JONESBORO — Arkansas State ranks among the Football Bowl Subdivision’s best teams at protecting the football this season, losing only 13 turnovers in 12 games.
The Red Wolves are about to face one of the nation’s best teams at taking it away in the GoDaddy Bowl.
Ball State’s defense has recovered 18 fumbles, the most of any team in college football’s top division. The Cardinals have 30 total takeaways, tied for seventh nationally, and they are tied for ninth in turnover margin at plus-one per game.
ASU interim head coach John Thompson said Ball State’s success at forcing turnovers and avoiding penalties — the Cardinals are also among the least-penalized teams in FBS — points to a disciplined, well-coached team. But he’s confident the Red Wolves (7-5) will take care of the football Sunday night in Mobile, Ala., too.
“We’ve been good. We’ve tried to put them in a bunch of situations all year long,” Thompson said after Monday’s practice. “Our offense protects the ball. If we go through it and we’re in the minus end in turnovers, that’s not a good deal at all.
“We’ve got to cause them bad plays. We’ve got to get some turnovers, and we can’t turn it over. They thrive on that. When you watch them and study them, they’re extremely well-coached, very, very disciplined. They’re a good football team.”
Ball State (10-2) is also known for an explosive offense. Quarterback Keith Wenning leads a prolific passing attack that helps the Cardinals average 40.1 points per game.
ASU co-offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz said Ball State has played with the lead a lot, putting pressure on opponents and thus leading to turnovers. “We’re going to have a great defensive game plan with Coach Thompson,” Drinkwitz added, “and we’ve got to play with a lead if we can.”
With 13 turnovers — seven fumbles, six interceptions — the Red Wolves are tied for sixth nationally in turnovers lost. ASU has had only two multi-turnover games, losing two fumbles against both Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Georgia State.
Drinkwitz doesn’t expect the Red Wolves to have trouble with ball security in the GoDaddy Bowl, either, not after focusing on it all season under former head coach Bryan Harsin.
“That was one of Coach Harsin’s biggest stressers, that we would focus on ball security. We did deals all throughout fall camp and every Tuesday, we had an emphasis on ball security,” Drinkwitz said. “We would go through the blaster twice. We did have some fumbling at the end of the year and we made sure we tried to correct that with a little more blaster and strip drill, that kind of thing.”
Thompson hopes pitting the starters against each other in practices leading up to the bowl will also help the Red Wolves stay sharp after a lengthy layoff.
“That’s why we have kept going good versus good every practice in some form,” Thompson said. “We’ve tried to be physical in some form where our backs are getting hit. They may not be getting tackled every day, but we’re trying to punch out the ball.
“We’re trying to put our quarterbacks under real pressure where their timing is good and they don’t flinch. We try to keep our defense hungry in that regard where they can expect some things. I think we’re in good shape, I really do.”
The Red Wolves will hold their final practice in Jonesboro today, then travel to Mobile on Wednesday. ASU will use the University of South Alabama’s practice field for workouts Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Thompson was pleased with what he saw Monday.
“We executed well with both groups. You can tell we’re starting to recognize a lot of things,” Thompson said. “That’s coming on. I think we’re on a good pace.”