JONESBORO -- The blaring music and shouts coming from inside the home team's locker room echoed throughout the Centennial Bank Athletics Operation Center on Saturday night.
Upstairs in the team's auditorium, senior wide receiver Omar Bayless stood at a podium addressing the media following Arkansas State University's resounding 38-14 victory over Texas State.
Bayless couldn't help but acknowledge the commotion happening below.
"You can hear the energy down there right now. It just feels good to win," said Bayless, who after Saturday now has 1,070 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns this year, leading the nation with both marks. He's the fifth receiver in ASU history to post at least 1,000 yards in a season, and he's 87 yards away from breaking the single-season school record.
"Don't nobody want to lose. So whenever you do win, you just got to cherish those wins and you got to celebrate them, and that's what they're doing down there in that locker room."
Video surfaced after the game from the team's Twitter account of ASU Coach Blake Anderson and defensive coordinator David Duggan dancing in the middle of the locker room, much to the amusement of Red Wolves players.
The actions revealed the unsaid -- ASU needed to win Saturday in a pretty bad way.
The Red Wolves (4-4, 2-2 Sun Belt) snapped their two-game losing streak, returned to .500 and stayed in the Sun Belt West division race. With four games left, ASU sits one-half game back in the division of Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe, which are tied for first at 2-1. The Red Wolves travel to Monroe, La., to face the Warhawks on Saturday afternoon.
Sure, ASU was supposed to defeat Texas State, as the Bobcats entered as a double-digit underdog and played with a backup quarterback in Tyler Vitt.
But after ASU's prior two showings against Georgia State and Louisiana-Lafayette, nothing was guaranteed.
It appears the Red Wolves' patchwork defense has at least found a bit more momentum. That unit, much maligned all season for its glaringly poor play, an inability to get off the field, its liability to giving up big plays and sluggish tackling, has shown improvement over its last two games, as Anderson following the Texas State victory.
"I felt like the guys are starting to learn their roles better. We're continuing to teach and guys improve," Anderson said. "I don't want to say that we've arrived yet by any means. The challenges are gonna continue to get tougher for us. But I could see more energy, more communication, guys playing downhill, playing more physical and competitive at the point of attack."
A switch to playing with three down linemen has helped up front, and the secondary has also played better. ASU gave up 14 points, 227 yards of offense and eight first downs -- all season lows -- and limited Texas State's offense to 30 yards and one first down over the final two quarters. The Red Wolves also had three takeaways, including two acrobatic interceptions by sophomore cornerback Nathan Page in the third quarter.
"Lot of improvement, or lot of signs of improvement, and I think we can still get better," Anderson said. "You don't like changing scheme midseason, but it's gonna take gradual improvement, and I think we're seeing that."
The defensive improvement, however minimal, gives the Red Wolves cause for some added optimism in the final four games, although ASU will be in for a bit stronger of a test defensively this week against Louisiana-Monroe.
What's more, ASU's offense has ran the ball the best it has all season during the last two games. Sophomore Marcel Murray, who's nursed an ankle injury for much of the season, has been strong as of late, combining for 278 yards and 2 touchdowns while averaging 4.9 yards per carry in ASU's last two games.
"It takes a lot of pressure off [redshirt freshman quarterback] Layne [Hatcher] and what he has to do," Anderson said. "People have to add bodies to the box. That's when our one-on-one matchups start taking over. Hopefully we can continue to run the ball effectively so that it puts people in a position where they have to choose."
Last Monday, Anderson proclaimed that the Red Wolves, despite all of their struggles and key injuries this season, fully expect to win out and finish 8-4.
Doing so isn't unreasonable. ASU's toughest games on the schedule are behind them. ASU faces Louisiana-Monroe (3-4, 2-1) and then has a bye week, before closing with Coastal Carolina (3-4, 0-3) and Georgia Southern (4-3, 2-1) in Jonesboro and against lowly South Alabama (1-7, 0-4) on the road in the regular-season finale.
The path to a ninth consecutive bowl berth is right in front of the Red Wolves.
"I think down in that locker room right now there are a lot of happy guys," Hatcher said Saturday night. "Lot of football left to play for them. We're really happy as a team. It's good to dance in the locker room after a game for sure."
Sports on 10/28/2019
Print Headline: Red Wolves' smile grow with victory