By Jeff Greenberg
A trip down to Louisiana didn’t go the way Arkansas State wanted in a down-to-the-wire loss to their bitter rival. Head Coach Blake Anderson saw his guys fight back from deficits to take the lead late, but couldn’t finish the deal. Bright spots included the offense showing that it is now running on all cylinders and freshman running back, Marcel Murray, is proving to be a breakout star in the Sun Belt Conference. In this week’s 5th Quarter Coach Anderson discusses the game, Murray’s continued progress and where he sees the program right now in Jonesboro.
- 1st Quarter: One take away from this game is the fact that your offense has continued to gain momentum from week to week and they gained a lot of yards and scored a lot of points in Saturday’s game. What will you use from this game in your meetings this week with the offense? – “In any game, win or lose, you always have things to build on and learn from. Yes, the offense had a good night. We’ve been talking about finishing drives and scoring touchdowns and we were able to do that in this game. Going 5-for-5 in the red zone is what we’ve been looking for this season and it’s been a focus for this offense. We were over 50% on third down which is what you want when you look at the keys to winning a game. And we protected the ball, with the one exception being an interception on a play where the call didn’t go our way. So all in all, there are positives there and you need to show them what they did right. But at the end of the day we lost. We have to understand that we had the ball with time left on the clock and a chance to go win the game and we didn’t get that done. That’s what we have to learn from so that when we’re in that position again, we change the outcome and find a way to score. So you look back at it and you have to balance what you did well with what didn’t go well and grow from the experience. Our guys have done that each week and I would expect nothing different this week.”
- 2nd Quarter: One of the guys on offense who had a great night and seems to be growing into a major factor every week is Marcel Murray. Did you see the potential for him to have this type of impact during his freshman year? – “I don’t think we expected him to have this type of success this fast. Now, from the moment he stepped foot onto the practice field, we knew right away he was going to contribute this season. But I don’t think we thought it would be at the level he’s at right now and with the consistency he’s showing right now. That’s a lot to expect out of a freshman. But you know, he doesn’t act like a freshman. He’s a mature kid and he’s a hard worker. You can see his confidence building weekly. I mean with every carry he looks more and more confident. In this last game he’s a big reason we were able to go 5-for-5 in the red zone. He’s got a special future ahead of him here with us. Now, when you talk about him I think you also have to give a lot of credit to Wand and Weh-Weh. They’re two seniors who have a done a great job of being leaders in that running back room. The dynamic in that room has changed and it’s not what they expected going into this season. But they’ve been leaders with it. They’ve had to give up reps and give up carries to allow Marcel to flourish the way he has right now. That’s hard to handle for anybody, let alone two seniors. So I give them a lot of credit for how they’ve handled that and how they’ve mentored Marcel. It’s the epitome of being team-first guys, and they’re examples of the character of the guys we have here.”
- 3rd Quarter: The first quarter did not go how the defense planned. What adjustments did you try to make during the game to limit the big plays as the game went on? – “We made some minor adjustments the best we could because they were throwing out a ton of different looks to keep us off balance from an assignment standpoint. They did a great job with their game plan in that respect and stayed away from things that would have put them in trouble in terms of protection. It looked like their focus was to neutralize our front. They worked to stay out of third-and-long, used the screen game and the quick game to keep our pressure from becoming a factor. We needed to get them off schedule and make them have to throw from the pocket. We had to make them uncomfortable. We found success in spurts but failed to find consistency throughout the game and couldn’t sustain that success when we needed to in the end in the moments after we took the lead in the 4th quarter.”
- 4th Quarter: You’ve spoken about your message to the players and how you need them to approach this week. But what is their message to you? What are the leaders of this team, who have all been with you for a few years now, saying to you and their coaches? – “Well, first of all they’re frustrated too. They had high expectations and they’re not happy with the results we’ve had the last few weeks. They’re competitive guys or else they wouldn’t be here in the first place. They also know how close this has all been in these games. A play here or a play there and we’re 3-1 in the conference. The guys know this and they’re frustrated that we haven’t finished in those situations. But I’ll tell you this, what these guys aren’t doing is moping around and feeling sorry for themselves. It’s the exact opposite to be honest. I’m drawing inspiration from them and their drive to finish this season strong. They’re coming up to me and the other coaches and saying things like, “Coach, we’re going to find a way to win these games and finish this thing the right way. We believe in what we’ve built here and we believe in you.” It’s a great group of guys in that locker room. They’re the reason I’m fired up to come to work. Things haven’t gone our way and we’ve had some balls not bounce our way and we played some teams that got us in the end. That’s the nature of the game. The other thing I see is not just what they’re saying to the coaches but what they’re saying to each other, both in practice and in the games. You can see and hear it on our sidelines with guys picking each other up when things get tough and they’re fighting together and they’re fighting for each other. That’s all I can ask for as their coach.”
- 5th Quarter: When you arrived in Jonesboro, the coaching turnover had an effect on where the foundation of the program stood in terms of numbers with the roster and in recruiting at the time. You said then you were here to build something, not just piece things together for a short-term stay. How would you describe where you are in that process? – “I think it’s been slow and steady. That can be hard to hear, but it’s what had to happen to put this program on solid footing, not for just one or two years, but for ten years. I don’t think anybody really knew then what it would take to stabilize everything in the midst of all the transition that had taken place and what that did to the roster. But I think that’s why Terry brought me here was to build a program for the long-term. We still have progress to make but we’re building in the right direction and in the right way. It takes multiple recruiting classes to recover in terms of numbers and I feel good about what we’ve done in recruiting. Have we had to get creative in where we find guys in the short-term to plug holes for each season? Of course. We wanted to win when the opportunity was there to take it and that’s how we won those championships. But on the whole, we never lost focus on building our classes one-by-one to set our foundation. I want to get to the point where we’re starting a season with 80+ scholarship players. The NCAA rules don’t allow you to do that quickly with regards to how many guys you can sign every year. I get that everybody wants everything to happen fast. It’s the society we live in now where we need instant gratification. Nobody likes to see that buffering signal on your phone and I get that. But the signs are there that this is going where we need it to go. When you look at our opportunity to finish this season strong and reach some of our goals, and then you see what our future looks like with who is on the roster now, it’s pointing in a good direction.”
Come back each week to see what Coach Anderson has to say about his team’s performance. You can follow Coach Anderson on Twitter at @CHbanderson and Arkansas State Football at @AStateFB.