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JONESBORO -- The first half of the season for the Arkansas State University football team was filled with highs and lows.

The Red Wolves were rocked by the death of Wendy Anderson less than two weeks before the season opener. Coach Blake Anderson made a surprising return from his leave of absence in Week 2, which was followed by a 26-point road victory over UNLV.

Then injury after injury to difference-makers started to pile up.

The roller coaster manifested in a 3-3 record and 1-1 start to Sun Belt play. With six games left in the season, there's plenty to be concerned about going forward.

After the events of Oct. 5 in Atlanta, there's no getting around the fact the defense is in deep trouble. In a 52-38 loss to Georgia State, ASU gave up 722 yards of offense.

"Nightmare's a good word for it," ASU defensive coordinator David Duggan said Wednesday about the performance. "Any time you're not playing well defensively, it falls on me."

How ASU's defense fares will affect the Red Wolves' place in the Sun Belt standings and the quest for a ninth consecutive bowl berth. That push continues Thursday at 6:30 p.m. when the Red Wolves host Louisiana-Lafayette (4-2, 1-1 Sun Belt) at Centennial Bank Stadium in Jonesboro.

ASU ranks ninth in the Sun Belt in scoring defense, giving up 38.7 points per game, and dead-last (10th) in total defense, giving up 535.8 yards per game.

There's not much shame in losing at Georgia and giving up 55 points, but FCS Southern Illinois, Troy and Georgia State each gave ASU's defense fits in the next three games.

During the team's bye week last week, Anderson didn't shy away from saying the Red Wolves' offense -- which is averaging 33.7 ppg -- is going to have to carry an even greater load.

"We know where most of the injuries are at, and we know where we're the weakest at. We understand that," Anderson said. "We're all pulling together, so the offense needs to pick up the slack, special teams needs to pick up the slack, till we can get the defense settled and find guys that can step in.

"It's a team game. I don't care if it takes 50 [points] or it takes five, we've got to score one more than they do."

Against Georgia State, the Red Wolves found themselves down 21-0 in the second quarter before the offense got rolling. The no-show from the defense gave the Red Wolves too much ground to make up.

"They got hit in the mouth really," Duggan said. "After the game, I think they realized that we didn't play well. Everybody realized we didn't play well. When that happens, nobody feels very good."

Junior cornerback Jerry Jacobs and junior nose tackle Forrest Merrill are each out for the season with injuries. Senior defensive tackle Kevin Thurmon also has missed two straight games with a broken hand, although Anderson is optimistic he will play Thursday night with a protective cast. Senior nickelback Darreon Jackson has been away from the team dealing with "off-the-field issues," according to Anderson, and it's unclear when and if Jackson will return.

Anderson said there are a number of other players on defense who aren't playing at 100%.

"There's been guys that are slow to get up after tackles and holding a shoulder or back or rib or knee," Anderson said. "We'd like to get them to a point where they're fresh and playing a little bit healthier -- whatever healthy is during the season. But we still have a lot of guys that have to step in the roles that they didn't start the season expecting to have, too."

Which is why last week's bye couldn't have come at a better time for the Red Wolves.

Duggan and Anderson stressed Wednesday that seismic changes to the scheme aren't an option at this point. The Red Wolves have to stick to and simplify what they know.

"In my opinion, you got to get them to play fast, and if you don't know what you're doing, you're not gonna be very aggressive, you're not gonna attack, you're not gonna play with confidence," Duggan said. "It's our job to simplify it as much as we can."

Duggan said the bye week was about going back to basics and cutting back on the call sheet, all in an effort to help create more confidence for ASU defenders.

"We went back to like it was the first day of camp and drilled it that way," he said.

But will it translate during the second half of the season?

"We're not really worried about the past," sophomore cornerback Nathan Page said. "So we just got to focus on the next game and execute our game plan and just go out there and play like we can and just forget the last few games."

Sports on 10/13/2019

Print Headline: Wolves' bye week for healing, reset

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