JONESBORO — The defending Sun Belt Conference champion isn’t overlooking anyone.
Not even FBS provisional qualifier South Alabama. The Jaguars were picked to finish last in the Sun Belt by league head coaches in the annual preseason poll released in July.
Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn said his team is in no position to look past the Sun Belt Conference’s newest football-playing member during his weekly press conference on Monday. The Red Wolves (3-3 overall, 1-1 SBC) host a struggling South Alabama team that has lost three straight for Homecoming on Saturday evening.
"Right now we are (playing) one game at a time," Malzahn said. "We can’t take anything for granted. Our goal is to improve each week. We felt like last week we did, but we have a lot of other areas that we can improve in. We’re one of those teams that is a work in progress. Our goal each week is to improve, and we can’t look past anybody."
The Jaguars are only in their fourth season of existence as a football program, having played the first three at the FCS level. They are playing this season under provisional guidelines and aren’t eligible for the Sun Belt Conference title.
Arkansas State evened its season record with a 34-20 victory at Florida International last Thursday to avoid an early exit from the conference race. But the Red Wolves still have a long way to go and ground to make up in retaining their crown, one game back in the standings.
Looming ahead for Arkansas State is a trip to Sun Belt Conference leader Louisiana-Lafeyette for a Tuesday night game that will be televised by ESPN. The outcome on that matchup could play a major role in how the race shapes up.
But it’s imperative the Red Wolves keep focused on this week’s opponent rather than look ahead.
"We’re not good enough to look over anybody," ASU offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. "I think they know that. I think they know we’ve got a chance to be really good, but we’re not good enough to do that with anybody. Those guys have had two weeks to prepare for us and they’re one of the top defenses, statistically, in our league. Offensively, really, it’s a big challenge for us."
South Alabama (1-4, 0-1) is currently second in the Sun Belt in total defense, allowing 350 yards a game. USA has been effective at stopping both the pass and the run, allowing 140 yards rushing and 210 passing through its first five games.
The Jaguars are coming off their worst defensive effort of the season in a home loss two weeks ago. Troy piled up 495 yards offense and beat South Alabama handily 31-10, but Malzahn said the Red Wolves must respect the Jaguars’ ability to defend.
"They are very good at working together," Malzahn said. "They play extremely hard. They don’t do a whole lot of things, but what they do, they do extremely well. They’re very well-coached on their run fits, the way the back end operates with the front end is very impressive, and they’ve got some good tacklers."
South Alabama has nine starters back on defense, including its entire defensive line. The Jaguars operate from a 3-4 front, don’t take many chances and use a good balance of zone and man coverage.
"I wouldn’t say they’re not real aggressive, but they have not blitzed as much as some teams that we’ve played," Malzahn said. "That’s not saying that they won’t against us, but they’re very sound in what they do."
Arkansas State found a few weaknesses in FIU’s defense last Thursday.
The Red Wolves produced their longest run and longest pass plays of the season after Malzahn emphasized the importance of explosive plays the week before. Freshman J.D. McKissic had a 74-yard touchdown reception and freshman Rocky Hayes had a 73-yard run that ended just short of the goal-line.
"The play-action (fake) was a big factor with that, giving our quarterback enough time to throw it deep down the field was definitely a factor," Malzahn said. "Then, in the run game, the execution was good and, of course, Rocky Hayes made a very explosive run and showed good speed against a very fast defense."
ASU also utilized the tight end and H-back more against FIU.
Sophomore tight end Darion Griswold had three receptions for 51 yards after making just two catches the first five games. Senior H-back Anthony Kincy had a pair of catches for 26 yards, doubling his prior average of one reception a game.
It’s an aspect that Malzahn wants to see ASU develop, and should surface again against South Alabama this weekend.
"Griswold is one of those guys that we really feel is an impact player," Malzahn said. "We’re just now defining his role. He’s coming on and feeling more comfortable. He got his first job and did a very solid job with that. … Anytime you can spread the ball around, that’s when we’re at our best."
South Alabama is allowing 25.6 points a game to rank fourth in the Sun Belt in scoring defense.
However, the Jaguars have allowed 32.8 points and 418 yards offense a game in their four losses. Among their non-conference opponents have been North Carolina State and No. 23-ranked Mississippi State.
"They’ve faced some very good offenses and have held up extremely well," Malzahn said.
A-State football |
Opponent: South Alabama
Site: Liberty Bank Stadium (30,406)
Time: 6 p.m. Saturday
Records: ASU 3-3, 1-1 Sun Belt; USA 1-4, 0-1
Series: First meeting
Radio: KFIN (FM-107.9