JONESBORO -- Arkansas State had this one dialed up. Fourth and 1 inside their own 35, the Red Wolves were ready for the scenario.
Quarterback Layne Hatcher jogged toward the sideline. Backup Wyatt Begeal sprinted in. The true freshman hadn't thrown a pass all season, but he'd been repeatedly touted for his legs. ASU was going to go with an option play.
Begeal put the ball in the chest of running back Lincoln Pare, then pulled it away as the Louisiana-Monroe defensive end crashed. He spotted an alley, taking off for the line to gain.
Begeal promptly stumbled at the 31, his forearm landing right at the 33, a full yard short of where he had to get.
It wasn't a fatal mistake -- Louisiana-Monroe didn't score on the ensuing possession after ASU's turnover on downs. But it was emblematic of the issues the Red Wolves have had on critical downs all season long.
Against the Warhawks, ASU was a combined 6 for 21 on third and fourth downs, the most critical conversion coming on a third and 4 as the Red Wolves marched for the go-ahead field goal in the final minutes. But they still failed three times on plays needing just one yard, and those are scenarios Coach Butch Jones expects his team to consistently convert.
"When you get into third and 2 or third and 3, you're looking at about a 75 to 80% [conversion rate], which is three out of four...that's pretty high," Jones said. "You're always trying to stay on schedule and you know when you reach a certain distance, 'Hey, we're in two-down territory.'"
Failing on third and fourth downs is a problem that's persisted throughout the season. ASU's 34.3% third-down rate is second-worst in the Sun Belt to only South Alabama and 105th among all 130 FBS teams. The Red Wolves' fourth-down percentage is last as they've gone 3 of 13 (23.1%).
Not only has that given ASU's scuffling defense short fields to contend with, but it's simply put them on the field period.
And given that the Red Wolves are by far a better team on the offensive side of things -- their passing attack is 12th in the nation, just behind Alabama -- they'd benefit greatly by finding a way to sustain drives, whether it's through the air or finding some success with a run game that remains stuck in neutral.
"When you're able to run the football, you're able to control the game, control the tempo," Jones added. "Football is a game of one-on-one matchups. ... It comes to down to being 11 for 11 -- 11 players, doing their jobs, all working together as one, and that's extremely hard to do."
Comings and goings
One of the biggest questions entering the 2021 season was the status of running back Marcel Murray. Although the Hiram, Ga., native had missed several games due to injury over his first three seasons in Jonesboro, Murray declared himself the best he'd felt since high school during fall camp.
The most experienced back in ASU's stable, Murray appeared poised for a lead role.
But Murray announced Tuesday that he was entering the transfer portal after 14 carries this season in four games. The Red Wolves have leaned on the trio of Lincoln Pare, Alan Lamar and Johnnie Lang Jr. out of the backfield, although they've struggled to gain much traction -- the Red Wolves rank 127th out of 130 teams nationally with 82.0 rush yards per game.
"Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase," Murray wrote in part on his Twitter page. "I want to say thank you to my entire A-State family."
Murray, the 2018 Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year, will have two years of eligibility remaining after redshirting this season.
"I'm thankful for everything that [Marcel] brought to our program ... and I have a lot of respect for him," Coach Butch Jones said. "But moving forward, it's important that we have players who want to be here, that want to build this program."
ASU has added two more pieces to its 2022 recruiting class in the last week. Marlique Fleming, a 6-6, 250-pound offensive tackle out of Holmes County Central in Lexington, Miss., verbally committed last Thursday, and 6-3, 230-pound edge rusher Javante Mackey from Memphis Whitehaven announced his commitment Sunday.
That makes eight of the Red Wolves' 16 current commits who play on either the offensive or defensive lines, fulfilling a promise Jones has made repeatedly this season about building in the trenches.
A backfield addition?
With Marcel Murray in the transfer portal, Coach Butch Jones hasn't ruled out backup quarterback Wyatt Begeal being a potential option to supplement the ASU run game.
"The thing that I love about Wyatt is that he's extremely competitive [and] selfless," Jones said of Begeal. "I like him at quarterback because I think any time you can keep some plays alive with your legs, [it's helpful]. ... I think it's depending on where we're at [with quarterbacks]."
Begeal could return to the third-string quarterback spot if James Blackman is available Saturday at Georgia State.
Blackman has missed multiple games due to a shoulder injury and then spent the last week away from the team due to a family death but returned to practice earlier this week. Jones did not indicate that he would start, meaning Layne Hatcher is in line to start for a fifth consecutive game after throwing for 444 yards at Louisiana-Monroe.