Stability pays off in dramatic Arkansas State turnaround
JONESBORO, Ark. (AP) Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson couldn't sleep while the Red Wolves were in the middle of a four consecutive losses to start to this season.
It wasn't so much the lack of wins that kept the third-year coach awake at night as much as it was his self-criticism and thoughts about defending his assistant coaches to the outside world.
Most frustrating was that Anderson knew Arkansas State was better than it had shown. This was, after all, the school that had overcome a run of five head coaches in five years at one point to win at least a share of four of the last five Sun Belt Conference championships entering this season.
''It was just exhausting,'' Anderson said. ''You don't sleep, because you know you've got the ability to be better than we are ... I just didn't want it to be my fault that we fell apart. Nobody wants to be a part of that.''
Thanks to a remarkable turnaround from that winless September, the Red Wolves (7-5) were able to help Anderson sleep better - winning seven of their last eight games to secure a share of the Sun Belt for a fifth time in six seasons. They will cap their season with the school's sixth straight bowl appearance when they face Central Florida (6-6) in the Cure Bowl on Saturday.
Despite the good feelings in Jonesboro these days about how the season turned around, the frustration of the early season struggles remains.
Anderson blames himself for ''protecting'' the Red Wolves during a less-physical set of preseason practices, while players said chemistry was an issue early as a quarterback and several other new starters were settling in.
The lowest point came at home on Sept. 24 when the school lost 28-23 to FCS member Central Arkansas, a game in which Arkansas State fumbled five times and committed four turnovers against their in-state foe. That followed three turnovers in a loss to Utah State a week earlier, and it signaled there were more problems than initially thought after early losses to Toledo and Auburn.
''It was so quiet, you could feel the frustration,'' Red Wolves senior defensive end Chris Odom said of the locker room after the UCA loss. ''It was like, `We really just lost to an (FCS) school, and we're known for winning championship in our conference.' That was kind of a reality check for all of us.''
Arkansas State turned its season around with a 27-26 win over Georgia Southern in its next game, a victory that led to a six-game winning streak and a Sun Belt-clinching win over Texas State to end the regular season.
The Red Wolves were fueled by Odom and fellow defensive end Ja'Von Rolland-Jones, who combined for 24 sacks and 36 tackles for losses on the season. They led a defense that totaled 37 sacks on the season, tied for 12th nationally.
More important, Arkansas State relied on the stability of having Anderson for a third straight season to help it overcome its early losses. The former North Carolina offensive coordinator sent a video to the Red Wolves after the UCA loss, a video that featured ESPN analyst and former NFL coach Herm Edwards.
Anderson's message to the Red Wolves was, ''We've got to decide, are we committed or interested?''
They were committed, he found out, sparking a turnaround Anderson isn't sure could have happened in his first season in 2014.
''It would have been hard, because there was a lot of trust still being earned,'' Anderson said. ''I think we've gotten to a point this year where they know we truly care about them, not just football-wise ... You don't get that without time spent together.''
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