JONESBORO — Validated by a time-stamp, the e-mail request for three media credentials was submitted before rumor central cranked up about Arkansas State University’s football coach and the school’s conference affiliation.
Sun Belt Conference championship in the crosshairs after a 2-3 start, the ASU football team merited the attention on its own. Regulars at Arkansas football, we first looked at ASU vs. Middle Tennessee weeks ago and the Blue Raiders pushed us off the fence with a victory over Troy last week.
Generated this week, the off-field buzz was substantial. After all, Gus Malzahn’s name has surfaced at Auburn and resurfaced at Arkansas and the ASU hierarchy has made it clear that the school is willing to explore options outside the Sun Belt.
Once the game began, on-field happenings carried the afternoon. By the time the 45-0 rout of Middle Tennessee was winding down, a smart aleck could legitimately speculate that Blue Raiders’ recently announced exit from the Sun Belt was because the competition was easier in Conference USA.
Not that the game was without suspense. Late in the first quarter, with ASU in front 14-0, Ryan Aplin hobbled to the sideline. He is a dual threat quarterback with the smarts to read the option quickly and accurately.
Buying a few extra seconds of recuperation for his quarterback, Malzahn waited until the clock was down to one second and then called time. Faced with third-and-2 at the ASU 23, Malzahn sent running back David Oku — once a coveted Tennessee signee — in to take the snap. The junior made seven, Aplin returned to the field, and the offense never missed another beat.
On the first play after a fourth-down stop, Aplin and Malzahn made an ASU follower’s prediction come true with a deep pass off play action with a perfect ball to Julian Jones for 59 yards and a 28-0 lead barely five minutes deep in the second quarter. At that point, a wide receiver in high school, but a defensive back as a freshman at ASU, Jones had unusual stats — 13 receptions for the season, including seven for touchdowns.
To illustrate Aplin’s value, consider a move on the Red Wolves’ first possession. The fifth-year senior checked the defense, moved Oku from his right to his left and then rode Oku into the left side of the line. The defense swarmed the running back and Alpin had clear sailing around the left side for 17 yards. It was one of seven plays in the 75-yard TD drive.
Aplin has said Campbell (the Fighting Camels of Buies Creek, N.C.) Charleston Southern, Jacksonville University, and ASU were interested in him coming out of high school in Tampa, Fla., and the Sun Belt is not the Southeastern Conference, but he could play in the latter league because of his decisions and his mobility.
Checking regularly with Malzahn on the sideline, Aplin ran the offense to perfection and
ASU’s first-half totals were staggering: five possessions, five touchdowns, 34 plays, and 332 yards. Aplin was 13-of-14 for 174 yards and two touchdowns and his five carries netted another 61 yards.
The Red Wolves knocked out big gainer after big gainer to the point that Middle Tennessee had a 2 1-2-minute edge in time of possession in the first half.
The only time the Blue Raiders came close to putting together a legitimate threat, quarterback Logan Kilgore overlooked linebacker Nathan Harold who returned the interception 45 yards to set up the second TD.
With Malzahn in charge, even kickoffs are not routine. There were floaters and grounders and the normal boomers prefaced by a dozen or more players, some out of uniform, locking arms and swaying back and forth on the sideline as the "Jaws" tempo increased.
On the front row of the upper deck, Gov. Mike Beebe participated on occasion.
Next time his alma mater plays, it will be in a bowl game in Mobile or Memphis — most likely Memphis.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is email@example.com.