MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Nearly two weeks removed from the loss that kept Arkansas State University from its third consecutive Sun Belt Conference championship, redshirt junior quarterback Justice Hansen laid out his view of the Red Wolves' Camellia Bowl matchup with Middle Tennessee State.
"It's pretty simple," said Hansen, dragging the microphone closer at Friday's news conference just outside the Cramton Bowl. "Coach [Blake Anderson] said the bowl game is the first game of the next season. So it's definitely important for us to do that, to go out with some momentum."
Arkansas State vs. Middle Tennessee State
WHEN 7 p.m. Central
WHERE Cramton Bowl, Montgomery, Ala.
RECORDS Arkansas State 7-4; Middle Tennessee State 6-6
The 32-25 loss to Troy (10-2, 7-1 Sun Belt) was the first time ASU (7-4, 6-2) had finished the regular season with a loss in Anderson's four years at the school, and just the second time during the Red Wolves' streak of seven consecutive bowl appearances.
So why revisit the loss? Why not let it fade behind the fortnight and 400 miles of highway from Centennial Bank Stadium in Jonesboro?
"Honestly, I don't want that loss to be gone completely," said Anderson, who said the team was emotionally beyond it. "I think there's some pieces and some lessons and some feelings from that loss that we need to carry with us. I think it can very well be the catalyst to taking our program to the next step.
"We want to lead the Group of 5 [conferences] into January, and I think a loss like this, something that hurts enough to really remember it, that's one that we're going to carry with us, and I think we need to for the development of our football team."
ASU's prime-time game against former Sun Belt member Middle Tennessee State (6-6, 4-4 Conference USA) will be the second consecutive time the Red Wolves will play a defense that is statistically better.
The Blue Raiders 4-3 defense ranks 30th in the NCAA (348.6 yards allowed per game) and 45th in scoring defense (24.3 points allowed per game). Its high-pressure defensive front (7.3 tackles per loss per game, 2.17 sacks per game) is a challenge for Hansen, the Sun Belt offensive player of the year.
ASU is 1-3 when Hansen throws multiple interceptions, and he was sacked a combined 10 times in those losses to Troy, South Alabama and Nebraska. Hansen was knocked out of the 44-21 loss to SMU when he suffered a lower-back strain while getting hit in the backfield.
"We can't turn the ball over offensively," Anderson said. "If we were able to do that, a week ago we win our third straight title. So, we're learning from that, and we need to carry a clean offensive game plan."
Middle Tennessee State Coach Rick Stockstill said defensive pressure is the key to stopping ASU's 15th-ranked scoring offense (38.5 points per game)
"If they have positive plays on first down, now they dictate to us," Stockstill said. "Especially now that they're starting to run the ball a little bit better than what they did earlier in the year. We've got to try to make them one-dimensional as much as we can, and if we can do that, then the odds are in your favor of creating more pressure on the quarterback."
ASU junior running back Warren Wand rushed for career highs of 138 and 173 yards in victories against Texas State and Louisiana-Monroe, respectively, before being held to 52 yards on 19 carries against Troy.
Anderson said Middle Tennessee State's defense blitzes more than any opponent this season, and he said Hansen and redshirt freshman center Jacob Still have had to "speed up their thought process" in preparation.
It's the same problem ASU wants to give Middle Tennessee State redshirt junior quarterback Brent Stockstill, who is the coach's son.
Brent Stockstill missed six games with an injured left shoulder, including a 38-20 loss to eventual Conference USA champion Florida Atlantic.
The Blue Raiders are 4-2 with Stockstill as the starter, 2-4 without him. He recorded 1,440 yards, 14 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.
"We cannot let him be comfortable," Anderson said. "We've got to speed his clock up, make him move off point, make him speed up his decision making. We've got to hit him. We've got to get to him. It's something that we've done really well all year."
ASU's defense ranks sixth in tackles for loss (8.3 per game) and 10th in sacks (3.89), and senior defensive end Ja'Von Rolland-Jones was awarded Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year for the second consecutive season. His 13 sacks this season were the second most in the nation.
"It all starts with their front four," said Brent Stockstill, who owns school records in touchdown passes (75), completions (710) and passing yards per game (290.6). "We can't allow [Rolland-Jones] to dictate the game."
The last time Middle Tennessee State faced a defense as disruptive -- Marshall (6.8 tackles for loss, 2.25 sacks) -- the Blue Raiders lost 38-10 while surrendering six sacks and eight tackles for loss. Stockstill did not play.
After throwing a pick-six in the middle of the fourth quarter against Troy, Hansen threw two touchdown passes to help ASU regain the lead with 1:28 left in the game.
"The good thing about us is our offense knows we can score at any time," Hansen said. "Unfortunately, too many turnovers in some games, but the great thing about my team is they keep believing in me."
Arkansas State defensive end Ja’Von Rolland-Jones (center) pumps up the crowd during a pep rally for today’s Camellia Bowl against Middle Tennessee State.
Sports on 12/16/2017
Print Headline: ASU sees loss as way forward