Our Sun Belt series recap rolls on as we head to Jonesboro to check in on Blake Anderson’s program after his fourth season at the helm.
The expectation is always conference titles at Centennial Bank Stadium but for the third time in four seasons the Red Wolves finished with at least five losses under Anderson and lost the de facto conference championship game on their home turf.
Its been Sun Belt title or bust for the Red Wolves lately as they looked to claim their sixth league title in seven seasons in 2017. However, the coaches called for Anderson’s program to finish third and here at UDD our panel also called for a third place finish. Turns out we both hit the nail on the head.
Entering the season, the defense was expected to be the best in the Sun Belt as they returned conference player of the year Ja’Von Rolland-Jones from his defensive end position. Offensively, there were a ton of questions as the Red Wolves had to replace all five of their offensive line starters and really needed junior quarterback Justice Hansen to develop in the offseason. But with Anderson taking over the play-calling duties, there was a solid amount of optimism surrounding this program entering the season.
Since landing the job in Jonesboro, Anderson is still searching for his first Power Five win and the Red Wolves had a great chance in the season opener. Against Nebraska the Red Wolves lost a shootout, 43-36. On the game’s final drive, Arkansas State found themselves in the red zone but was unable to connect for a game tying touchdown. However, it was a great start for Hansen as the junior tossed for 415 yards and three touchdowns.
Due to Hurricane Irma, Arkansas State’s huge home contest with Miami was unfortunately canceled so the Red Wolves would get an early season bye. After that, Arkansas State would pick up their first win of the year over FCS Arkansas Pine-Bluff in a 48-3 blowout.
In the final non-conference game of the season, Arkansas State was trading blows with a powerful SMU offense in the first half, but Hansen had to leave the game due to injury and things got ugly in the second half as the Mustangs pulled away for a 44-21 victory. Once again, the Red Wolves would enter Sun Belt play with a losing record.
Conference play started with four consecutive wins where the Arkansas State offense scored at least 37 points in each outing. After a 3-0 conference start, Arkansas State would hit the road for a huge game against New Mexico State and the Red Wolves would pull away in the second half for a 37-21 victory at Aggie Memorial Stadium. Entering November, it appeared that this program was going to bring home another conference title.
After a bye in the first weekend of November, the Red Wolves would hit the road to take on a struggling South Alabama squad with a coach firmly on the hot seat. Thanks to six turnovers and 343 passing yards put up by South’s Cole Garvin, the Red Wolves would suffer a stunning loss at Ladd-Peebles Stadium by a count of 24-19. There is no doubt that this was the most disappointing performance of the season.
The team would bounce back nicely the next two weeks as they crushed Texas State at home and then went to Monroe and outlasted Caleb Evans and the ULM Warhawks in a shootout. Therefore, this would setup a meeting of two teams with identical 6-1 league records playing for a conference title on the first Saturday in December.
On a cold night in Jonesboro, the Red Wolves would find themselves trailing Troy by 11 with just under eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. However, Hansen would find a way to connect on two touchdown tosses as Arkansas State would take a one-point lead with just over a minute remaining. The defense, however, could not hold up its end of the bargain as the Trojans would march 72 yards in just over a minute for the game winning score with 17 seconds remaining. In the end, Arkansas State would lose a conference championship on a day where they out-gained their opponent 606-293.
Come bowl season, the Red Wolves headed to Montgomery, Alabama, to take on Middle Tennessee in the Camellia Bowl. Again, turnovers reared their ugly head as the Red Wolves coughed it up three times and the comeback effort ran out of time in the 35-30 loss as Anderson fell to 1-3 in bowl games.
Entering the season, everyone knew about Rolland-Jones as he chased the NCAA career sacks record but the development of Hansen keyed the team in 2017. In his second year as the starter, the Oklahoma transfer set program records for single season passing yards, single game passing yards, and single season passing touchdowns. The junior lit up opposing defenses as he threw for nearly 4,000 yards and 37 touchdowns on the season.
Hansen finished the year with six games of at least 300 passing yards and was robbed of a game due to the Hurricane Irma cancelation. Entering 2018, the senior will be considered one of the best quarterbacks in the Group of Five and will be the heavy favorite to bring home Sun Belt Player of The Year honors.
Overall, it was a good season in Jonesboro that should’ve been a great season. For the year, ball security was a huge issue for this Arkansas State offense as they lost 25 turnovers in 12 games. As good as Hansen was, he had a tendency to make bad decisions and that led to 17 interceptions.
With a conference championship on the line, turnovers were the biggest reason why Arkansas State lost to Troy in the season finale and then costed the Red Wolves a bowl win against Middle Tennessee. Taking care of the football should be a big emphasis for Anderson’s club this offseason.
After going through a run from 2011-2014 of having a new head coach each season, Anderson has provided stability as he will enter year five in 2018. In his tenure, Arkansas State is 26-6 in conference play and will enter the West division as the heavy favorites in 2018.
Arkansas State has emerged as one of the most consistent programs in the Group of Five this decade as the Red Wolves have brought home five conference titles, and been to seven consecutive bowl games. With a star at quarterback, plenty of talent at receiver, and four of their top six tacklers back, Arkansas State will be in contention once again for a Sun Belt title in year five under Anderson.