MOBILE, Ala. — Hardly anything fazes Arkansas State anymore.
With four coaching changes over four years, ASU has been through more turnover than most teams endure in a decade or two. And it’s that consistent change this time of year that gives the Red Wolves confidence they can handle just about anything, including Ball State, tonight’s GoDaddy Bowl opponent.
Considering the circumstances, Arkansas State strides into the 15th GoDaddy Bowl confident and composed. Kickoff at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, annual home of the Senior Bowl, is 8 p.m.
The game will be televised nationally on ESPN.
For ASU, there’s nothing new about the situation it finds itself in. It’s just another year, another bowl and another opportunity to familiarize the rest of the country with the brand of Red Wolves football.
“We’re here as a team no matter who our coach is,” ASU free safety Sterling Young said. “I think having gone through that first experience, then again last year, has brought everyone closer together and we’ve just built on it. That experience has helped us becaue we’ve been able to take from it, learn and carry it into our bowl game this year.”
Arkansas State (7-5), which won a share of the Sun Belt Conference title, plays in the GoDaddy Bowl without its head coach for the third straight year tonight.
Former coach Hugh Freeze led ASU to a 10-win season and the SBC crown in 2011, then left for Ole Miss while gutting the staff. Last year, Gus Malzahn led Arkansas State to a repeat Sun Belt title, and then bolted for the University of Auburn the same day Freeze left a year before.
After guiding ASU to a share of the league title, this time it was Bryan Harsin’s turn to pull the rug out from underneath the Red Wolves. Two weeks after the regular season ended, Harsin was hired by his alma mater Boise State.
So, as he did last year, defensive coordinator John Thompson will lead Arkansas State into the bowl after being named the interim coach. He’s managed team operations since Harsin’s departure and ready for another GoDaddy Bowl challenge.
“I’m looking forward to coaching the bowl,” Thompson said. “It should be another exciting game like last year. We’re facing a very talented opponent.”
The Red Wolves say the annual turnstile of change has been hurtful even though they understand college football is a business. They barely can get to know their coach and then he’s gone, so the only constant they have is themselves.
They’ve learned to depend on each other no matter what, and they believe that gives them an advantage no other team in the country has.
“We’re all we’ve got,” ASU cornerback Rocky Hayes said. “When all these coaches are leaving us in just a year, it shows the players that if we don’t have each other’s back, nobody else does. We’ve got to watch out for each other, and that makes you fight harder for the person beside you.”
While coaching changes have become an annual theme at Arkansas State, the GoDaddy Bowl has become equally familiar.
The Red Wolves have been here, done that and won’t be wide-eyed or in awe. They know what to expect and what is expected of them.They believe past experience plays into their hands.
“We have a lot of seniors and a lot of upperclassmen on this team that has been through this several times now,” ASU tight end Darion Griswold said. “They know how it is, they know what to do and they know how to handle the adversity. It’s made us a tight group.”
After not seeing the postseason since 2005, Arkansas State is making its third straight GoDaddy Bowl appeareance. The Red Wolves suffered a 38-20 loss to Northern Illinois in the bowl two years ago, then held on for a 17-13 win over Kent State last year.
One might believe a third straight trip to the same bowl, in the same city with the same week of events leading up to the game could get a little redundant, perhaps tiring. But the Red Wolves say that’s not the case at all.
Any bowl game is better than none, and the GoDaddy Bowl is a great opportunity.
“I’m thankful for the GoDaddy Bowl,” ASU center Bryce Giddens said. “I had fun there last year and I think the whole team did. We’re excited to go back. The GoDaddy puts on a great few days while we’re down there with stuff to do. It sure beats the alternative.”
“The way you have to look at it is it’s another chance to play and another win that we can get,” Griswold added. “It’s another opportunity to play the game we all love. Everybody doesn’t get to go to a bowl game and that’s what you have to remember. It’s a priviledge to have another chance to play another game.”
Another way to look at it is tonight offers a chance to build Arkansas State’s brand, because the Red Wolves face an excellent opponent.
Ball State (10-2) comes into the meeting with one of the highest-powered passing offenses in the country led by a quarterback that has picked opponents apart.
BSU is scoring 40.1 points a game, which ranks 12th in the country, and averages 333.3 yards passing, which ranks 10th nationally. While the Cardinals operate from traditional formations, they love to throw the ball on running downs and use the pass to set up their rushing attack.
It’s an offense that Thompson knows is very dangerous.
“I’m very concerned,” Thompson said. “They have speed outside, their quarterback is completing 65 percent of his passes and they’ve got a really good vertical passing game. You can’t sleep on their running game either. They’re impressive, really good at everything they do.”
Ball State quarterback Keith Wenning ended the regular season No. 5 in the nation in passing yards with 3,933. He’s completed 296-of-454 attempts with only six interceptions, and is sixth in the country with 34 touchdowns.
The Red Wolves know they must rattle Wenning, make him uncomfortable, and keep him from beating them.
“It all goes through their quarterback,” ASU linebacker Qushaun Lee said. “We’ve got to get on their quarterback fast. When he drops back to pass, our D-line needs to get on him quick.”
Ball State has a trio of receivers that have combined for 3,300 yards and 32 TDs. Willie Snead has had a monster junior season with 97 catches for 1,429 yars and 14 touchdowns to rank among the best receivers in the country.
The Cardinals also like to throw to their tight end, Zane Fakes, a 6-foot-3, 237-pound senior. Fakes has 37 catches for 382 yards and a pair of TDs.
The Cardinals also have a strong running game behind junior Jahwan Edwards, who rushed for 964 yards and scored 13 TDs. Backup Horactio Banks carried for 616 yards and seven scores, but will miss the bowl after tearing his ACL late in the season.
Thompson said the Red Wolves must pressure Wenning first and be physical against what he describes Ball State as an “old-school” football team.
“He’s very confident, he’s not a gunslinger, he just knows what he’s doing in their offense,” Thompson said. “He’s very precise, very accurate and very organized. We’ve got to disrupt his apple cart.”
Arkansas State knows its situation well, knows the surroundings and knows its opponent. The Red Wolves want to prove they’re a better team than the one that started the season 3-4 and ended with a heartbreaking loss at Western Kentucky.
ASU quarterback Adam Kennedy is expected to play despite injuring his knee in the regular-season finale.
Kennedy said the Red Wolves have a second chance to finish the season right tonight. The seniors hope to leave the field for the last time with a win while the underclassmen have a chance to impress their next head coach.
ASU hired North Carolina offensive coordinator Blake Anderson on Dec. 19. He’ll assume control of the program following the GoDaddy Bowl.
“I think it’s a great mindset that we have heading into this game,” Kennedy said. “With the seniors wanting to end it the way they do, and with the lower classmen wanting to impress the new coach, I think it’s a really good mindset. That last game at Western Kentucky left a sour taste in our mouth. We’ve all been looking forward to this game as another chance to end the season the right way.”