JONESBORO — Halftime can’t come quickly enough for Arkansas State.
Two weeks in a row, the Red Wolves have seen a game start to slip away in the last four minutes of the first half. It happened to them 10 days ago at Tulsa, where the Golden Hurricane scored 17 points in the final four minutes of the second quarter to take a 10-point halftime lead on the way to a 41-31 victory.
A similar scenario played out in Saturday’s 59-33 loss at Georgia Southern in the Sun Belt Conference opener. Up two points late in the first half, the Red Wolves yielded two touchdowns in the final four minutes of the second quarter to trail 31-19 at intermission.
Both Tulsa and Georgia Southern also scored to start the third quarter, putting the Red Wolves (1-4, 0-1 Sun Belt) in an even deeper hole.
ASU head coach Butch Jones said he’s never seen anything like his team’s second-quarter troubles. The second quarter has been the Red Wolves’ worst for the season, with opponents outscoring them 66-32 through five games.
“When you think you’ve seen it all, something new comes,” Jones said Monday. “Again, total mismanagement of the first half when you really look at it. There’s four minutes to go in the first half and we take the lead 19-17. Then we go in at halftime down 31-19 and then they get the ball, because they deferred (after the coin toss). They drive the length of the field and score a touchdown, and before we even have the football it’s 38-19.
“Those four minutes and really, if you want to say the first three minutes to start the second half, that seven- to eight-minute stretch was catastrophic for this football team. … Learning how to win is a habit just like losing is a habit, and we have to start having some success for sustained periods of time.”
The Red Wolves, who host 15th-ranked Coastal Carolina on Thursday, had their line-of-scrimmage issues exploited again in the loss to Georgia Southern.
Georgia Southern rushed for 503 yards, the most this year in the Football Bowl Subdivision and only two yards shy of the all-time record for an ASU opponent. Austin College rushed for 505 yards against ASU in 1954.
Jones said the Red Wolves have to figure out why they play high-level defense for the bulk of the opponent’s snaps and then give up big plays.
“We played 53 plays of their offense and we give up 147 yards. That’s winning football on defense,” Jones said. “Then the exact same plays, 10 plays go for 385 yards. They’re the exact same plays, exact same defense. When you play an option team, you usually only go into the game with two or three calls because you’ve got to get lined up, you’ve got to diagnose the formation and you’ve got to play the plays. Being a great defense is learning how to play plays. You spend all your time doing that and we do it right for 53, and then 10 of them cost us the football game.”
ASU ranks last nationally in total defense, allowing nearly 564 yards per game, and is next to last in scoring defense at 45.6 points per game. The Red Wolves passed for 443 yards against Georgia Southern, but finished with just 91 net rushing yards (including 86 in the fourth quarter).
The Eagles sacked starting quarterback James Blackman six times while knocking Blackman and backup Layne Hatcher to the turf on other occasions. Blackman was 28-of-43 for 292 yards and two touchdowns, while Hatcher was 8-of-18 for 151 yards and two touchdowns.
ASU made in-game personnel changes on the offensive line, inserting Jacob Still at center while moving Ethan Miner from center to left guard and shifting Ivory Scott to right guard. Jones said the Red Wolves will stay with those line changes this week as Still moves into the lineup at center.
Tackle Robert Holmes is out for the rest of the season with a knee injury, Jones said. Holmes, a junior transfer from Austin Peay, started the first three games before missing the last two.
“They want to do well up front, make no mistake about it. We have good kids there,” Jones said. “It’s just learning to compete with a level of toughness on every single play and I think they would be the first to tell you that. They’re very prideful, they take great pride in that. We have to find five individuals who are going to compete, who bring toughness on every snap and what I saw of Jacob Still is he brings that, and he’s played a lot of football here.
“Hats off to them because we had to do some things kind of in midstream to adjust on the sideline to move Ivory over and do some different things there, and they handled it. It’s going to be a great challenge this week. This is every bit as good a defensive front as we’ve seen to date. We’ll be challenged, but I think we all know Jacob brings a competitive element to it. It’s like I told the team, it’s important to him. When we talk about love and ownership, Jacob Still loves Arkansas State football, he loves his teammates and he owns it, and he takes accountability for it. It’s really important to him.”