JONESBORO — Don’t get too comfortable.
That’s the warning Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn has for the Red Wolves as they prepare for North Texas this week.
The Mean Green are the final hurdle between Arkansas State and a showdown with Sun Belt Conference leader Louisiana-Monroe the following week. ASU and UNT meet on Saturday afternoon at Apogee Stadium in Denton, Texas.
Malzahn said North Texas will emphasize running the football in its approach, but there is some deception there as well. He hopes the Red Wolves avoid the trap of guessing plays and over-playing the run.
The Mean Green like to put it in the air, too. And when they do, they tend to go for the home run.
“They’re a run, play-action team, and it looks to me like they have an emphasis on throwing it deep,” Malzahn said. “They take a lot of shots.”
Arkansas State (5-3 overall, 3-1 Sun Belt) is preparing for one of the better rushing attacks in the conference. The Red Wolves lead the SBC in rushing with 220.4 yards a game while North Texas is second at 188 yards a game.
While ASU has gotten most of its rushing production from junior running back David Oku, the Mean Green have a more balanced attack.
Junior tailback Brandin Byrd leads UNT with 555 yards and two touchdowns while redshirt freshman Antoinne Jimmerson has run for 487 yards and five TDs. Senior Jeremy Brown complements the backfield, averaging 5.5 yards a carry while gaining 285 yards this season.
North Texas coach Dan McCarney admits he likes to establish the run first.
“We think all three backs are doing a heck of a job,” McCarney said. “We have three backs we trust (and) we like. … We like all those guys and it’s not matter of this guy earlier in the game or this guy later in the game. We just like what we do with those three backs and they’re all doing a heck of a job.”
It’s UNT’s proven running game that has allowed it to take chances in the passing game. North Texas will use play-action fakes and throw out of the shotgun to keep opponents off balance.
While UNT will call for an occasional screen pass or wheel route, it is the deep pass the Mean Green prefer.
“Anybody that, hopefully, establishes a good running game, that’s really what you’re going to try and do,” McCarney said.
And it’s what has Arkansas State concerned.
“They want to come at you,” ASU linebacker Nathan Herrold said. “They want to run it down your throat and they want to take their shots down field. That’s how they approach each game. They want to grind and grind and grind, and then go deep.”
Arkansas State has had some trouble defending the deep pass.
While ASU leads the Sun Belt in pass defense, it’s given up 17 touchdowns through the air. The deep pass has hurt the Red Wolves several times, including a couple against South Alabama and several at Louisiana-Lafayette.
“We had a rough week this last week,” Malzahn said. “They mashed us up. I think we tripped twice and gave up some easy ones. We’re going to have to do a better job, especially in one-on-one situations. At the same time, if it’s a matchup issue, we’ve got to do a better job of protecting those guys.”
Malzahn said it’s been a persistent problem throughout the year, but particularly worse lately.
ASU surrendered 241 yards and three TDs passing to South Alabama, then gave up 374 yards and three TDs to UL-Lafayette. The Red Wolves have given up 24 pass plays of 20 yards or more this season.
“I think we got exposed somewhat last game,” Malzahn said.
North Texas quarterback Derek Thompson is in his second year as the starter but hasn’t been particularly consistent.
Thompson has been intercepted eight times, highest in the Sun Belt, and has the league’s lowest efficiency rating. He’s completed 128-of-226 passes for 56.6 percent, which also ranks at the bottom of the conference.
But McCarney knows Thompson has the ability to burn the Red Wolves deep, especially if they can establish the run first.
“DT has done some real good things for us,” McCarney said. “He’s been a little inconsistent, but when he’s on, he’s pretty darn good.”
ASU hopes it can keep the passing game grounded with an improving pass rush.
The Red Wolves got to ULL quarterback Terrance Broadway several times last week, forcing a couple of errant passes for interceptions and a couple of fumbles. Defensive tackle Amos Draper forced one of the fumbles while defensive end Eddie Porter caused another.
Malzahn said ASU will need similar play up front against UNT.
“We hit the quarterback quite a few times the other night,” Malzahn said “When we didn’t get to him, we were at least around him and we hit him a lot. Those hits add up and I think that really helped us.”
North Texas (3-5, 2-2) will be shorthanded if it tries to air the football out.
Mean Green wide receiver Brelan Chancellor suffered a broken collarbone last Saturday at Middle Tennessee State and is out for the season. Chancellor was second in receptions (25) and yards (450) and leads UNT with five touchdown catches.
With Chancellor sidelined, senior Ivan Delgado will likely play a larger role as a deep threat. Delgado is 6-foot-2 and has a team-high 32 catches for 453 yards, but has yet to reach the end zone.
“We don’t have a lot of guys right now that are going to get behind defensive backs in the secondary because of their flat-out speed,” McCarney said. “Chancellor was one of those guys and when he got behind LSU’s secondary a couple of times, that was real speed. But, we’ve got to find a way and do everything we can to have one more point than our opponents have.”