At one point in the first quarter, A-State's outstanding pass rusher, Ja'Von Roland-Jones, literally snatched Phillip Ely's pass at the line of scrimmage and he was brought down within five yards of the goal line. It was almost as if Roland-Jones had said, "Here you go offense. I've made it almost impossible for you not to score some points now. Have at it."
Not only did A-State fail to push the ball into the end zone, Drew White failed to convert the 20-yard field goal, too. Yes, it was that kind of night for the Red Wolves, whose only points came courtesy of a 92-yard kick return from JD McKissic, who seemed to be saying, "This is the only way we're going to score."
There were no trick plays this evening, unless you want to count the "Old Quarterback Switchercheroo" from Coach Blake Anderson, who had everyone convinced that Fredi Knighten was good to go until James Tabary trotted onto the field. Tabary, who really does have a great arm, soon learned that Toledo was not Missouri State. By the end of the game, he had a fumble and three picks, including what is becoming a signature "enormous carom off a receiver" for a Pick 6.
Toledo's all-world RB, Kareem Hunt, was also a no-show, but it didn't matter. A-State's five turnovers were all the "Kareem Hunt" the Rockets needed to put the Red Wolves away. The offense had nothing. And it wasn't just Tabary, who exhibited all the greenness you'd expect to see from a red shirt freshman. The Red Wolves leading rusher, Michael Gordon, added 22 hard-fought yards to his resume. Johnston White chipped in with twelve.
We did ourselves no favors with penalties. Two "hands to the face" penalties! Donovan Ransom, freshman DT, was tossed for targeting. Two times, the referees announced "two penalties on the Red Wolves" on a single play. Two times!
A-State had guys on the ground all night. Robert Mondie, yet another defensive tackle, limped off the field in the second quarter and never returned. Jake Swalley and JD McKissic were also dinged.
Meanwhile, Toledo's Phillip Ely, threw for 300+ yards, and back-up RB Terry Swanson ran it in a couple times. Frankly, the Rockets didn't shine on offense. But Toledo's red zone defense stuffed the Red Wolves twice for zero points. Two times!
Luke Ferguson averaged 42 yards per punt. Warren Wand had one hell of a catch up the middle for 31 yards. And there was that McKissic TD kick return and the Roland-Jones pick. And after that? Frustration. Aggravation. Emasculation.
What did we learn?
Toledo is a damn good team. The Rockets are hard-nosed and well coached. They lost five offensive lineman after the GoDaddy Bowl, and they somehow got better. The defense is comprised of cement trucks wearing helmets and cleats. I'm not sure if there is a team on their schedule that can beat them.
The Red Wolves are in trouble offensively. Early on, the game plan seemed to be "GO DEEP!" After that, there didn't seem to be a game plan. The Red Wolves desperately need Fredi Knighten to not only get healthy, but to return to form. Because as much as the defense has improved, it's not good enough to make up for 5 turnovers and routine 3-and-outs. Knighten's leadership and experience is missed.
USC, Missouri, and Toledo is a tough non-con slate. It's not as if A-State lined-up a pile of cream puffs for 2015. Playing on the West Coast against the royalty of the PAC12, and then playing the MAC's best in Toledo without the starting QB is no easy task. But the Red Wolves sorely missed an opportunity to cash in on Missouri at home, and to never challenge the Rockets is disappointing to say the least.
The Sun Belt Lacks Heat. After four weeks, the Sun Belt is a miserable 3-7 against peer-to-peer competition. The conference was supposed to be stronger after a down year. There appears to be no movement.
On to Conference Play! As far as I'm concerned, the season begins when the Vandals come to Jonesboro next week. With no Sun Belt program standing-out after four weeks of largely non-con play, the championship is wide open. Let the games begin.