When Arkansas State players, staff, and fans look back on 2016 it will be remembered as the year of 2 halves. Well, not quite 2 halves, actually the first four games and then the last nine games. After a turbulent 0-4 start, including a loss to an in-state FCS foe, the Red Wolves used a physical defense and an opportunistic special teams unit to win eight out of the last nine enroute to a Sun Belt title and a Cure Bowl championship.
- When the fans and probably the players started to believe that all was not lost in 2016 began on an October Wednesday night in Jonesboro. Georgia Southern, one of the two preseason favorites to win the Sun Belt was coming into town favored and with a 3-1 record and their only loss to eventual undefeated MAC champion Western Michigan. Many thought this might be the knockout blow for the ASU season and the hopes for another title run through Jonesboro. But a funny thing happened as the “Monsters of the Mid-Week” were in rare form. The offense committed five turnovers but the defense appeared confident and played fast holding the Eagles to 162 yards rushing, well under their season average. QB Justice Hansen showed enough composure to convert a long fourth down play to keep a 13 play 70 yard drive alive that would eventually lead to an eight yard TD pass to Omar Bayless with nine seconds remaining to secure the upset 27-26.
- After reeling off five consecutive conference wins, the Red Wolves traveled to Alabama to take on the newly ranked #25 Troy Trojans. Again it was time for ASU to show its mid-week poise as they held an 8-1 Trojan squad to 262 yards of offense and star running back Jordan Chunn to 51 yards on 16 attempts. The Red Wolves spent most of the night in the Trojan backfield harassing Troy QB Brandon Silvers. Chris Odom sacked Silvers on the first play from scrimmage in the second half leading to a fumble recovery in the endzone making it 14-3. ASU would go on to score twenty one 3rd quarter points enroute to a 35-3 shellacking of Troy.
- As ASU wrapped up its nonconference schedule with an 0-3 record, the Red Wolves looked to in-state FCS foe Central Arkansas as a chance to rebound and get some momentum going into the Sun Belt schedule. UCA had other thoughts and came looking to catch ASU ripe for the picking as the Red Wolves couldn't sustain a rushing attack against the Bears, finishing the night with 45 yards on the ground. Justice Hansen did his best to keep ASU in the game with 424 yards passing but also threw 2 pics and ASU gave up 2 fumbles to allow the Bears to stay close. The roller coaster offensive production caught up with ASU as they produced only 7 points in the second half. Red Wolves fans watched UCA drive 86 yards late in the game for the go ahead TD and the final points as the Bears won their first ever game against an FBS foe 28-23.
ASU went into Lafayette in week 11 to face a struggling 4-6 Ragin’ Cajun squad who seemingly was looking in from the outside on a winning season and bowl trip. The Red Wolves could secure a share of the Sun Belt title and would need just a win the next week over Texas State to win the championship outright. But ASU’s inability to punch it in from the red zone finally caught up to the offense and even though they would outgain UL 521-292, six trips into the redzone would net 1 touchdown and 2 field goals. UL QB Anthony Jennings only completed 13 passes on the day but 4 of those were for over 30 yards. That was as many 30+ yard passes as the ASU secondary had given up in the previous 6 conference games. At the end probably one of the most bizarre plays came to pass. On the last offensive play of the game for ASU and staring down a 4th and 10 at ULL’s 11 yard line trailing 24-19, Justice Hansen rolled out looking for a receiver in the end zone and finding none, tucked the ball and ran for the end zone. Hansen was tackled at the 5 yard line but managed to flip the ball back into play with the loose ball being picked up by OL Joseph Bacchus who proceeded to run into the end zone from 6 yards out for an apparent game winning, conference championship securing touchdown. Once the inevitable review was over, the officials had determined that Justice Hansen was down before the toss and the game ended with UL on top 24-19.
PLAY OF THE YEAR
Arkansas State vs Georgia Southern
With under 2 minutes remaining and facing a fourth and 16 from his own 24 trailing 26-20, Justice Hansen scrambled around looking for an open receiver. Finding no one in the clear, Hansen tucked the ball and began to run across the field trying to find a way to get the yardage for the first down to keep the drive, the game, and the season going. An unlikely 18 yard scramble did all of the above eventually leading to a touchdown pass with little time left and upsetting the favored Eagles 27-20. A loss in the game would have sent ASU to 0-5 on the season and probably would have caused a death spiral for the team as pressure mounted to see the success fans had expected on the field.
FAVORITE QUOTES OF THE YEAR
“You gotta risk it to get the biscuit.” -QB Justice Hansen via Twitter after beating Ga Southern 27-26.
“Offensively they are a tempo team. They’re gonna tempo, tempo, tempo...The good thing for us is we’ve played some tempo, Samford was a tempo team. We do a lot of tempo stuff. We work against tempo every week. I think we will be prepared for the tempo.”—UCA Coach Steve Campbell on preparing for ASU’s offense.
“I don't ever like to get my ass whipped to be honest...I didn't think we had the fight about us in the 4th quarter.”—Troy Coach Neal Brown when asked if this was a necessary step in the maturation of his program after losing 35-3.