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After 0-4 start, Arkansas State is back atop the Sun Belt

JOHN BUNCH/ICON SPORTSWIRE

A month ago, I was almost ready to write the obituary for the Arkansas State season. Now, the Red Wolves have come back on strong like that Jason Voorhees fella in all those scary movies.

After a 0-4 start that saw A-State struggle to move the football on offense and giving up big plays on defense, ASU has gone on a three-game winning streak in Sun Belt Conference play, including Saturday’s 51-10 win over Louisiana-Monroe to put the defending SBC champs as the darkhorse choice to repeat.

The win is also Arkansas State’s 12th straight win in Sun Belt play, with the last conference loss coming back in November of 2014, a 45-27 loss to Texas State.

A-State did play some tough teams to start off the 2016 season, but the losses to Toledo, Auburn and Utah State were not close and showed significant issues on the offensive side. But a late collapse led to a home loss to in-state FCS foe Central Arkansas raised alarm bells that the Red Wolves may be on the downward slide.

The downturn continued in this year’s SBC opener against Georgia Southern, trailing the Eagles 23-17 in the fourth quarter. But the Red Wolves clamped down hard on defense and gave its offense opportunities to rally, and scored 10 points in last six-and-a-half minutes, including the game-winning touchdown with nine seconds left to knock off the Eagles 27-26. ASU also looked strong in a 17-7 win over South Alabama.

Head coach Blake Anderson is a creative offensive coach, and even though it took some time, the offense is finally beginning to come together. Sophomore quarterback Justice Hansen has established himself as the No. 1 guy after putting together some strong performances, including his 21-of-36, 303-yard effort on Saturday, as Hansen threw for four touchdowns. He also ran for a score from six yards out.

Also having a strong impact is running back Warren Wand, whose speed makes him dangerous as a rusher and a receiver. He had four catches for 65 yards and two touchdown catches, including a 28-yard catch-and-run to open the scoring on ASU’s first drive of the game. Wand also ran for a touchdown from a yard out, and running back Johnston White had 72 yards on seven carries.

The defense has also stepped up the last couple of games, holding both South Alabama and ULM to under 200 passing yards. Against the Warhawks, ASU picked off two passes and had three sacks in the game.

Arkansas State will head to Atlanta on Thursday to face Georgia State, and has a home game against New Mexico State the next week before a huge game at Troy on Nov. 17. The Trojans – who are 5-1 and tied for first in the Sun Belt with Appalachian State at 4-0 – have just as good of an offense as A-State and a defense that is second in the nation in interceptions, where A-State’s defense was last year.

A-State has a chance to repeat as SBC champs if it wins the rest of its games. If Troy beats App State, ASU would have a chance to win the title outright, since the Red Wolves do not face the Mountaineers this year. Because the conference doesn’t have a championship game nor any tiebreaker other than head-to-head, it’s possible that A-State could share the SBC title with App State and/or Troy.

Arkansas State has been one of the top teams in the Sun Belt for the last five years. It did look like that honor would be lost after the rough 0-4 start. Now, there’s a real shot that A-State could return to being the best in the SBC.

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