JONESBORO — It’s out there, dangling like a golden carrot in front of Arkansas State.
Not a lot has been said about it. There hasn’t been much need to worry about it until this week. And now the Red Wolves have it on their minds more than ever.
Arkansas State returns to Sun Belt Conference play this evening after a pair of road victories appear to have turned its season around. Now the Red Wolves are one win away from reaching one of their most important preseason goals — bowl eligibility — and they’ll get that chance this evening when Texas State visits.
Kickoff is 6:30 p.m. at Liberty Bank Stadium.
First-year ASU coach Bryan Harsin said he hasn’t even approached the subject the last three weeks.
“I haven’t mentioned anything about a bowl,” Harsin said. “We’ve talked about it, it’s in our goals but I haven’t said anything about that really since the (Louisiana)-Lafayette game. We haven’t talked about that, we really haven’t talked about the conference other than what we talk about our goals. We just talk about what we need to do each week.”
Arkansas State (5-4 overall, 3-1 Sun Belt) has gone from being on the bowl bubble to rejoining the postseason conversation the last two weeks.
The Red Wolves pulled out a 17-16 nailbiter two weeks ago at South Alabama to even their record. ASU overwhelmed Louisiana-Monroe 42-14 last week to climb into second place in the Sun Belt and reassert its position as a team to contend with down the stretch.
“We are in a position to continue to have an opportunity at the Sun Belt Conference championship and that’s our goal,” Harsin added. “All we can do is control how we play and I like the way our guys have played. I’m hoping we have that same type of mindset coming into this game.”
With a win this evening, which would be the sixth of the season, Arkansas State would reach bowl eligibility for the third straight year.
After participating in just one bowl game from 1992 to 2010, ASU has played in the GoDaddy.com Bowl each of the last two years. The Red Wolves want to extend that streak and the first step is reaching the six-win plateau.
There’s no question that reaching bowl eligibility, whether it’s talked about openly or not, is a source of motivation as the Red Wolves face Texas State tonight.
“It is huge, especially with the seniors. It’s all we talk about to be honest,” ASU quarterback Adam Kennedy said. “None of us want to end our college careers not going to a bowl game. They’ve gone to two straight here and I went to two straight at my old school. … It’s a huge motivating factor. It’s probably our biggest motivator right now.”
Six wins doesn’t guarantee anything as Arkansas State has learned the hard way, though.
Under former coach Steve Roberts, ASU finished with six wins in both the 2006 and 2008 seasons. Still when bowl invitations were extended, ASU was on the short end as one of a few teams with no place to play.
With a limited number of bowl openings available this year, some teams will be left out again despite having six wins or more. The Red Wolves believe the only way to ensure a bowl invitation is to have the strongest credentials possible.
The only way to do that is to win out. Two wins are already in the book and Texas State is next.
“It’s definitely on our minds,” ASU cornerback Rocky Hayes said. “There’s no bigger thing we want than to be bowl eligible and go bowling again. At the end of the year, nobody wants to go home on December 4th.”
Texas State (6-3, 2-2) is already bowl eligible.
The Bobcats are only in their second year of Division I FBS, but have made the transition smoothly and successfully under coach Dennis Franchione. TSU has won three straight games with the top run defense in the Sun Belt.
“It’s impressive what they’ve done, but I’m not surprised,” Harsin said. “They’ve got a good recruiting base and a very good coach who’s been around and knows how these things work.”
Considering TSU’s strength against the run, Arkansas State may be forced to pass the football a little more than normal this week.
The Bobcats have one of the worst pass defenses in the country, allowing 272 yards passing a game. It’s only logical the Red Wolves will try to attack that weakness.
“We have some plays and some schemes that we think we can take advantage of,” Kennedy said. “We know how important the run game is to us, so regardless of what happens we will stick with it. … But, we’re definitely looking for a big night from the receivers.”
Arkansas State is playing some of its best defense all season.
The Red Wolves have given up 33 points over their last 10 quarters, and blanked Louisiana-Monroe in the second half last week. It’s a defense that is coming around and playing with pride after some early-season struggles.
“I think our defense is playing with a little bit of a swagger and some confidence,” Harsin said. “We have to continue that.”
Texas State will present an offensive style that ASU hasn’t faced in a while.
The Bobcats run the triple-option with the quarterback handing off, keeping or pitching in a mostly ground-oriented attack. There’s only one way to stop it, according to Harsin.
“You’ve got to have your guys doing their job,” Harsin said. “That’s really what the key is — being disciplined on defense. They’re going to make yards, they’re going to make plays, but you’ve got to eliminate the big, explosive plays.”
If the Red Wolves can do that, they’ll be bowl eligible. For tonight, that’s the number one goal, whether spoken or not.
“We haven’t said a lot about it, but it’s big in our minds,” ASU free safety Sterling Young said. “That’s one of our goals for the season. Our goals are still there to grab and we want to make sure we accomplish that.”