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Arkansas State Starts Conference Play Right

By Jim Johnson
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One down, seven to go, in Arkansas State’s pursuit of a sixth Sun Belt title in the past seven years.

One down, seven to go, in Arkansas State’s pursuit of a sixth Sun Belt title in the past seven years.

Seven more is probably what it will take, too, given Appalachian State’s remaining competition, or lackthereof, and the way Troy is playing.

There’s not a game left on App State’s schedule that the Mountaineers won’t be heavily favored in, and, with Troy having already snuck by a dangerous New Mexico State team, the same can be said for the Trojans.

Well, until they travel to Jonesboro, for their regular season finale, in what will likely be the de facto conference championship game -- or at least the decisive contest to determine who shares it with Appalachian State.

Following the win at Georgia Southern, Arkansas State Head Coach Blake Anderson said, “Winning on the road is more important than anything. You can never take that opportunity for granted. To be able to get it done tonight, and it wasn’t always pretty, is how you grow up as a team.”

Quarterback Justice Hansen echoed his sentiments, stating, “It wasn’t the prettiest game, like coach said, but coming in here, on the road, in the middle of the week was big for us.”

The contest in Stateboro did display a few areas of concern, or that at least are in need of improvement, going forward.

Entering the contest, Arkansas State was allowing 4.52 yards per carry, 90th in the country, and its rush defense efficiency was 120th. The struggles continued in Statesboro, giving up 5.3 yards per carry.

“We just have to get in the film room and look at the tape,” star defensive end Ja’Von Rolland-Jones explained. “It’s mostly just technical things.”

“We’re still missing too many tackles. We’re taking some bad angles,” Coach Anderson elaborated. “We got outleveraged a couple of times. All in all, for a team that runs as much as they do, I thought we bottled it up with the exception of a few big plays that broke, and those are things we’ll teach off of.”

The other obvious point of emphasis has to be reducing the turnovers. Hansen tossed four interceptions on just 26 attempts.

“You know, I broke a personal record for interceptions tonight,” Hansen joked, “but a couple of those were bad decisions and the others were good decisions where I just had bad ball placement.”

Anderson was less critical, citing Hansen’s health as a potential factor, and giving more credit to Georgia Southern’s defense.

In any case, there is much more to like about this Arkansas State team than there is to nitpick.

Receiver Chris Murray had a career night, despite having been sick all week, catching five passes for 188 yards and two scores, in what could prove to be something of a coming out party for the senior.

“It may be a coming out party in terms of what y’all (the media) notice,” Anderson began, “but we’ve known he’s pretty good for a while.”

Hansen basically said the same thing.

If that’s what Murray is like coming off of antibiotics and breathing treatments, he will certainly be a potential breakout star in conference play.

That said, the most impressive thing may be the level of defensive depth that was on display. The game’s leading tackler at the half, BJ Edmonds, was ejected for targeting. The void was quickly filled by inside linebacker Kyle Wilson, who finished as the leading tackler in the game. Prior to the contest, Justin Clifton had, arguably been the team’s best player. And that’s saying something on a team with Ja’Von Rolland Jones, who seemed to get back on track, after a slow start to the season (by his standards), tallying a couple of sacks and a QB hurry, despite Georgia Southern throwing just 18 passes.

“Just always be ready when your name is called. That’s our motto,” said Wilson.

It’s a long season, with seven consecutive conference games on the horizon, and little to wiggle room, in the way of losing.

Rolland-Jones summated with the thought that, “We just try to go 1-0 every week.”

Well, he and the Red Wolves are 1-0 this week, and, until proven otherwise, the Sun Belt is there’s for the taking as much as it is anyone else’s.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP