JONESBORO — Blake Anderson hopes his players will approach the final days of Arkansas State’s 2020 football season as the first of 2021.
Hopes of a 10th consecutive winning season and bowl appearance have vanished since mid-October. With their goals out of reach, the Red Wolves are trying to avoid the cellar in the Sun Belt Conference’s West Division and get as close to .500 as possible.
And for the players who will return, the final two games are also a chance to put some good work on film for the coaching staff to consider.
“These next two games are the first two games of next season,” said Anderson, ASU’s seventh-year head coach. “We’re obviously not going to go to postseason play. Most of these guys will be back, with the exception of a few who are going to go on and continue their careers in other ways.
“This is a great opportunity for us to find out what we’re made of, try to improve and keep working to get better.”
The Red Wolves (3-7, 1-6 Sun Belt) hope to snap a five-game losing streak today when they host Louisiana-Monroe (0-9, 0-6). Kickoff is scheduled for 2 p.m.
ASU lost in agonizing fashion in each of its last three games, falling by a combined 16 points. The Red Wolves either led or were tied in the fourth quarter of all three games.
Anderson lamented empty possessions on offense and an inability to prevent big plays on defense in those losses to Louisiana-Lafayette, Texas State and South Alabama.
“I told the guys (Sunday night) I’m disappointed for them, not in them,” Anderson said. “If they weren’t playing hard, it would be a different story, but they are. They played hard, they played all the way through 60 minutes and it came down to the last snap. It’s been that way for the last few weeks, which is encouraging that we have the ability to do that with what we’ve been through.”
Anderson has referred to his team’s COVID-19 issues on several occasions. Citing an inability to dress out enough players in unnamed position groups, ASU postponed games against Central Arkansas and Tulsa in September.
ASU officials have not provided specifics in regard to the team’s COVID-19 numbers. Anderson declined again this week, saying he and athletic director Terry Mohajir don’t feel comfortable providing statistics.
“I’d love to tell you because it would probably shock you, but Terry and I, that’s just something we don’t feel comfortable giving. It’s been a long season and guys are battling,” Anderson said. “It’s not the same team we started with. Whether the fans want to hear that or not, you can call it excuses if you want to, it is the reality of this season. This is not the team we started with. It is not the team that traveled to Manhattan, Kansas, not the team that played Memphis. This is what COVID left us. The guys have battled; they deserve the respect.”
The Red Wolves aren’t likely to receive any sympathy from Saturday’s opponent.
ULM has lost 10 consecutive games dating to last season. The Warhawks have had their own issues with COVID-19, which forced them to postpone their trip to ASU a few weeks back, and they’re coming off a 70-20 loss to UL Lafayette.
ASU has beaten ULM in 15 of 19 meetings since Sun Belt football began in 2001, including the last 10 in a row.
“They’ve had a tough season. They played close early in some games and struggled here lately,” Anderson said. “I think they’ve had their issues with the roster as well, some of it inexperience, some of it probably COVID and maybe injuries, a little bit of all those things. They are still playing extremely hard on film, a lot of young guys playing hard and getting good snaps that are going to help them in the future.
“You watch the first half of that game against Lafayette and it looks completely different from the second half. They were battling pretty well in the first half and it just kind of got away from them, a turnover for a touchdown and a big play out of the gate, but early they were trading scores with them, which is not what you would expect based off their records.”
ULM ranks last among Sun Belt teams in rushing offense (72.6 yards per game) and rushing defense (268.3 yards per game).
With their opponents finding success in the running game, the Warhawks have defended a league-low 185 pass attempts. ASU leads the conference in pass offense (349.7 yards) per game and has thrown 33 touchdown passes.
Given their problems in pass coverage, the Red Wolves fully expect their secondary to be challenged. ASU has given up 32 touchdown passes, the most in FBS, and is allowing 324.1 passing yards per game.
“They’re going to play man coverage, they’re going to bring blitzes and they’re not afraid to throw the ball over the top of your head,” Anderson said. “After watching the last two games, we’re going to get tested. We’re going to have to fix the problems we have. It’s going to be a lot more about us than it is Monroe.”