JONESBORO — Arkansas State is doubling its preparation for defending the quarterback this week.
The first-year experiment of a two-quarterback system has proven highly successful at Troy. The Trojans have been the most productive offense in the Sun Belt Conference, but are just about the least predictable.
With drop-back quarterback Corey Robinson and a dual-threat Deon Anthony, Troy has a lot of options behind center.
ASU’s challenge is figuring out a way to slow down both when the two teams meet on Saturday. That’s a very complicated task.
“It’s not so much like one is a complete passer and one is a complete runner,” Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn said. “Their runner is actually a very good thrower, too. They present challenges with both those quarterbacks being very efficient.”
Robinson is a 6-foot-2 NFL-style junior who prefers to drop back, sit in the pocket and sling it. He leads the Sun Belt with 2,521 yards passing along with 10 touchdowns.
Anthony is of a different mold.
The 6-foot junior college transfer from Hinds Community College is a versatile quarterback who can throw the football about as well as he runs it. His dual-threat ability has given the Trojans an extra dimension that defenses have had a hard time catching up to.
“It’s not like he’s just a wildcat guy,” Malzahn said. “He’s a quarterback that has very good running skills that also can throw it.”
Anthony has passed for 728 yards and eight touchdowns this season. He’s completed 69.4 percent of his passes and only been intercepted twice.
Troy coach Larry Blakeney said his staff found Anthony during recruiting and sold him on the idea that he would be used as a wildcat quarterback who could throw, too. Combined with Robinson’s deep, vertical passing arm, the two have meshed into one of the most potent passing offenses in the country.
“I think they’ve really gotten comfortable with it, the two of them, and that’s made the team comfortable with it,” Blakeney said. “Deon has certainly done some really good things and gives us another dimension. Of course Corey knows this offense probably better than I do. He’s a guy that can do all the things we need him to do.”
While Anthony has proven to be an excellent passer, it’s his legs that really make him dangerous.
Anthony is second on the team in rushing behind senior Shawn Southward. He’s carried 73 times for 368 yards and six touchdowns while averaging 5 yards a carry.
“Deon adds that dimension of being able to run the football,” Blakeney added. “He’s good at run-pass type things on the edge. It’s really been a good thing for us. You see a lot of people put their wildcat guy in there and it’s a running back or wide receiver that basically can’t throw the football, but this guy can.”
Troy (5-5 overall, 3-3 Sun Belt) has been on a bit of a roller-coaster ride this season.
The Trojans are No. 12 in the nation and lead the Sun Belt in total offense, averaging 499.5 yards a game. They’ve rolled up more than 1,300 yards, including 911 yards through the air, in their last two games alone.
That has Arkansas State (7-3, 5-1) trying to figure out ways to put pressure on Robinson and somehow contain Anthony.
“We’re going to have to find a way to get both of these guys uncomfortable,” ASU defensive coordinator John Thompson said. “We need to make them feel the pressure. It’s kind of like a fast break (full-court press) in basketball. You may not get the steal, but it gets them out of rhythm and that’s definitely in our favor.”
The Red Wolves believe the best way to disrupt Troy’s offense will be through the battle in the trenches.
ASU has used excellent play along its defensive line, getting pressure on previous quarterbacks in recent weeks. The Red Wolves have chosen carefully when to stunt and blitz their linebackers and safeties, producing six sacks the last two games.
“It all starts with the play up front,” ASU defensive end Tim Starson said. “We want to get pressure on their quarterback. But, we also have to stop the run and force them to throw the ball.”
Troy won’t be shy in its approach.
The Trojans have thrown the ball 423 times compared to 385 rushing plays this season, a ratio that indicates they’ll throw it around 52 percent of the time.
Last week, Troy passed for 415 yards in a 41-31 victory over Navy. The week before the Trojans passed for 496 yards and had 721 yards total offense in a 55-48 loss at Tennessee.
It’s the explosive ability that Troy’s quarterbacks showed against the Volunteers that has Malzahn concerned. Robinson passed for 393 yards and a TD while Anthony threw for 103 yards and two TDs, and also ran for 51 yards and a score in the loss.
“It’s an outstanding offense that is getting better and better,” Malzahn said. “It really looks like they are clicking.”
Malzahn is plenty familiar with the wildcat and how it functions.
He was offensive coordinator at the University of Arkansas in 2006 when the Razorbacks turned running back Darren McFadden into a hybrid quarterback. He’s used similar offenses at Tulsa, Auburn and Arkansas State.
And while Troy will use two quarterbacks to keep ASU off balance this weekend, the Red Wolves might do the same.
Arkansas State used freshman Fredi Knighten early in the season as a wildcat quarterback, substituting him occasionally for senior Ryan Aplin. More recently running back David Oku has lined up behind center, too.
Who is to say the Red Wolves won’t employ some similar strategies as Troy this week? Malzahn hasn’t forgotten about Knighten.
“There will be a time before the end of the year is up that we’ll probably go back to it,” Malzahn said. “Right now we’re playing good football with our traditional offense and I just want to make sure that Ryan stays in a rhythm, especially when we’re playing well.”
As for now, the Red Wolves have to figure out Troy’s two-dimensional wildcat along with one of the best passers in the country.
“It starts up front,” Thompson said. “No matter what it is or who it is, the passing game or spreading it all out, you’ve still got to play well up front and be physical up front. Then there’s the big plays … we’ve got to find a way to limit them because that’s how they’ve won games.”