Arkansas St.-Ball St. Preview
For the third straight year, the coach that guided Arkansas State during the regular season won't be there to do so in the GoDaddy Bowl.
With defensive coordinator John Thompson running the team for a second consecutive postseason, the Red Wolves face a stiff challenge trying to keep high-scoring Ball State from winning its first bowl game Sunday night in Mobile, Ala.
Like Hugh Freeze following the 2011 regular season and Gus Malzahn last year, Bryan Harsin left Arkansas State for a more high-profile job after guiding the team to a 7-5 record and third-straight GoDaddy Bowl berth this season.
The former Boise State quarterback and offensive coordinator accepted the head coaching job at his former school Dec. 11.
Though Arkansas State named North Carolina offensive coordinator Blake Anderson its fifth head coach in five seasons Dec. 19, Thompson will try to lead the Red Wolves to a second consecutive bowl victory.
"An Arkansas State man coaches Arkansas State football," athletic director Terry Mohajir said about Thompson taking the helm.
Since 2011, the Red Wolves are 27-11. Prior to that, they finished above .500 once since becoming an FBS school in 1992. By giving Anderson a five-year deal with a hefty buyout provision, the school expects him to stick around for more than a season.
"Although we want to continue to build momentum and success, we want to create stability as well," Mohajir said.
The Red Wolves started 3-4 then won four straight before losing 34-31 on a 2-yard touchdown pass with 10 seconds left at Western Kentucky to conclude the regular season.
Arkansas State allowed an average of 26.7 points during the season, and 67 combined during its last two contests. The Red Wolves are likely to have their hands full against Ball State (10-2), which ranks among the FBS leaders with 40.1 points and 333.3 passing yards per game.
After recording 10 wins for the third time in school history, the Cardinals have their sights set on improving on a 0-7-1 bowl record. After a 38-17 loss to Central Florida in last season's Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl, Ball State has been outscored 135-60 in its last three bowl appearances.
"We know its going to be a tremendous challenge," said Cardinals coach Pete Lembo, whose team needs nine points to break the single-season school record of 489 set in 2008. "We have been able to accomplish quite a bit at Ball State the last few years, but the one thing that has never been done at Ball State is to win a bowl game.
"We have an opportunity to put the icing on the cake of a 10-win season and go out and have a chance to win a bowl game this year against a great team."
Lembo also would like to send senior quarterback Keith Wenning out on a winning note.
The school's all-time leader in touchdown passes (91), passing yards (11,187), completions (1,012) and attempts (1,598), Wenning set career highs this season with 3,933 yards and 34 TDs while throwing only six interceptions.
"He's the quarterback, he's the star of this team," Ball State receiver Connor Ryan told the school's official website. "He's one of our leaders, but he's never really put himself on a pedestal, and I think a lot of guys respect that about him, and I think that's very important. I think that's a quality of his not too many people have."
Wenning often looks toward junior Willie Snead, who ranks among the FBS leaders with 97 receptions, 1,429 yards and 14 TDs - 10 of which came over the last seven contests.
Though the Cardinals have one of the most potent offenses in the nation, they also are among the best in the country with 18 fumble recoveries.
Arkansas State, meanwhile, has not turned the ball over more than twice in any game this season and its 13 total turnovers are among the fewest in the nation.
Senior Adam Kennedy, among the FBS leaders with a 69.3 completion percentage, threw for 2,327 yards with 11 TDs. He's thrown only two of his six interceptions in the last five games.
Sophomore Michael Gordon had his two highest rushing totals of the season over the least three games with 184 against Texas State and 132 versus Western Kentucky.
The Red Wolves won 17-13 over then-No. 25 Kent State in last season's GoDaddy Bowl after falling 38-20 to Northern Illinois the year before.