A must-win football game: That is what the Arkansas State Red Wolves are facing this Saturday as they play host to the Florida Atlantic Owls at noon at ASU Stadium in Jonesboro. And facing a must-win scenario is nothing usual this time of year for Steve Roberts' Red Wolves, who come off another close loss to a BCS conference team, the Big Ten's Indiana Hoosiers, 36-34, and must win out to secure a winning season.
On paper, the Red Wolves (2-2, 2-5) look to be the better team, but the ASU head coach is expecting a "tremendous challenge" against the Owls (0-2, 1-4).
"They are a team that is much better than their 1-4 record and another team that has not played a lot of home games," Roberts said. "When you start talking about FAU, the first thing that comes to mind is the caliber of defense they are playing this year. They have great athletes who are very strong, very fast and do a great job from a scheme standpoint, and it will be a challenge to put a lot of points on the board."
The Owls lead the Sun Belt Conference in scoring defense, allowing 380.6 yards and 26.6 points per game after improving from last year when they allowed 453.2 yards and 33.8 points per game.
"Everything with [their defense] starts up front," Roberts said. "Their defensive line and linebackers are very good, and that will be a tremendous challenge for us."
Offensively, the Owls rank last in the Sun Belt Conference in total offense at 298.8 yards per game, and their 17.2-point average is second-worst in the league. Issues with the offensive line have hindered both pass protection and the ability to run the football. Sporadic drops by the receivers have not helped, either.
Despite the Owls' offensive woes, Roberts feels they have the athletes to make big plays behind quarterback Jeff Van Camp.
"He is very capable of making all of the throws, and has great timing with all of his receivers, and gets rid of the football," Roberts said. They move the pocket around a lot with some drop back stuff, some half-roll, and a lot of play action, and bootleg. It is hard to get a bead on where he is heading."
Other players to watch for FAU include:
* RB Alfred Morris. He ran for a season-high 153 yards in the Oct. 9 loss to Louisiana-Monroe. Whatever Morris can do to run for yards after contact will only help an offensive line that likely will struggle for the remainder of the season.
* LB Michael Lockley. Containment is key when going against a spread offense such as ASU's. It's vital that the second level of the Florida Atlantic defense remain sound when facing an Red Wolves team that wields one of the most potent attacks in the Sun Belt Conference, led by two-time Sun Belt offensive player of the week Ryan Aplin at quarterback.
* DE Cory Henry. Starting the last two games for FAU, the freshman already has become the team leader in sacks, tallying three combined against Louisiana-Monroe and South Florida.
Starting FAU center Jimmie Colley is expected to miss the game due to a head injury.
Roberts also gave his thoughts on what it would take for the Red Wolves to earn another home victory.
"We have to move the football effectively," he said. "Offensively and defensively I think we've got a great plan. We just have to go out and execute that plan, and not give up the big play. We are going to have to force them to execute their offense, and we will have to do some things in the special teams to get solid field position, and put points on the board."
The Red Wolves had a close game against Indiana last week, losing in the final minutes by the score of 36-34.
In order to win this week, the Red Wolves must remain focused and ride any momentum gained from the Indiana performance, and not allow the difficult loss to linger. ASU was in the game to the end against the Hoosiers, but once again could not get over the hump. Arkansas State lost all three games to BCS conference teams this season: Louisville (Big East), 30-21; Auburn (SEC), 52-26, and Indiana. Added to that are a heartbreaking last-minute loss at Troy and a comeback that fell short at Louisiana-Lafayette for five losses in seven games.
ASU is home for the next three games, including a game Tuesday, Nov. 2, against Sun Belt preseason favorite Middle Tennessee.
Quarterback Ryan Aplin and wide receiver Dwayne Frampton have been spending extra time after every practice to get their rhythm back, and the results led Aplin to set a single-game team record for completions (33), and Frampton to set a single-game team record for receptions with his 12 grabs against Indiana.
Other key players for the Red Wolves include:
* CB Darron Edwards. He broke up a career-high four passes against Indiana, but also bit on a play fake and got beat on a huge fourth-quarter touchdown by the Hoosiers. Edwards needs to have a short memory and get back to business.
* RB Sir Gregory Thornton. The true freshman had a huge game against Indiana, and recorded his first career touchdowns at ASU, a six-yard run in the third quarter and a 22-yard reception in the fourth quarter.
* KR Rod Hall. The junior wide receiver racked up a career-high 158 return yards against the Hoosiers. Big plays in the kicking game could make a major difference as ASU tries to improve its win total.