JONESBORO — Troy coach Larry Blakeney is in Arkansas State’s corner.
After facing Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee State the past two weeks, Blakeney believes the Red Wolves will win their second straight Sun Belt Conference title when the league’s top two teams square off this weekend.
ASU and MTSU are tied atop the Sun Belt standings and the winner will claim the outright conference championship. They’ll meet Saturday at Liberty Bank Stadium at 2 p.m.
Blakeney didn’t hesitate when asked which team he thought would win.
“These guys at Middle have risen to the occasion after some ups and downs, but I think they’ll have to play their best game to beat Ark-State. That’s just pointblank,” Blakeney said. “I’ve seen them both and, of course, we played Ark-State here and we played Middle at their place, and I think Middle will have to play a super, four-quarter game to beat Ark-State.”
Blakeney’s words probably won’t be taken lightly by Middle Tennessee, and they probably shouldn’t be either.
Blakeney is the dean of Sun Belt football coaches, having been at Troy the past 22 seasons. He led the Trojans to five straight conference championships between 2006 and 2010, and has plenty of experience to back his opinion.
“I just think Arkansas State is the better team,” Blakeney said.
Arkansas State defeated Troy 41-34 in a shootout at Veterans Memorial Stadium on Nov. 17.
The Red Wolves rolled up 595 yards total offense as quarterback Ryan Aplin passed for 369 yards and four touchdowns. But it was Arkansas State’s defense that came up big when it had to help secure the victory.
Troy was forced to settle for field goals on four different occasions after driving deep into Arkansas State territory. It’s ASU’s defense that Blakeney believes will make the difference.
“I just think they’re better overall, physically,” Blakeney said. “Defensively, they give you more varied looks and come at you some and mix it up, and they can play the defend schemes, too.”
Troy had a chance to become bowl eligible in its regular-season finale last week at MTSU, but couldn’t overcome its own mistakes.
The Trojans outgained Middle Tennessee offensively, but self-destructed with five turnovers in a 24-21 defeat. Among the miscues, they lost a pair of fumbles inside the MTSU 10-yard line, had two more fumbles that led to field goals, and threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown with just under six minutes to play.
“We turned it over five times and you can’t beat anybody in our league when you turn the ball over five times, I don’t think,” Blakeney said. “I felt like we certainly had our chances to win the game and couldn’t get it done.”
Arkansas State comes into the meeting on a six-game winning streak while Middle Tennessee has won four straight. Both have 8-3 overall records and stand 6-1 in the Sun Belt.
But Blakeney said the Blue Raiders were probably not as talented as their record might suggest. He believes MTSU makes up for its deficiencies by playing solid team football.
“I think they’re close to each other and I think they like each other, and I think they play together,” Blakeney said. “They’re not trying to kill you on every snap. They’re trying to make sure they don’t break down.”
Arkansas State trails the overall series 9-4, but the Red Wolves have won the last two meetings. ASU won for the first time ever at MTSU last year, rolling to a 45-19 victory.
Middle Tennessee appears to be shorthanded with several injuries at several key positions.
MTSU coach Rick Stockstill said the Blue Raiders are missing numerous starters due to injury.
“We’ve been depleted pretty good,” Stockstill said. “I was looking at it this morning, and probably since about the fifth or sixth game, it looks like we will go into this game with seven or eight starters not being able to play. The injury bug has hit us pretty good here the last half of the season.”
Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn said his team is relatively healthy during his weekly press conference on Monday. The Red Wolves had last week off and were able to mend from a physical game at Troy.
ASU is a 10-point favorite to beat the Blue Raiders, according to several Las Vegas oddsmakers.
“Offensively, I would definitely give the nod to Ark-State,” Blakeney added. “Defensively, I think Ark-State is as good as most in our league. … They may give you a few things, but every now and then they are going to be good enough to win on defense.”