JONESBORO — Arkansas State was playing its best football of the season when the Thanksgiving holiday interrupted.
Now, after a week off and too much turkey and stuffing, the Red Wolves hope to keep their momentum going when they host Middle Tennessee State in the biggest game of the season. ASU and MTSU meet in a clash that will decide the outright Sun Belt Conference title on Saturday afternoon at Liberty Bank Stadium.
The unknown is whether Arkansas State (8-3 overall, 6-1 Sun Belt) can sustain its success after its longest break of the season.
ASU coach Gus Malzahn doesn’t think that will be a problem.
“I really don’t think that will be the case,” Malzahn said. “The fact that we’ve had good practices, pretty intense practices really before we left for break, (and) we had a very good practice last night. We’ve just tried to keep things as close to routine as possible.”
A break between games is nothing new for Arkansas State, which has played an odd schedule compared to years past.
ASU played six games in a little more than a month between Sept. 1 and Oct. 4. The back part of the schedule was loaded with midweek games, including a Tuesday night contest at Louisiana-Lafayette and Thursday night games against Louisiana-Monroe and Florida International.
The midweek games create longer breaks before the next Saturday contest, allowing the Red Wolves to rest, prepare and practice more. They believe all the inconsistency in the schedule has actually had some long-term benefits.
“Since game four, we haven’t had a normal game week,” ASU offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “We’ve either been on a short week of four days or we’ve been on a long week of nine to 10 to 12 days, and we’ve played on Tuesdays and Thursdays or whatever. I think the fact that we’ve been irregular all year will mean that this probably won’t bother us too much.”
Before the break, the Red Wolves were anything but routine on game days.
ASU enters its showdown with Middle Tennessee having won six straight after losing the Sun Belt opener to Western Kentucky. The Red Wolves have averaged 40.5 points and 461 yards offense during their current win streak.
Senior wide receiver Taylor Stockemer, who had his best game of the season with six catches for 117 yards and a touchdown against Troy, said the offense was performing at its best before the break. He doesn’t believe the time off will disrupt what the Red Wolves have been building.
“We’re definitely getting better every week,” Stockemer said. “We’re still learning the offense and we’re finally getting it down pat to where we know everything and get used to it. I think this time off will help. We’ve had a weird schedule all season, so I don’t think it will hurt us at all.”
Arkansas State had one of its most productive afternoons all season the last time it took the field.
The Red Wolves rolled up 595 yards and upended Troy 41-34 on the road on Nov. 17.
ASU quarterback Ryan Aplin had a record-breaking day against the Trojans with 454 yards total offense, including 369 yards passing and four TDs through the air. Aplin was 28-of-42 passing and also ran for 85 yards in the win.
“We were playing very good,” Aplin said. “There’s always room for improvement, but like Coach said, each week we’ve been getting a little bit better with what we do and with our tempo. We’ve just got to fine tune the things we didn’t so well last week against Troy, but I think we’ve been playing very well.”
That was 10 days ago, though.
The Red Wolves practiced three times last week after the win over Troy, then took Thursday through Saturday off. Most traveled home to spend time with their family and friends for Thanksgiving before coming back Sunday evening.
All of them returned on time without any mishaps. Even better, they came back recharged and ready to go, according to their coaches.
“It all comes back to the way you practice,” Lashlee said. “If we can have some good, crisp practices, which I fully expect us to have Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, then I think it is only going to help us. We’re pretty healthy and our guys feel really good. We should be as healthy as you can be in week 12. We can’t let little things like that affect us.”
Arkansas State will go through its normal practice routine this week leading up to the game.
The Red Wolves are in position to win their second straight outright Sun Belt title with a win on Saturday. They believe that’s more than enough motivation to keep focused on the Blue Raiders this week.
“If you can’t get up for that, the final game of the year at home and the stadium will be rocking, then I don’t know why you play football,” ASU linebacker Nathan Herrold said.