Don't bother trying to convince Arkansas State University Coach Blake Anderson that today's regular-season finale against Sun Belt Conference bottom feeder South Alabama doesn't mean much or possess important stakes, even though on paper that is essentially the case.
The Red Wolves (7-4, 5-2 Sun Belt Conference) will be bowling for a ninth consecutive season, although they won't be playing for the Sun Belt championship next weekend against Appalachian State.
In reality, there isn't a ton at stake for ASU, other than avoiding what would constitute as a major letdown loss and becoming the only team in the Sun Belt this year to lose to South Alabama (1-10, 0-7). Kickoff from Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala., is at 4 p.m. Central.
But Anderson indicated on Monday that he views the importance of today's game with a much broader scope.
"Whether you believe it or not, this is the first game of next year," Anderson said. "Every game to me is just what's it gonna do to carry over into recruiting, what's it gonna do to carry over into the offseason? The guys that are coming back, what kind of momentum is it gonna build? That's the challenge this senior class has -- keep winning because we can, because we can improve and because what it does for the program in general and the legacy that it leaves."
So how does ASU, which is an 11-point favorite, avoid a legacy of a major letdown?
A good start may be forgetting about South Alabama's record altogether. Sure, the Jaguars have only won one game in Coach Steve Campbell's second season since leaving the University of Central Arkansas, but Anderson made it clear that they're better than their record suggests, citing close losses to Georgia Southern and Louisiana-Lafayette.
"We don't want to play [to] their record. If you look at the record, you just assume this is a team that you're gonna beat," Anderson said. "It's their senior day, it's their last game, they're not going to a bowl game -- there's a million different reasons why you're gonna get their best game. I just always assume that we're gonna get everybody's best effort, and I'm surprised when we don't. I'd love it if they go out and play terrible. I'd love it to be easy. It just won't be, and our guys need to be prepared that it won't be."
Much like he did prior to the Georgia State and Louisiana-Monroe games earlier this season, Anderson put a premium this week on his team bringing its own energy, considering it'll likely be a subdued environment awaiting ASU today.
And there will also be a desperate opponent awaiting the Red Wolves. South Alabama's lone victory came in Week 2 against Jackson State and has since lost nine consecutive games.
Arkansas State at South Alabama
WHEN 4 p.m. Central
WHERE Ladd-Peebles Stadium, Mobile, Ala.
RECORDS ASU (7-4, 5-2 Sun Belt); South Alabama (1-10, 0-7)
RADIO KFIN-FM, 107.9, in Jonesboro; KHLR-FM, 106.7, in Little Rock
COACHES Blake Anderson (46-28 in six seasons at ASU); Steve Campbell (4-19 in two seasons at South Alabama)
SERIES ASU leads 6-1
LAST SEASON ASU defeated South Alabama 38-14 in Jonesboro
LINE ASU by 11
But the Jaguars have been knocking on the door as of late.
Prior to last week's 28-15 loss against Georgia State, South Alabama had led Sun Belt West winner Louisiana-Lafayette 21-17 in the third quarter before falling 37-27. The week before that, South Alabama led Texas State 28-27 in the fourth quarter before losing 30-28. And on Oct. 3, the Jaguars lost in double overtime to Georgia Southern 20-17.
"They've been really, really close a lot of weeks," Anderson said. "There've been some games where you look at them and they just have not played well at all, but we know they are capable if they find some consistency this week and they play their best ball. They'll be all we want to handle."
So, too, will likely be South Alabama senior running back Tra Minter, who, despite a 5-9, 205-pound frame, is easily the Jaguars' biggest weapon.
The Jaguars' offense ranks dead last in the Sun Belt in both scoring offense (17 points per game) and total offense (315.3 yards per game), and ninth in pass offense (147.9 yards per game). But they do have Minter, who's rushed for 951 yards -- which ranks fifth in the league -- and 4 touchdowns this season, averaging 5.5 yards per attempt.
"He's a pretty physical running back. Got really good quickness," ASU defensive coordinator David Duggan said. "He's a bigger, more powerful guy, but he also has got some twitch to him. He's one of the better running backs in the league, and our defense is gonna have our work cut out for [us]."
ASU, winners of its last four games, including three by a touchdown or less, can capture an eight-win regular season today for the third time of the Anderson era and the fifth time since 2011.
That may be the only concrete thing at stake for the Red Wolves, but it's something that would be a significant psychological boost to a program that's experienced their share of on-and-off-the-field challenges since August.
"I think it's just a testament to our guys and just everybody on staff just how we've weathered the storm," senior safety BJ Edmonds said this week. "Just all the injuries we've had, all the difficult times we've had throughout this season, just to keep playing and pushing and just come together closer -- we're closer than ever, we're starting to play really good ball right now, and I think it's showing. I think that's just a testament to everybody just sticking together and just playing for each other."
Sports on 11/29/2019
Print Headline: Red Wolves' focus on cellar-dwellers