Sack Me If You Can

Early-season bonding between ASU quarterback Ryan Aplin and his offensive line is paying off

It was late in the third quarter of the ASU-Louisiana Lafayette game that I seriously wondered if Tampa, Fla. native Ryan Aplin had surfed through one too many wipe-outs in his younger years. The Red Wolves’ junior quarterback, the fifth-most prolific passer in Sun Belt history, was driving his team deep into ULL territory while trailing 21-20.

No less than a grip on the Sun Belt title was at stake.

And there was the 6-1, 200-pound Aplin, continually pulling the ball out on zone reads and scrambling through seams in the defense, sometimes sliding to the ground, but more often than not simply plowing into any Rajun Cajun trying to stop him.

At one point, I even saw the most instrumental player in ASU coach Hugh Freeze’s go-go gadget offense tuck the ball, dart through a crease, get low and ram his head into a wall of thick Cajun.

No injury occurred and a few plays later, it was all good – Aplin trotted in for a 4-yard TD to help clinch what became a 30-21 win in Jonesboro.

The win makes Arkansas State (8-2, 6-0) a veritable lock to win at least a share of the the Sun Belt title with two games left, and it gives the Red Wolves a stronger shot at playing in a non-sucky bowl.

It also confirmed Aplin’s emergence as a serious running threat in the latter part of the season.

Continue reading Sack Me If You Can

Dead Horse A-Twitchin’: Arkansas State’s success breathes new life into old debate, Part 2


In Part 1, we rehashed some of the latest attacks on the University of Arkansas’ long-standing policy of not playing other in-state colleges. The main reasons for those seeking to maintain this policy haven’t changed much through the decades, but the lines of argument for changing the policy have evolved.
And Arkansas State’s football success this season adds new weight to some of these arguments.

To start with, let’s cast naivete aside:  No way Arkansas plays Arkansas State simply because it would be fun for fans, or because playing in-state competition would theoretically pour more money into the state government’s coffers, which would benefit all public universities in Arkansas.

Nope, if Jeff Long’s gonna entertain even the slightest sliver of this possibility, he’d better believe the game would help the UA’s athletic program bottom line now and in the future. This fall, he unveiled plans for a shining football palace which is part of a $320 million plan. This project isn’t touted as a luxury, though. Taking a long view, Arkansas’ AD understands that keeping up with the Jones in the SEC means financing expensive stuff to attract the nation’s best coaches, trainers and players.

Could replacing Troy or North Texas with ASU  on the football schedule help the UA achieve this faster?

Without developing additional streams of revenue and fundraising, Arkansas can’t afford to keep up with far bigger SEC rivals like LSU and Alabama.

Arkansas leaves money on the table every time it plays any Sun Belt team not named Arkansas State. Here’s why:

1) Arkansas paid $900,000 to play a Sun Belt team, Troy, earlier this season in a “rent-a-win”, or guarantee game. Meanwhile, in a similar David vs. Goliath type setup, Illinois paid ASU $850,000. It stands to reason that UA would have the financial upper hand in multiple ways if negotiating a contract to play ASU, including the actual guarantee game fee. It’s likely UA possible could get away with paying ASU even less than what Illinois would pay them. Either way, UA could save $50,000 to $100,000 by playing ASU.

2) No matter how good Arkansas or Arkansas State are playing, an early-season match-up between the programs would sell out the 72,000 seats of Fayetteville’s Razorback Stadium, where the game would likely be played every time. If necessary, the stadium’s seating could be expanded to nearly 80,000 and this would be needed for at least the first time the game was played. A solid Sun Belt team like Troy usually brings around 70,000 people but another 10,000 helps the bottom line, especially if each of the tickets are sold for more than usual. Which, for this game, would make sense.
General admission tickets could be sold at an elevated price ($100, as suggested on a local sports talk show) and if UA fans hesitated to pay that amount, ASU fans would certainly make up the difference.

3) At least for the first couple of times the programs played, there would be a veritable trough-ful of licensing and merchandising opportunities for UA athletics to wallow in. Just conjure up a nice “Natural State Showdown” logo involving the helmets or mascots of both programs, then milk that sucker for all its worth through T-shirts, cakes, commemorative videos, calendars, key-chains – whatever you can stamp. There’s no doubt this stuff would fly off the racks for at least the first couple games.

Continue reading Dead Horse A-Twitchin’: Arkansas State’s success breathes new life into old debate, Part 2

Dead Horse A-twitchin’: Arkansas State’s success breathes new life into old debate, Part 1

You probably don’t want to look.
That poor horse, dead as doornail, flat on its back in a fog of speculation.

