JONESBORO — Arkansas State can’t win the Sun Belt Conference tonight. But the Red Wolves are well aware they can lose it.
It is with that frame of mind the Red Wolves tee it up for their biggest game of the season when Louisiana-Monroe visits. Kickoff is 6 p.m. at Liberty Bank Stadium, where the largest crowd of the year is expected for a showdown between conference leaders that will strengthen one program’s title shot and cripple the other.
"I don’t have to give them a pep rally to get ready for this game," Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn said. " … You can really sense the urgency, not just in our players but our coaches, too. We all understand this is a big game and we’re looking forward to it."
Arkansas State (6-3 overall, 4-1 Sun Belt) is playing some of its best football. After losing the league opener, the Red Wolves have won four straight to climb into contention for their second straight SBC crown.
If ASU can win its final three games, it will win the league outright. The Red Wolves know what’s at stake.
"This is the race for first place," ASU safety Sterling Young said. "They’re a great team, a very physical team and we’ve got to be prepared for everything. But this is a very big game for us. … We see that first-place prize and our eyes are getting kind of big, but we’ve just got to stay focused."
Tonight’s game will be broadcast on ESPNU, locally on Suddenlink digital cable channel 126, and by KFIN (FM-107.9).
An all-red clad crowd is expected to file into the stadium for what has been labeled Code Red night. According to Arkansas State officials, more than 30,000 tickets have been distributed to the public.
ASU has organized several promotions to provide a home field advantage that should look impressive on television. Bowl scouts from the New Orleans and Liberty bowls will be in attendance.
With championship implications, a huge crowd watching and bowl invitations possibly on the line, the Red Wolves are focused on the big picture.
"We are basically fighting for a Sun Belt championship, so it is a very big game," ASU cornerback Chaz Scales said. "They’re coming off a loss last week, so I’m sure they’ll be into this game just like we are. I think this is one of the biggest games of the season."
UL-Monroe (6-3, 4-1) acknowledges there may be no more important game this season, too.
The Warhawks were alone atop the Sun Belt last week, but suffered a 40-24 defeat to Louisiana-Lafayette to create a three-way tie for first. Middle Tennessee State, which is off this week, is also 4-1 in conference play but lost to UL-Monroe in October.
"There’s no question we know that our backs are against the wall," ULM coach Todd Berry said.
"This is when you find out what you’re really made of as a man. These are those opportunities to express who you are. I have a strong sense that we will bounce back."
Louisiana-Monroe isn’t the same team that captured the nation’s attention in September when it upset No. 8-ranked Arkansas.
The Warhawks are hobbled and bruised, having lost seven starters to injury. Perhaps the most difficult to absorb came last week when quarterback Kolton Browning suffered an undisclosed injury that will keep him out of action tonight and may end his season.
Browning was having a career year, leading the Sun Belt in passing yards (2,288) and passing touchdowns (23). He was third on the team with 426 yards rushing and five rushing TDs.
The Warhawks will turn to senior Cody Wells, who came off the bench to throw for 209 yards and two TDs in the loss to ULL.
Wells has played in every game this season but been relegated to mop-up work. He is 23-of-41 passing for 302 yards, two TDs and three interceptions.
Berry said it’s a difficult situation for Wells with the short week of preparation.
"It changes some of the dynamics," Berry said. "In terms of what we can do, we’ve still got the whole playbook. It’s not like all of a sudden we will have to scale back the playbook."
Malzahn doesn’t expect to see a different ULM just because the Warhawks will have a different quarterback.
"We expect to get their best regardless," Malzahn said. "I have a lot of respect, our players do too, for this quarterback. He’s a veteran guy. He’s not just some guy that’s a freshman, that is just coming in. He can run their complete offense."
Among others lost to injury are ULM’s top two running backs, its top defensive lineman, linebacker and defensive back, according to Berry. The losses have challenged the Warhawks’ depth and taken a toll.
Arkansas State, on the other hand, is as healthy as it’s been all season.
ASU linebacker Nathan Herrold suffered a leg injury that knocked him out of part of last week’s game at North Texas but is ready to go. Kickoff specialist Luke Ferguson hasn’t kicked since the Louisiana-Lafayette game due to an undisclosed injury.
The Red Wolves got offensive lineman Cliff Mitchell back two weeks ago.
For Arkansas State, the quick turnaround isn’t near the problem as ULM has in trying to groom its quarterback. ASU went through a short week earlier when it went to Florida International and won five days after losing to Western Kentucky.
It was at FIU that Arkansas State began its win streak and started the momentum leading to tonight. The Red Wolves say they’ve grown together and meshed over the last month.
"Our guys understand what we can and can’t do," Malzahn said. "We’re getting more confidence each week, which is very important when you have an inexperienced team. … Our guys are confident now and we need to be, because these guys that we are playing are extremely talented."
ASU has beaten UL-Monroe two straight, including a 24-19 win last year in which Browning was injured and Wells filled in. That meeting was early in the season, though, when the Red Wolves were just beginning their run to the Sun Belt title
The implications of this meeting are much more clearly defined.
"The best thing about this situation is we control our own destiny," quarterback Ryan Aplin said. "That’s what you want. You want to be in the situation where it’s all on how you play, not how someone else does. This is what you dream about."