JONESBORO — Arkansas State is staring at bowl eligibility.
One more win is all it takes.
With five wins already in the book, the Red Wolves need only to beat North Texas on Saturday to reach the magic six-win bowl eligible plateau. It’s a goal ASU began the season with and nothing has changed since.
"Our goal at the first of the year was to definitely make a bowl," ASU coach Gus Malzahn said. "That’s a big thing for our seniors and an opportunity to get that sixth win anytime is big."
Arkansas State (5-3 overall, 3-1 Sun Belt Conference) has four games left in the regular season, including two at home, to achieve bowl-eligible status. ASU has only played in two bowls since moving up to Division I-A (now FBS) status in 1992, including the New Orleans Bowl in 2005 and the GoDaddy.com Bowl last season.
As far as what bowl, when or where, Malzahn hasn’t put that much thought into it. He’s still concentrating on getting ASU’s sixth win first.
"I’ve not even went there," Malzahn said. "So, I don’t know. I think you’ve got to get bowl eligible before you even start thinking that way."
Arkansas State reached bowl eligibility one week earlier last year on its way to a 10-2 regular season. ASU has been bowl eligible four times total, including a pair of 6-6 records under former coach Steve Roberts in 2006 and 2008.
Sun Belt members Louisiana-Monroe and Western Kentucky both reached bowl eligibility last week with wins in conference play. ULM defeated South Alabama 38-24 and WKU beat Florida International 14-6.
If Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee State can win this week, the league would have four bowl eligible teams, equaling the most it’s ever produced.
"That’s one of our goals, to be bowl eligible," Malzahn added. "Anytime you have a chance to be bowl eligible, there’s definitely some urgency with that."
Players of the Week
Arkansas State placekicker Brian Davis was named the Sun Belt Conference Special Teams Player of the Week after his performance in the Red Wolves’ 50-27 victory at Louisiana-Lafayette.
Davis made five field goals, including a career-long 47-yard kick. He also made field goals of 22, 45, 21 and 29 yards, along with all five of his point-after attempts.
Davis’ 20 points are the second-most in ASU and Sun Belt history for a single game. He was also selected Monday as one of the Lou Groza Award Stars of the Week by the Palm Beach County (Fla.) Sports Commission.
Malzahn said Davis and the entire special teams unit improved after some struggles this year.
"We definitely got better, there’s no doubt," Malzahn said. "I felt like we won the kicking game last week, which was probably the first time all year. The fact that we’re starting to get some consistency with our personnel in each one of those phases, and really get our identity of who we are and what we can and can’t do, I think that helps and hopefully that will give us a shot in the arm moving forward."
Middle Tennessee quarterback Logan Kilgore was named the Offensive Player of the Week while Western Kentucky defensive end Quanteras Smith was the Defensive Player of the Week. Kilgore passed for 349 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another against North Texas, while Smith had a career-high five sacks against Florida International.
This week’s Sun Belt Conference schedule features two of the biggest rivalries that league play has to offer.
Louisiana-Lafayette travels a few hours to the north to face in-state rival Louisiana-Monroe in what has become a heated rivalry on Saturday afternoon. Also, Middle Tennessee State heads about an hour up the road to face Western Kentucky for a Thursday night contest that will be televised on ESPNU.
Last year’s game between the Ragin’ Cajuns and Warhawks was decided in the final minute, while the Blue Raiders and Hilltoppers played into double overtime.
The teams and the coaches who lost haven’t forgotten, either.
"These tend to hang on for a year between the fan bases," UL-Monroe coach Todd Berry said. "It’s not one of those things that people forget. … This is something that tends to cross over for a year and something you have to live with for a year. We certainly had to live with our loss to Lafayette for a year."
Stockstill said games like last year’s 36-33 double OT loss to the Hilltoppers have helped their rivalry grow even more.
"You can see the rivalry build, and it takes time to build a rivalry," Stockstill said. "Those things don’t just happen overnight. … I think it’s as intense a rivalry that we have on our schedule of anybody that we play."
It’s been a long season at Florida Atlantic, but the Owls finally have something to feel good about.
After six straight losses, Florida Atlantic won for just the second time and took its first Sun Belt Conference victory this season with a 34-27 victory over Troy on Saturday night. The Owls took the lead in the final minute on quarterback Graham Wilbert’s 22-yard touchdown pass to William Dukes.
First-year FAU coach Carl Pelini said after months of hard work buying into his system, his team was finally rewarded.
"Obviously it helps. It’s a shot of adrenaline for your team and it lends some credibility to the things you’ve been teaching," Pelini said of the win. "But, you know, I haven’t really faced a team that’s been that up and down and been struggling in that regard. Despite our record, we’ve tried to point out the positives. I think they’ve seen the improvement and they’ve shown up every week ready to practice and ready to play."
The Owls don’t get any breaks on the schedule this week.
FAU travels to Annapolis, Md., to face Navy in hopes of winning its second straight. Navy is 5-3 and has won four straight.
Considering the option attack the Midshipmen use, Pelini isn’t too excited about this week’s opponent.
"Essentially it forces you to put in a brand-new defense for a week," Pelini said. "That’s never a good situation as you’ve got a young team and you’re trying to improve and do things better. I appreciate the academies and all they do and the good football they play, but I don’t know if there’s a coach in this country that would relish this matchup.