COLUMBIA, Mo. — Arkansas State is just as concerned with itself as anything this evening.
With the meat of the most important part of the schedule on the horizon, the Red Wolves know they must regroup and improve to keep the direction of their season in line with their goals.
A disturbing loss at rival Memphis one week ago revealed some unforeseen problems, so ASU has turned its focus to itself this past week. The Red Wolves spent the majority of their preparation focused on themselves, correcting issues and rebuilding their foundation.
In some ways, Arkansas State went back to “square one,” as new coach Bryan Harsin put it. The Red Wolves weren’t pleased with hardly anything from a 31-7 loss to Memphis, and that has been motivation for the team to take a hard look at itself.
“It hurt, especially losing to Memphis, our biggest rival on the schedule,” ASU cornerback Rocky Hayes said. “Going in and playing like we played, I mean it really hurt. And those are the losses that hurt the worst and they linger on you, but you can’t allow it to.”
Arkansas State faces perhaps its toughest challenge of the season in unbeaten Missouri this evening. Kickoff is 6:30 p.m.
The sting of the loss to Memphis and the disappointment in their performance was the first issue the Red Wolves had to deal with before turning their focus to Missouri.
After a week of physically demanding practices, ASU is ready to prove it’s a better team than it showed last Saturday.
“I think last week woke us up,” ASU quarterback Adam Kennedy said. “Practice has been great and full of energy. Coach made sure to remind us not to let last week’s game cause us to lose this week’s game, learn from it, but let it go. I think we’ve done a good job of that. We had some disappointment that lingered, but we’re looking forward to Missouri.”
Harsin was careful not to criticize his team after it allowed a Memphis school-record seven sacks and yielded more than 500 yards in the loss to the Tigers.
“We didn’t have our best performance against them,” Harsin said.
But he understands the seriousness of the situation.
“The bottom line is, as far as the entire football team, we need to be better,” he said.
Arkansas State (2-2) will have to be much better tonight. The Red Wolves are a three-touchdown underdog and Missouri has one of the nation’s most explosive offenses.
The Tigers (3-0) have scored 38 points or more in each of their first three games, average 567 yards offense, and are ranked No. 7 in the nation in total offense. They’ll operate from the spread formation, use an empty backfield or one-back set, and try to get the football to their playmakers in open space.
The Red Wolves know they’re in for a challenge.
“They run the spread to perfection,” Hayes said. “We’ve got to scheme it up and be ready. I feel like we will be.”
Missouri is led by quarterback James Franklin, a 6-foot-2 senior with a dangerous arm and the ability to run as well.
Franklin is coming off a career-best effort in which he was 32-of-47 passing for 343 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-28 win at Indiana. For the season, Franklin has completed 67 percent of his passes for 873 yards and six TDs. He’s also third on the team in rushing while averaging 5.1 yards a carry.
Harsin said Franklin is a passer first but has dual-threat ability. He’s also atop of ASU’s list of concerns.
“He’s looking to throw it. That’s what he is, he’s a thrower,” Harsin said. “But he’s got all the ability in the world to take off and hurt you. We’ve got to be disciplined on defense with him, and that’s the key to it, because he will find the open guy.”
Franklin has a number of weapons to throw to who all stand 6-foot-4 or taller.
Among them is 6-6 sophomore Dorial Green-Beckham, the nation’s top recruit two years ago. Green-Beckham leads Missouri in receiving, but has help from 6-5 senior Marcus Lucas and 6-4 senior L’Damian Washington.
The Red Wolves’ secondary will be in for a serious test.
“They’re as good a group of receivers as I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” Hayes said. “All of them can catch and run. They’re all deep threats.”
After yielding a school-record seven sacks to Memphis last week, another concern is Missouri’s defensive front.
ASU has worked on offensive line play after losing several one-on-one battles against Memphis. Kennedy has also worked on getting rid of the football quicker when things break down. Arkansas State’s receivers have emphasized sticking with their routes even when things come apart.
Those things could all come into play if Harsin’s assessment of the Tigers is correct.
“They have a very physical defense. They might be the best defensive line that we’ve seen this entire year,” Harsin said. “Their guys are very good. … You look at them and they are all athletic, they’re all big and they all move very well.”
Tonight’s meeting is the first of a home-and-home series and will be third between the schools. Missouri blew out ASU in 2004 by a 52-20 score in Columbia and then again the following year by a 44-17 margin in Kansas City.
Missouri is the second Southeastern Conference opponent for Arkansas State this season. The Red Wolves lost to Auburn three weeks ago, 38-9.
ASU is hoping to show improvement from that effort and last week’s as well.
“It’s a great opponent from a great conference,” ASU safety Sterling Young said. “We want to do well in our conference and we want to repeat as Sun Belt champions, that’s one of our goals. Then again, this is on the big stage and it’s against an SEC opponent, so it has some big-time implications.”