JONESBORO -- The mood was tempered late Saturday night inside the Centennial Bank Athletics Operations Center, and it was easy to understand why.
Arkansas State University's 41-28 victory over FCS opponent Southern Illinois wasn't exactly an authoritative bounce-back effort, a week removed from getting whacked 55-0 by No. 3 Georgia on the road.
SIU made the Red Wolves, who entered as 23-point favorites, uncomfortable for nearly the entire night and exposed some glaring issues that will now require major attention heading into Saturday's Sun Belt Conference opener against Troy.
"They weren't dancing and celebrating. They're very realistic about how we played," a subdued Coach Blake Anderson said of his players after the game. "Coming off the field, you could tell they're not happy with how we played, and we want to go back to work. I think they'd go back to work right now if we let them."
After Saturday night, there's no hiding the defense is the biggest concern for ASU (2-2) right now.
The fact is that an FCS team playing with a backup quarterback came into Centennial Bank Stadium and put up 526 yards of offense, 52 more than ASU. The Salukis dominated possession time, claiming 37:33 compared to ASU's 22:27, ran 21 more plays, finished 6-of-13 on third down conversions and had only one three-and-out series.
Had SIU not repeatedly committed costly mistakes on offense -- the Salukis had two turnovers, three turnovers on downs, including two inside ASU's 10-yard line, and a missed 26-yard field goal -- then the Red Wolves could have been staring at a different outcome.
Anderson said it was a "frustrating" night defensively.
"First-down efficiency was really bad. They were getting big chunks on first down, which really just kind of opens up the whole playbook," Anderson said. "When we did get some stops, we had some foolish penalties that did not help as well."
The Salukis gashed ASU for plenty of big plays.
On their very first offensive play of the game, SIU wide receiver Avante Cox -- who finished with 142 yards and a touchdown on 7 catches -- burned senior cornerback Jeremy Smith deep and hauled in a 62-yard reception that set up the Salukis at ASU's 3, which led to a touchdown run two plays later and tied the game 7-7 early.
Later in the first quarter, Cox got by Smith again and scored on a 26-yard touchdown reception that retied the game, 14-14.
"I thought we played a little tentative early, and I thought Jeremy played much better in the second half," Anderson said of the corner play. "Obviously double moves, those are tough."
That second SIU scoring drive, in particular, had been kept alive multiple times thanks to three penalties by junior defensive end William Bradley-King, who was called for offsides and two separate personal fouls. Bradley-King was called for five of ASU's eight penalties on the night, including three offsides.
SIU running back Javon Williams Jr., who gave the Red Wolves fits running out of the Wildcat formation, broke off a 46-yard run in the second quarter. SIU backup quarterback Kare Lyles found a wide-open receiver for a 39-yard touchdown pass on the opening drive of the second half that cut ASU's lead to 31-21. Later in the quarter, Lyles had a 15-yard touchdown run that made it 38-28 ASU.
"Everything we did was mental. We hurt ourselves," said sophomore cornerback Nathan Page, who started in place of the injured Jerry Jacobs. "We just got to play like we can, and we can do a lot better than we did."
The good news is the Red Wolves were able to create timely turnovers again. Outside of Georgia, ASU has forced at least one turnover in each game. On Saturday night, ASU forced two turnovers, including an interception in the end zone, while also making some critical fourth-down stops.
There's still plenty of work to be done for first-year defensive coordinator David Duggan's group, and ASU's first Sun Belt test of the season at Troy (2-1) won't be forgiving offensively.
The Trojans possess one of the best offenses in the conference. Through three games, Troy is averaging 40 points and 513.3 yards per game, while also averaging a league-best 333.7 passing yards.
The Red Wolves are ranked second, averaging 285.5 yards per game through the air thanks to a passing attack that is humming with junior quarterback Logan Bonner and big-play wide receivers in seniors Kirk Merritt and Omar Bayless and junior Jonathan Adams.
"It definitely makes you feel better knowing that we have the ability to strike quickly and strike over the top," Anderson said.
ASU could be in line for a shootout with the Trojans.
"Troy's really good on offense," Anderson said. "They score points every week, so it definitely concerns you going in. It wouldn't matter what week it is. We got to play better over there (on defense). [Duggan] is just as critical as I am. I know he's gonna struggle to sleep. He'll dissect it. We'll find some answers over there."
Sports on 09/23/2019
Print Headline: Despite win, ASU after better results