By Jeff Greenberg
The Sun Belt Conference championship race was really heating up heading into this past weekend. As the weekend came to a close that race only got hotter. If you’re the Arkansas State Red Wolves, the win over a surging Louisiana-Monroe team means you’re still in the race. Head Coach Blake Anderson has said his team needs to win out if it is to have any chance at playing in the first ever Sun Belt Championship game. His Red Wolves have now followed that statement up with three wins against South Alabama, Coastal Carolina and Louisiana-Monroe. They have a chance to close the season with a 4th win this week against Texas State. We caught up with Coach Anderson to recap the big Senior Day win in this week’s “5th Quarter with Coach Anderson.”
- 1st Quarter: You challenged your team following the loss to Louisiana-Lafayette. How would you describe the way they’ve responded to that challenge over the last three weeks? – “Honestly, in every aspect you can measure the response has been everything you could ask for from this team. It started with practices and meetings. I think our practices have gotten better every week in terms of tempo and focus. We’ve really had our best weeks of practice this season in recent weeks, which hasn’t been an easy task considering the amount of injuries and how that can make getting decent match-ups in practice difficult. A lot of guys have had to step into roles they weren’t used to, and that includes guys stepping up where both they and us didn’t expect to play this season. When the games have come along you can see that all of the hard week they’ve put in has given them the confidence to believe that we can get the job done. That belief in each other is the reason we’ve played so well over the last few weeks. I’ve been impressed, in this era of social media, how well our guys have really tuned out the outside noise and the people telling them they can’t get the job done. It goes back to their focus and the concentration they’ve needed to win games. The final piece to that puzzle, but certainly not the least, is the level of effort these guys are playing with right now. The guys on this team are giving us everything they’ve got. We’ve got one more chance to do it again and take care of what we can take care of in this thing.”
- 2nd Quarter: There was a lot on the line in this game for both teams. In the end, it was a 93-yard drive in the 3rd quarter that seemed to seal the deal for your team. How would you analyze what happened on that drive? – “To me, it was a drive defined by guys stepping up and making big plays when they were in a position to do so. Nothing that happened on that drive was by design, to be honest. Nothing went as expected, which can happen on any drive. I called plays expecting one thing to happen and it seemed like one factor here and there kept changing the action. But Justice stepped up and put balls in positions where our guys could go up and rip it out of the air; and that’s what they did. Again, I thought it was the perfect example of a group of guys that were willing the ball down the field on a drive when we needed it most. Make no mistake, that’s the opportunity Monroe’s defense had in front of them too. The momentum was on the edge at that point. Our guys were the ones that stepped up to the challenge and seized the momentum at that point. I’m not sure we were mature enough or disciplined enough to make a drive like that earlier in the season. That drive showed the kind of growth we’ve made as a team as the season has progressed. That drive won the game for us right there.”
- 3rd Quarter: Your defense held Louisiana-Monroe to well below their normal averages and held one of the top quarterbacks in the Sun Belt in check. What led to that defensive production? – “The way our defense played was representative of what they’ve been doing the last three weeks. Our guys are just controlling the game right now on defense. We thought going into this game that they are really similar to us offensively and so we had some ideas of what we needed to do to contain their quarterback and their play-makers. Joe and his staff went back and really dissected last year’s game and decided what we wanted to do versus what we could do and put together a plan to blend the two together. We knew by putting our guys in a position to take their play-maker out of the game that that would leave other guys in a lot of pressure situations where we would have to play the run with limited bodies in the box. I thought our guys executed that game plan as well as they could, and even in situations when their best player found himself in 1-on-1 situations our guys stepped up and made plays. Then being able to create turnovers and score on defense were critical to winning this game. I give a lot of credit to Joe and his staff for getting their guys ready. And their guys played with an edge to them. An attitude that controlled this game from the start.”
- 4th Quarter: One of the guys on that defense that had a huge impact on the opposing quarterback was senior defensive end, Ronheem Bingham. How would describe what he’s been like for this program on the field and in the locker room this season? – “It’s been incredible to watch and be around. I can’t praise a guy any higher than I would with Ronheem. On the field he’s been completely disruptive for opposing offenses, particularly in this game. He’s leading the conference in sacks and TFLs, and I think he’s in the Top 15 in the nation in both of those categories. I think he turned in the highest chaos rating in a game for any defensive lineman since we’ve been here. If he isn’t the one making the play he’s usually involved in helping others make the play, and he’s just as happy then as he is when he makes the play. His effort is off the charts in practice and in games. You mentioned the locker room side of him. He’s the exact type of example you want other guys in your program to follow. He’s a “yes sir, no sir” type of kid. The love he has for his teammates is obvious every day in everything he says and does. Ronheem is a team guy with a great smile and a big heart. I thought he was one of our biggest finds in recruiting the JuCo circuit and Coach Early did a great job to get him here. We’ve been fortunate to have him in our program.”
- 5th Quarter: How would you describe what Senior Night is like for a coach? – “It’s an emotional time every single season with every single class. These guys are family to me. It’s how we do what we do here. We live family every day with these guys. They’ve been to my house and swam in my pool. We’ve sat on my couches and watched ball games together and just gotten to know each other beyond the game field. We’ve been in their homes as well and just spent a ton of time with them and watched them grow up. I think of guys that have been here with us for four or five years like Brandon Byner, Warren Wand and Justin Clifton, and realize how many downs they’ve played for this program. In a day and age where guys are transferring all over the place at the first moment when things don’t go their way, I think it says a lot about how our guys have stuck with us through the ups and downs. I think about how they could have fallen apart when things weren’t going well this year and people were telling them they weren’t any good. But they didn’t fall apart because that’s not who they are as leaders on this team. The seniors are the ones that held this team together when it could have fallen apart. It means a lot to me to see them grow and get better as players and as men. It means a lot to see them win in front of their family and the fans that stayed behind them as a team on Senior Day. It’s just an emotional thing that’s hard to put into words what they mean to you as people. I’m just glad the ride isn’t over yet and I get to coach these guys in some more games this season.”
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.