Arkansas State has work to do and ground to make up.
With seven games left on the schedule, the Red Wolves believe they’re far from out of the Sun Belt Conference race. But with one conference loss already on their record, they know any more setbacks will derail their hopes to defend their crown.
That’s the frame of mind reigning Sun Belt champion Arkansas State takes into its midweek matchup at Florida International this evening.
"We look at this as a must-win game, a make-or-break game for our team," Arkansas State running back David Oku said. "I think that helps us a lot with the things we’re doing. That’s where our sense of urgency comes in at."
If ASU (2-3 overall, 0-1 Sun Belt) is going to work its way back into contention for a second straight title, it will begin with one of the more difficult challenges in the league.
The Red Wolves visit preseason Sun Belt favorite Florida International this evening in Miami. Kickoff is 6:30 p.m. at FIU Stadium, and a national television audience will be watching on ESPNU.
First-year ASU coach Gus Malzahn understands the importance of tonight’s meeting in South Florida after his team suffered a disappointing setback in the Sun Belt opener against Western Kentucky last Saturday. Malzahn knows another loss will cripple his team’s chances in the SBC race.
"From our standpoint, it’s a very big game," Malzahn said. "(It’s) just the situation that we’re in. We’re already behind in the conference race, so this is a very big game for us. Obviously it is a challenge in a short week on the road against a tough opponent."
ASU hopes to start quickly after an inept second half against Western Kentucky.
Arkansas State appeared to be in control early, rolling up more than 200 yards offense to lead the Hilltoppers 13-0 at halftime. But ASU’s offense went silent while its defense couldn’t get off the field, and Western Kentucky roared from behind for a stunning 26-13 victory.
The loss left a bitter taste with the Red Wolves.
"I think people are really hungry this week," ASU defensive end Tim Starson said. "You know, being up that much at halftime, and a couple plays here or there going bad, that’s definitely going to dictate the rest of the season."
At the same time, there is a sense of urgency knowing the team can’t afford another loss in conference play.
"We know what we have to do to," Oku said.
Florida International (1-4, 0-1) hasn’t lived up to preseason expectations.
The Golden Panthers have lost four of their first five games, including three straight. They were overwhelmed in their Sun Belt opener at Louisiana-Lafayette last week, falling behind 24-0 and losing 48-20.
FIU’s biggest deficiency has been stopping the pass despite 10 returning starters on defense.
FIU is ninth in the Sun Belt in pass defense, ranked No. 95 nationally, and has allowed 277 yards passing a game. The Golden Panthers have given up 15 touchdowns through the air — second only to Ball State’s 17 and Marshall’s 16.
It’s an issue Arkansas State must try to exploit.
"It looks like that’s the area they’ve been giving up," Malzahn said. "I will say this, for us to be successful, we have to be able to run and throw the football. … It’s about explosive plays and whether it’s on the ground or in the air, that’s what we need to do."
Offensively, Florida International is in transition from starting quarterback Jake Medlock to backup E.J. Hilliard.
Medlock suffered a broken foot two weeks ago and is out indefinitely. Hilliard, a true freshman, made his first start last week and was 16-for-26 passing for 204 yards, but threw two interceptions.
ASU has only a small sample of plays to decide how to defend the new FIU quarterback.
"He looks extremely athletic," Malzahn said. "There’s nothing like your first start at quarterback, and most people greatly improve after that first experience. He looks definitely like a dual-threat guy that can make things happen when things break down."
Arkansas State is working on its own offensive issues.
The Red Wolves have scored just one offensive touchdown against their last two FBS opponents. ASU’s defense scored the lone touchdown in a 42-13 loss at Nebraska, while it took a trick play to get into the end zone against Western Kentucky.
"We haven’t had very many explosive plays as far as the run or the pass," Malzahn said. "We’ve got to do a better job of having more explosive plays and not having to consistently drive the ball the length of the field."
Even when the Red Wolves have made long drives, they still haven’t scored touchdowns as often as Malzahn would prefer.
ASU has scored 19 times in 24 trips inside the red zone, but has settled for field goals seven times. Two of those field goals came in the loss to WKU.
"We’ve got to flip the switch," ASU quarterback Ryan Aplin said. "It’s time for us to come on. We’ve got to put points on the board and we’ve got to stop settling for field goals. We’ve got to put the ball in the end zone."
Both teams are coming off losses and had to adapt to a short week.
FIU returned home from Louisiana-Lafayette early Sunday while ASU traveled to Miami on Wednesday.
With the stakes so high tonight, the proper balance of preparation and rest is essential. The winner remains in the SBC race while the loser may need to reconsider its goals.
"I think both teams understand that with the situations that we’re in," Malzahn said. "I’m not going to say it’s a must win, but (to) both teams it’s a very important game."
A-State football |
Opponent: Florida International
Site: FIU Stadium (20,000)
Time: 6:30 p.m.
Records: ASU 2-3, 0-1 Sun Belt; FIU 1-4, 0-1
Series: ASU, 5-2
Last meeting: ASU, 34-16, 2011
Radio: KFIN (FM-107.9)