It’s been lying there since 1946, you know – ever since John Barnhill arrived in Fayetteville as Arkansas’ coach and athletic director and instituted a policy of not playing in-state school in any sports.
At the time, the likes of LSU and Alabama were swooping into his state and snatching its best high school players. There was no way to compete with this if Arkansas was fractured into multiple programs of similar size.
Nope, there had to be one program dominating the market,he thought. Let’s cultivate fervent loyalty to stretch into future generations whose best players wouldn’t think twice about declining LSU or Alabama’s overtures to play for their home-state favorites.
Now, why shouldn’t that program be the Arkansas Razorbacks?

Look closely at the horse. It’s been there an awful long time, yet it’s hardly decayed.
Behold! On closer inspection, the damn thing appears to have twitched a time or two.
Impossible. It’s been dead so long, right?

Many Razorbacks fans prefer to roll their eyes when the question of whether Arkansas should play Arkansas State arises. This horse has been beaten a million times, they’ll say, and though plenty reasons have been thrown out as to why Barnhill’s policy has endured through the decades, there’s one common argument used most frequently:

“It’s as simple as this: Win, and no one is impressed because you were supposed to win to begin with”, Hogville poster JamesWParks wrote in 2007.
“Lose, and your [sic] a laughing stock.”

And so it has been for generations. First, longtime UA athletic director Frank Broyles upheld Barnhill’s decree. Since 2008, current UA atheletic director Jeff Long has done the same.

But while the major reasons for keeping the UA from sweating with its in-state brethren have remained the same for decades, reasons to reconsider that policy are evolving. That process, it appears, is speeding up.

Continue reading Dead Horse A-twitchin’: Arkansas State’s success breathes new life into old debate, Part 1

Freezing Reign in Sun Belt Conference Forecast?

Arkansas State remains the only undefeated Sun Belt team after Louisiana-Lafayette lost 42-23 at Western Kentucky on Saturday. With a record of 5-2 (3-0), the Red Wolves are off to the football program’s best start since joining the Sun Belt in 1991.

The strong start has helped Hugh Freeze keep alive much of the enthusiasm leading into this season, his first as Red Wolves head coach. This was pretty evident to me on a Friday visit to Jonesboro, where I saw all types of puns riffing/capitalizing on dude’s last name. The slogan “Feel the Freeze” is plastered all over billboards and shopfronts. Andy’s Frozen Custard, just a few blocks south of the stadium, brandishes perhaps the most delicious pun of all: the “Coach Freeze,” a shake made from strawberry and vanilla ice cream mixed with soda water.

While purchasing my own $4 “Coach Freeze,” I asked if Andy’s had in previous years also dished out a “Coach Roberts,” named after the team’s former coach Steve Roberts. The cashier girl only giggled, but I really wanted to know.

Go beyond mere feeling at Andy’s Custard Shop. The “Coach Freeze” shake tastes absolutely delicious.

  Arkansas State has its best shot at going to its first bowl game in six years. The strong start helps, as does the fact the Sun Belt picked up a second bowl tie-in a couple years ago. Before 2010, only the New Orleans Bowl accepted a Sun Belt team each year. These days, the bowl is an annual destination too.

No matter what bowl Arkansas State ends up in, you gotta believe it’ll have a strong shot at victory there. The Red Wolves’ innovative offense, after all, is pushing the boundaries of conventional spread offense with a trick play propensity and hurry-up tempo few programs can match. It may end up that Hugh Freeze is recognized as a pioneer of sorts – a forward-looking coach from another time.

I, for one, kind of wished he had coached ASU in the 1950s. That’s when the program played in two Refrigerator Bowls*, a setting in which Freeze should have felt right at home.

*ASU beat Camp Breckinridge 46-12 in 1951, but lost 34-19 to Western Kentucky in 1952. Both bowl games were played in Evansville, Ind.

What happened to Dakota Mosley?

Where did this former Auburn football player go?

Without doubt, Auburn running back Michael Dyer is the most famous  graduate of Little Rock Christian Academy.

That connection will be mentioned ad nauseum this week considering the Little Rock native’s importance in the Arkansas-Auburn game on Saturday night.

But Dyer hasn’t been the only Auburn Tiger and Little Rock Christian alum making headlines in recent months.

