ASU still out to get sixth win

Arkansas State Coach Butch Jones celebrates after a blocked punt Sept. 23 at Centennial Bank Stadium in Jonesboro.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)
Arkansas State Coach Butch Jones celebrates after a blocked punt Sept. 23 at Centennial Bank Stadium in Jonesboro. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

Arkansas State (5-5, 3-3 Sun Belt) welcomes Texas State (6-4, 3-3) to Centennial Bank Stadium this afternoon looking to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2019.

It will be the second opportunity for ASU to secure the bowl bid as it fell just short 21-14 at South Alabama last week. Texas State is also looking to get back on track after falling to Coastal Carolina 31-23 on the road last week in rainy conditions.

Auburn transfer TJ Finley will play quarterback for the Bobcats, who have a roster full of transfers that have helped to quickly turn around the program under first-year Coach GJ Kinne, who made the move to San Marcos after one season at Incarnate Word.

The 34-year-old Kinne was hired by Texas State after leading Incarnate Word to a 12-2 record in his lone season coaching the Cardinals. He has quickly moved up the coaching ranks after joining the staff at SMU as a graduate assistant in 2017.

"Great challenge again this week with Texas State coming in here," ASU Coach Butch Jones said. "All you have to do is watch them on video and then you see their results. They're number one [Sun Belt] in total offense. They're number one in scoring offense and they're number one in rushing offense."

Finley has played a key role in the offensive success of the Bobcats, but he has a number of playmakers at his disposal that he will utilize. Running Back Ismail Mahdi is already over 1,000 yards rushing (1,050) on the year and has scored eight rushing touchdowns.

Joey Hobert is the top target for Finley at wide receiver with 804 yards receiving along with seven touchdowns. Kole Wilson and Ashtyn Hawkins are also key players in a deep receiving core for Texas State that likes to play an up-tempo style that does not allow the defense to substitute often.

"He can see the entire field and he has good vision," Jones said of the 6-7, 255-pound Finley. "It's hard to bring him down. You have to be disciplined in the way you tackle, you have to stay in coverage lanes and you can't come out of your coverage responsibilities because he has the arm strength."

ASU defensive backs Trevian Thomas and Samy Johnson have played some of their best football of the season over the last several weeks and will have to continue that play against the high-octane Texas State offense. Johnson, a senior, is looking forward to the challenge in what will be his last home game in a Red Wolves uniform.

"Their quarterback has a really big arm and they have a couple of vets at receiver, so we have to stop them from getting the ball downfield on long plays and just tackle," Johnson said. "I've been telling the guys this game would mean a lot to me but we all just need to play for each other. This game isn't just about me, it's about everybody."

The Bobcats will also utilize Arkansas Razorback transfer Malik Hornsby as a wildcat quarterback for a change of pace. Hornsby has rushed for 229 yards and 6 touchdowns, while also completing 8 passes on the year for 83 yards.

"Obviously with Hornsby as well, he can change the game in a hurry," Jones said. "You have playmakers at the quarterback position. There's a reason why they're the number one offense in the Sun Belt. They don't do it by being one-dimensional."

Jaylen Raynor and the ASU offense will also have its hands full as Texas State plays an aggressive style of defense that is stout against the run. Linebacker Brian Holloway leads the TSU defense with 80 tackles on the season, including 12.5 for a loss, to go along with a pair of interceptions.

"Defensively, they're number two in the country in tackles for loss," Jones said. "They have 85 [TFLs] and forced 13 turnovers. They play extremely physical and they challenge you."

Despite the talented front of Texas State, ASU will need to establish a run game and not become pass happy. Playing from behind most of the game a week ago at South Alabama, ASU struggled to handle its blitz packages and Raynor was sacked four times. The Red Wolves were only able to muster 116 rushing yards in the loss.

"Texas State is more of a penetrating defensive front trying to get up the field and create havoc," Jones said. "That's what they've been able to do and they do it really well."

With a disappointing fan turnout for their last home game against Louisiana-Lafayette on Nov. 4, Jones made a plea for the fan base to show up in force and support the Red Wolves as they honor the 11 seniors on the roster as well as attempt to pick up their elusive sixth win of the season to become bowl-eligible in the final home game of the year.

"We hope that we can get everyone out to attend the game and create a home-field advantage for us," he said. "It's important to let our community know that we appreciate them. Sometimes we don't say thank you enough, so I think this week also is a great opportunity for our entire athletics department to say thank you to our community because they are special to us."