JONESBORO -- Not much has come easy for Arkansas State University this season.
Maybe in retrospect it wasn't surprising the Red Wolves managed to blow a 35-10 second-quarter lead Saturday afternoon at Centennial Bank Stadium against Georgia Southern, only to hang on to win 38-33 thanks to a dramatic defensive fourth-down stop just inches short of the marker in the final minute.
"Another close one," said ASU Coach Blake Anderson, whose Red Wolves are 4-1 this season in games decided by a touchdown or less.
The Red Wolves' victory on senior day marked the team's fourth consecutive victory and their ninth consecutive in the month of November.
ASU (7-4, 5-2 Sun Belt) may not be heading to the Sun Belt Championship Game next month, but it's all but assured itself of a ninth consecutive bowl trip.
Consider where ASU was on Oct. 17, in the aftermath of a 37-20 Thursday night home loss to Louisiana-Lafayette, which clinched the Sun Belt West division on Saturday with a 53-3 romp over Troy. ASU had dropped its second straight game to fall to 3-4 overall and 1-2 in the conference with the loss to the Ragin' Cajuns.
The Red Wolves' defense, crippled by injuries and struggling all season to stop anybody, was in the infant stages of a scheme change that involved position coaches changing responsibilities, something which happens infrequently in the middle of a season. The offense, as effective as it still was, was being guided by a young, inexperienced redshirt freshman and interception-prone quarterback in former Pulaski Academy star Layne Hatcher.
ASU's program prides itself on having been to eight consecutive bowl games, which ranks among the top 15 nationally, but that streak was beginning to appear in serious jeopardy with five games left.
"I thought there were some guys on the fence," Anderson said Saturday night of his team at the time. "Things weren't going exactly how we'd planned. We'd been through a lot off the field. The injuries were piling up. It would've been real easy for some dudes to scatter."
Instead, the Red Wolves collected themselves and rattled off consecutive wins against Texas State, Louisiana-Monroe, Coastal Carolina and Georgia Southern, three of those coming via seven points or less.
ASU trailed 21-3 in the second quarter on the road against Louisiana-Monroe before rallying for a 48-41 win. It trailed 27-21 late in the fourth quarter against Coastal Carolina before a game-winning touchdown pass and extra point in the final minute. And it took a late fourth-down stop on defense Saturday to stave off a strong Georgia Southern rally.
Now ASU, which faces Sun Belt bottom feeder South Alabama (1-10, 0-7) at 4 p.m. Friday in Mobile, Ala., for the regular season-finale, is a victory away from its fifth regular season of at least eight wins in the last nine years.
Maybe it had something to do with it being ASU's home finale, but Anderson was very reflective during his postgame media session Saturday evening when looking back on what his program has had to endure this year, beginning with the death of his wife, Wendy, on Aug. 19 after a long fight with breast cancer.
On the field, ASU experienced a litany of injuries, including to red-hot junior starting quarterback Logan Bonner early on. Ten total Red Wolves have gone down with season-ending injuries, while plenty of others have been hurt. ASU has started nearly 40 different players this season.
But none of it has been enough to slow down the Red Wolves, who, with victories in the regular-season finale and bowl game, can notch nine wins for the first time since 2015, Anderson's second season in Jonesboro.
"It's hard to even quantify when you consider the last two years dealing with what's been going on with my family off the field, and [the team has] been amazing," Anderson said. "And then just the injuries and the schedule and who we play, it's hard to even put into words how special a group this is.
"I don't know if people honestly really outside this room understand exactly just how good a job they've done, and the staff, too, to stick together. Really proud of them. Hopefully we can keep it going. I want to find a way to get to eight [wins]. I want to find a way to get to nine. That's all they're thinking about."
Sports on 11/25/2019
Print Headline: After 3-4 start, ASU all but assured of ninth consecutive bowl trip