Here to talk about Arkansas State Red Wolves and this weekend's game are the fine folks from The Den. We appreciate them taking the time to give us some insight into A-State.
GC: When a head coach is forced out like Steve Roberts was last year, rarely is his replacement hired from the previous coaching staff. What was it about Hugh Freeze that led to Arkansas State taking a chance on him and promoting him from offensive coordinator?
TD: In 2009 before Freeze arrived as offensive coordinator Arkansas State was 95th in the nation in total offense, but our starting QB was fighting injuries and Aplin finished out that year. The year before when Arkansas State beat Texas A&M the offense was better, 38th in the nation but 80th in passing. Last year with Freeze running the offense, 40th in the nation and 31st in passing. So the fans liked what they saw on the field.
In 2010 Arkansas State was 1-5 in games determined by 7 points or less and finished 4-8. The year before 2-4 in those games with again a 4-8 record. More importantly in 2008 after beating Texas A&M the Red Wolves dropped two conference games after leading by two scores in the fourth quarter and went 2-3 in games determined by 7 or less. The year before had a chance to tie Texas but lost an onside kick on an official's error that the Big XII admitted was an error. Over that three year span the losses by 7 or less included Iowa (11-2 on the year), Southern Miss (7-6 won the New Orleans Bowl), two losses to eventual league champion Troy, and Indiana.The belief among fans was that Arkansas State was very close to being a pretty good team. They wanted change but not too much change.Freeze is an amazing personality. Fred Smith the founder and CEO of FedEx has him come in annually as a motivational speaker. After I heard him speak the first time, I told friends that if the offense did anything, that he would be the next head coach if Roberts didn't win six.
Oddly enough, the most successful coaches at ASU in modern history served as an assistant at least a year before becoming head coach. Bennie Ellender was promoted to replace King Block after one year as defensive coordinator and went on to win the College Division I National Championship in 1970 (roughly today's Division II). Bill Davidson was promoted to replace him and went 11-0 tied with Notre Dame for 21st most points in the AP Division I poll in 1975. Larry Lacewell served one year as a volunteer assistant to Davidson and was promoted to head coach and was I-AA runner-up in 1986 after we were pushed down to I-AA.
Anyone interested can read what I wrote before the hire was made when I advocated for Freeze.
I've made a big deal about Ryan Aplin's passing ability and his primary targets, Josh Jarboe and Dwayne Frampton. But how important is balance to Hugh Freeze's offense? Last year you guys ran almost as many times as you threw the ball and the same has been the case through two games this year.
Arkansas State returned three receivers who scored five touchdowns last year and none of them are named Josh Jarboe who is a fantastic addition to the program. Frampton broke in big scoring his first touchdown against eventual national champion Auburn giving ASU the lead in that game. Taylor Stockemer's role last year was as the "go to guy" when we had the ball on our side of the field. He had only two red-zone catches last year but five touchdowns. Alan Muse was featured on College GameDay in 2009 after coming back from open heart surgery and was a Katrina survivor. Last year he had receptions of 61 yards against both Auburn and Louisiana and failed to score on both. In 2010 he had twice as many second half receptions as first half receptions. He sat against Memphis due to a turned ankle but Coach Freeze said he was available if needed, he just wasn't needed.
The spread is all about trying to get one on one match-ups and winning them. If you don't have balance, defenses can cheat by doubling up. The offense simply demands balance to work. The one issue ASU has with balance is that last year we relied quite a bit on the legs of the QB's. With Phillip Butterfield out for the year, QB runs aren't as big of a part of the running game but we are very happy with the stable of running backs this year.
Are there any match-ups in particular that concern you for Arkansas State's defense against Virginia Tech's offense?
Line vs. line in a run first game. Illinois averaged 4 yards per rush. The top backs for Memphis averaged 3.3 and 3.0 running behind a line that yielded five sacks, one for every 7 times their QB dropped back to pass. The defensive line got a safety on a deep hand-off against Illinois and three sacks but haven't fully owned the line in either game.
Last week FIU got the Sun Belt's first win over a BCS conference team of the year. What do the Red Wolves have to do Saturday to get the second and do you think they're capable of doing it?
Arkansas State needed to not fumble at the Illinois 15 or drop two sure touchdown passes against Illinois and then catch a break. Virginia Tech is a different animal and we missed our best shot at beating an AQ team at Illinois. To win at Tech, first and foremost don't gift points. Special teams have been greatly improved and that's the easiest way to gift points against the Hokies. Win the turnover battle. ASU lost that battle 3-1 to Illinois and 2-1 against Memphis. Figure out a way to score. Coach Freeze has talked about how the Tech defense has so much speed it has been able to recover from mistakes.
Finally, how do you see Arkansas State performing the rest of the year? Do you think they can make it to a bowl this year?
Walking through the schedule before the season, I felt like Arkansas State would finish non-conference 2-2 losing at Illinois and Virginia Tech and winning at home against Memphis and Central Arkansas. The league home slate is FIU on a Tuesday night TV appearance, we lost to them by 7 in Miami last year, North Texas who has been a thorn in our side with a lot of close games but we won down there last year, Louisiana who was a narrow loss on the road last year, and Troy who we've always played very well at home. The road slate is Western Kentucky who beat us in OT on a trick play last year but the team was sensing Roberts time was about up at that point, Louisiana-Monroe who we beat last year and tend to always have close games with, Florida Atlantic and they are looking just dreadful this year and at Middle Tennessee. We routed MT last year but have never played well there. The schedule is about as close to a dream as you could get in the Sun Belt. We host the league pre-season #1, #2, #6, and #8. We travel to the two teams tied for the #3 spot but beat both last year, and travel to #7 and #9.
Really think we can be 7-5 without being much better than last year and if Aplin stays healthy, the team comes together and catches a few breaks can boost that by a win or two or three.