MOBILE, Ala. — So many similarities with one exception.
Arkansas State can rewrite the final chapter.
Almost one year to the day, Arkansas State returns to the same field, same stadium and same bowl where an unprecedented season ended in disappointment. A lot has changed since, and yet so much is eerily the same.
It’s as if the Red Wolves have repeated themselves, and are trapped in a strange twist of fate. Tonight, though, Arkansas State has the opportunity to push everything aside and restore balance to its natural order.
“It’s been déjà vu all over again for us,” ASU quarterback Ryan Aplin said. “But at the same time, we have a chance to change things and determine our fate. We’ve got a chance to go out and finish strong, to finish the season the way we want to.”
Arkansas State (9-3) concludes yet another amazing season this evening when it tackles Mid-American Conference runner-up Kent State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl. Kickoff is 8 p.m. and the game will be broadcast across the country on ESPN.
The Red Wolves, just like a year ago, blitzed through the Sun Belt Conference on their way to a second straight league title. And just like last season, their head coach, this time Gus Malzahn, departed for another school, leaving them in a bowl without their leader.
To top it off, ASU returns to Ladd-Peebles Stadium and the GoDaddy.com Bowl, where it was defeated by Northern Illinois in the same game one year ago.
It’s an odd set of events that have led Arkansas State back to the same place tonight.
“It definitely feels like déjà vu,” ASU receiver Taylor Stockemer said.
Not everything is the same, though, and that might make a huge difference.
Unlike last year, the Red Wolves have retained their assistant coaches for tonight’s bowl. They’ll have a full staff on the sideline and go in with a complete game plan.
ASU defensive coordinator John Thompson has been promoted to interim coach and will be in charge of strategy and game management. Offensive play calling will fall on the shoulders of offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee.
The experience of a year ago has Arkansas State confident heading into its first-ever meeting with the Golden Flashes.
“It does feel similar in a way, but in another way it doesn’t,” ASU defensive end Tim Starson said. “Last year, we had to go to the bowl without pretty much our entire staff. This year, coach Malzahn is gone but we have everyone else. We’ve been through this before. We know the situation and we’re not as stressed about it. We know what we’ve got to do.”
For Thompson, the priority is simple.
Over the last five weeks, Thompson has used his more than 30 years of experience in coaching to help prepare Arkansas State for one thing. He plans on seeing it through as the Red Wolves aim for back-to-back 10-win seasons.
“The No. 1 thing we want to do is win the game,” Thompson said. “The end goal is winning the game. That’s what matters.”
After suffering through a blowout loss to NIU last year, the Red Wolves return with something to prove.
Aplin, the two-time Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year, has led the school to unprecedented success in the Football Bowl Subdivision. He doesn’t want to have his college career come to a hollow close.
“We can go back, make a statement, and prove how good we really are,” Aplin said. “We didn’t play like the team we were all season in that bowl last year. I know I sure didn’t.”
From quarterback to kicker, lineman to linebacker, it’s the same for the Red Wolves.
“We’re a little bit embarrassed by the way we played last year,” ASU linebacker Nathan Herrold said. “It kind of left a little bit of a bad taste in our mouth leaving there. We want to redeem ourselves.”
“We really do have some unfinished business to take care of just because of how everything went south on us,” added safety Sterling Young.
Kent State (11-2) is making its first bowl appearance in 40 years.
The Golden Flashes had won 10 straight games before losing to Northern Illinois in the MAC championship game. Their last postseason appearance was in the Tangerine Bowl in 1972.
While the two teams have never played, ASU is now quite familiar with its opponent.
Kent State boasts one of the nation’s top running attacks and best kick return games. The Golden Flashes’ defense has created more turnovers than any other in the country other than Oregon.
“This is a great team with a great running game that we’re facing,” Thompson said. “They’re a power football team but they’re a big-play team, too. You have to be prepared for both.”
The Golden Flashes are led by running backs Dri Archer and Trayion Durham. The pair combined for 2,600 yards and 29 rushing touchdowns.
Archer is especially dangerous with his NFL-caliber speed. He averages 9.0 yards per carry, leads the team in rushing (1,352 yards) and receiving (539 yards), and has returned three kickoffs for TDs.
“We’ve got to know where he is going to be on the field at all times,” Young said.
At 6-foot and 250 pounds, Durham is a bulldozer of a runner. He’s plowed his way for 1,248 yards and 14 TDs while gaining 4.9 yards a carry.
“We’re going to have to stop their run game and we’re going to have to stop No. 1 (Archer),” Starson said. “He’s their big-play guy. I feel like if we can stop the run, we can win.”
Arkansas State wasn’t comfortable at the GoDaddy.com Bowl last year. But returning for a second straight year under similar circumstances has the Red Wolves ready this time.
At least, they believe it does.
“Winning that football game is the most important thing for us,” Aplin said.
Just why it is so important? It’s a matter of finishing what started several years ago.
“We’ve kind of come full circle from back-to-back losing seasons to getting snubbed from a bowl my redshirt year, and then last year finally breaking through,” Herrold said. “We need to finish with a bowl win. Everything we’ve been working for and building for comes down to one game.”