In March, Auburn freshman Dakota Mosley was kicked off the college national championship team with three Auburn teammates after arrests on charges of robbery, theft and burglary in an alleged holdup of other college students.

According to victims’ reports, those three other Auburn teammates stormed into a trailer park residence and took cell phones and a safe at gunpoint. A short while later, police found Mosley, along with the three teammates, in a car from which they recovered a handgun, an air gun and the stolen property.

Each of the four ex-players was charged  with first-degree robbery, first-degree burglary and third-degree theft of property in connection with the alleged robbery.

They are scheduled to go on trial during a three-week criminal session in Alabama beginning Oct. 31.

In all this tumult, not much had been written about how Dyer felt about one of his best friends going through such an ordeal. While interviewing Dyer’s uncle Andre Dyer for an article about torn loyalties, I found out that he’s close to Mosley’s dad. He told me Dakota Mosley is currently in a junior college in California. “He’s doing really well,” Andre Dyer said. “He’s really straightened his life out a lot. Everything is going really well with him. I’m proud of him.”

How has Michael reacted to Dakota’s absence?

“He really misses his friend, his good friend, his dear friend. That one person who’s always been there for him through thick and thin. He misses that person beside him.”

Mosley’s friendship was “a lot of the whole recruiting process… and the whole process of being a freshman in a big place, and to know that that’s gone? It does get to him. They try to stay in contact as often as they are permitted to do so.”

(UPDATE: Evan Woodbery of gives a detailed update on Mosley and the other three former players here)

Who wins UCA vs. ASU?

Finally, it’s here.

The week we wash from our eyes the residue of an off-season deluge of stories touching on the fact that, yes, Arkansas State’s football head coach Hugh Freeze was depicted in the The Blind Side, one of 2009’s surprise hits.

That movie briefly shows the role Freeze played in the development of Michael Oher, who went from a homeless and traumatized boy to first round NFL draft pick. Freeze coached him at a  private high school in Memphis, soon after Oher had been adopted by a caring woman and her family.

But a central story-line this week concerns the new identity ASU’s program has adopted  under Freeze, and all the new fans its high-powered spread offense could win considering the unprecedented platform Saturday’s ASU-UCA game has been given.

As for the current fans, they’re already having plenty fun with the resurrection of this 95-year-old rivalry. It’s about time, too.

There are way too few games played between Division I programs in Arkansas, and kudos to the big wigs for making this one happen. I mean, what else besides heated in-state rivalry could inspire comparisons between UCA’s kicker to Frodo Baggins, or a recent Bears transfer to the Cheshire Cat? Something tells me Sun Belt opponent Florida Atlantic ain’t getting this kind of attention from the ASU faithful.

The game, to be played in Jonesboro, should be fun to watch. Going in, ASU holds advantages beyond its home field.

The school is a full-fledged member of the FBS (Division I-A) while UCA is an FCS (Division I-AA) program. ASU is allowed to grant scholarships to 85 players; UCA can give a maximum of 63 scholarships.

So, from a talent standpoint, ASU walks into this shootout with more ammunition.

Another problem for the the Bears: star senior quarterback Nathan Dick, a former Razorback who had been playing the best ball of his career early this season, was knocked out of Saturday’s loss to Sam Houston State with a concussion. His status against ASU is questionable.

{Since} If Dick can’t play, or isn’t effective, then sophomore Wynrick Smothers steps in. “~Im me~”, Smothers declares on his My Space profile, and indeed if Smothers is to be himself on Saturday, ASU will see a better athlete and more dangerous running threat than Dick. But the game will also be the inexperienced Smothers’ first start.

There is capable talent surrounding the quarterbacks, including running back Jackie Hinton (who is recovering from a hamstring injury) and wunderkind wide receiver Jesse Grandy, who starred at Ole Miss last year. An ankle injury kept star linebacker Frank Newsome from playing Saturday but he’s expected to return against ASU.

A final plus for the Bears, this one psychological: the last time these teams played, in 1997, UCA barely lost to ASU 36-35. UCA was then Division II and allowed only 36 scholarships for its football players.

So, yes, it walks into this match-up with significantly more talent.

But that should be offset by another ASU advantage. With its statewide broadcast, this game presents a perfect opportunity for Hugh Freeze to elevate his local reputation from “the coach who was in that Sandra Bullock movie” to “offensive mastermind” and in the process open doors to some of Arkansas’ better high school recruits. To take advantage of this exposure, look for Freeze to throw most – if not all – of his playbook at the Bears.

My prediction: ASU 48, UCA 28

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