina), and dangerous contenders (Georgia Southern, ULM). How will the Red Wolves fare?
The Eagles get first crack at Arkansas State, with the Red Wolves taking their show to Statesboro to face Georgia Southern’s confounding triple-option. Fortunately for Coach Anderson, the Red Wolves have faced a pair of teams with talented running QBs – Luke Skipper of Tulsa and Armani Rogers of UNLV. The Eagles’ Shai Wertz won’t take the Red Wolves by surprise.
After that, well, maybe it’s best not to look ahead. Looking ahead is a classic Arkansas State mistake.
And Blake Anderson appears to be done with making classic mistakes.
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.