JONESBORO — Arkansas State’s third consecutive road game is easily the most significant in terms of the Red Wolves’ objectives.
ASU opens Sun Belt Conference play this afternoon at Georgia Southern, eager for a reset after losing three consecutive games against Memphis, Washington and Tulsa.
“We’re 0-0 ... how can we be better from our experiences of a very challenging non-conference schedule? How can we apply it now when we hit the Sun Belt Conference?” first-year ASU coach Butch Jones said. “Now we’re in it and the intensity has to continue to pick up even more, our pride in preparation, just our overall mentality. This is why you’re in a conference.
“All of our goals are ahead of us. We’re going to be playing in meaningful games and what a great challenge to start conference play on the road at a program like Georgia Southern.”
Kickoff in Statesboro, Ga., is scheduled for 3 p.m. Central. The game will be shown on ESPN Plus.
ASU (1-3) finished non-conference play with a 41-34 loss at Tulsa, which gashed the Red Wolves’ defense for 663 yards. Over their last three games the Red Wolves have yielded 148 points and 1,941 yards while sinking to the bottom of the Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense.
Defensive end Joe Ozougwu expressed confidence when asked about team morale.
“I’m pretty confident that we’ll come back from this,” Ozougwu said Tuesday. “I’m very disappointed in the loss, but I’m really confident in this team and I believe in my brothers, that we’ll be fine and play hard.”
While the offense has had more success statistically, especially with a passing attack that ranks seventh nationally, left tackle Andre Harris Jr. said the Red Wolves have to play the complementary football stressed by Jones.
“We all have our hand in each of the losses. It’s never really something as in the defense did this or the offense did that. We don’t do that here,” Harris said. “We all need to get it together on both sides of the ball. It’s not really a defensive thing. At the end of the day, on offense our expectation is to score every time we have the ball. When we have quick three-and-outs, that hurts the defense just as much as them giving up a quick touchdown.”
While the Red Wolves have not been able to establish a running game the last three weeks, averaging just 66 yards per game, their passing game has been more productive. Quarterback James Blackman was 23-of-37 for 321 yards last week, drawing praise from Jones after being hit 19 times by the Golden Hurricane pass rush.
“In a perfect world, I’d like to be much more balanced, but I think balance is hard to come by because it’s based on the team you’re playing,” Jones said. “Make no mistake about it, you cannot be one-dimensional and you have to be able to run the football, and we have to continue to grow and get better in that area. I think James Blackman, he’s now played his best two football games back to back. With what that young man went through on Saturday, he stood in the pocket and was extremely accurate.”
Georgia Southern (1-3, 0-1 Sun Belt) has also dropped three in a row, the most recent a 28-20 home loss to Louisiana-Lafayette in its Sun Belt opener last Saturday. Head coach Chad Lunsford was fired Sunday as Georgia Southern named assistant Kevin Whitley as interim coach.
The Eagles average 233 rushing yards with an option-based scheme. They feature two of the Sun Belt’s top seven rushers in Gerald Green and Logan Wright, both of whom have more than 250 yards through four games.
The teams did not meet last year. ASU held on for a 38-33 victory two years ago in Jonesboro and Georgia Southern scored a last-minute touchdown for a 28-21 victory three years ago in Statesboro.
“Georgia Southern, they’re a great program. I love playing them. They’re physical, they’re big,” Harris said. “Their offense is interesting. The thing about their offense is when you play a team like that, you have to take advantage of all of your possessions because they will have the ball a lot with the offense they run. I have nothing but respect for them.”