TROY, Ala. — Arkansas State doesn’t take the simple route too often. But the formula ASU has scripted for success away from home has been black and white.
Now, with season-long aspirations within reach, the Red Wolves will stick to the routine that has put them in position to win a second straight Sun Belt Conference crown.
Arkansas State goes for a school-record eighth straight Sun Belt road win this afternoon at Troy. Kickoff at Veterans Memorial Stadium is 2:30 p.m.
First-year ASU coach Gus Malzahn believes the key to his team’s success on the road has been keeping the routine consistent and the team focused. The Red Wolves know how each trip will unfold and what’s expected.
"It’s definitely a business trip, but we try to stay in the same routine," Malzahn explained. "We try to use the extra time as an advantage. As far as preparation, getting away and all that, so far our guys have done a really good job of focusing and not getting distracted on the road."
Arkansas State (7-3 overall, 5-1 Sun Belt) lost its first two road games, but those came against Oregon and Nebraska. Oregon is ranked No. 1 in both the AP and USA Today polls, while Nebraska is in position to win the Big Ten title.
Against similar competition, specifically the Sun Belt, the Red Wolves have been all business.
Arkansas State has continued what began last year when former coach Hugh Freeze’s team won all four SBC road games. But Malzahn’s team has taken it a step further, rolling up huge offensive outputs and winning by much wider margins.
In three Sun Belt road games, ASU has averaged 474 yards and 40.3 points. The average margin of victory is 18.3 points, which far exceeds their margin (+5.3) in three Sun Belt home games.
"I think it comes down to the way we approach these games, and the way we practice each and every week," ASU quarterback Ryan Aplin said. "Guys are doing a lot more on their own, studying film and getting prepared. We’re very focused on what we’re supposed to do and I think that’s helped a lot."
Arkansas State used to struggle on the road, yet excel at home.
Before Freeze’s promotion to head coach in 2011, the Red Wolves had lost three of four Sun Belt road games each of the previous three seasons and all three the year before. ASU went just 10-26 over the first 10 years on the road in the Sun Belt, but is a perfect 7-0 the last two.
ASU players believe they are a team with a different mentality now.
"I think it’s just confidence," ASU senior defensive end Tim Starson said. "Coach Freeze coming in and telling us that we would do things, and then just winning. Now we just have that confidence. (Malzahn) has taken it to another level. He expects a lot from us."
The Red Wolves say the typical travel experience isn’t as exciting as some believe. There isn’t much leisure time.
Players study film and opponents while traveling, then attend team and position meetings once they arrive at their destination. Travel days also include two walk-through practices.
Depending on the kickoff time, the Red Wolves will do it all over again on game day. Sometimes it’s scaled back and sometimes it’s just as much.
"There’s a lot more meetings," ASU linebacker Nathan Herrold said. "We meet as groups a lot more. There’s just a lot more preparation."
Unlike the complexities of his hurry-up no-huddle offense, Malzahn likes keeping the routine simple. The emphasis is on preparation, knowing the opponent and being ready.
"Before we leave, we like to have a meeting, and then we have game plans and videos for our guys on the trip," Malzahn said. "Then we have a walk-through before, then we go back to the hotel and have another meeting and then we have another walk-through, and then we put them to sleep.
"We get up and do it again in the morning. It gives you plenty of time to prepare."
Aplin, a fifth-year senior, has dealt with a lot of changes during his career. He says the Red Wolves embrace the road and feel just as comfortable elsewhere as they do at home.
"You’ve got to be able to make your own atmosphere, create your own energy and go out and make things happen," Aplin said. "You’ve got to be able to block out all the distractions, fans and things like that. One of the biggest things is going out and scoring first — getting off to a fast start — because that sets the tone."
The last time Arkansas State visited Troy, it turned out to be one of those road trips that didn’t end so well.
Aplin led the Red Wolves to a go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter for what appeared to be a sure victory. But the Trojans scored in the final seconds for a stunning 35-28 victory.
ASU doesn’t believe it is anything close to the team that let that victory slip away in 2010.
The Red Wolves will be looking for their sixth win in a row after starting Sun Belt play with a loss at home. Even with a showdown against Middle Tennessee State for the conference title looming, Malzahn is sure his team will be ready again for a tough road game.
"This group has really taken one game at a time," Malzahn said. "Like I told them, we’ve got to find a way. We can’t pat ourselves on the back. We’ve got to find a way to improve and not be satisfied with the way we’re playing."