JONESBORO -- The Arkansas State University football team rested Saturday while preseason favorite Appalachian State lost 52-45 in the final minute to Louisiana-Monroe to give the Red Wolves sole possession of first place in the Sun Belt Conference standings.
Appalachian State was one of three Sun Belt teams not on ASU's schedule, and since this is the final season without a conference championship game, the Red Wolves (5-2, 4-0) now have a clear path to an outright Sun Belt title.
It's nearly the same scenario as last season: Appalachian State was undefeated in conference until it lost 28-24 to Troy on Nov. 12, and ASU was in first place until it lost 24-19 to Louisiana-Lafayette on Nov. 26.
Appalachian State and ASU shared the title.
"We let a game slip when we shouldn't have," ASU Coach Blake Anderson said Monday at the team's weekly news conference. "So we don't have to look very far back in recent history to recall how not to do it. But mainly, [we need to] just block out all the noise of what's happened, because it doesn't really matter unless we go take care of business."
This Saturday, ASU will play at South Alabama (3-6, 2-3), which upset Troy after its 24-21 victory over then-No. 25 LSU.
South Alabama has since lost two of its past three games by a combined 13 points, and the program announced less than an hour before Saturday's 19-14 loss to Louisiana-Lafayette that it had suspended all-time leading rusher Xavier Johnson for the remainder of the year due to "a violation of team rules."
Anderson expects ASU starting running back Warren Wand "would be able to help us come Saturday" after missing the past two games with an ankle injury.
ASU defensive coordinator Joe Cauthen said "Will" linebacker Tajhea Chambers, a redshirt sophomore, "didn't look very promising in yesterday's practice" in an attempt to return from an ankle sprain.
"There's a few more days left in the week," Cauthen said. "Hopefully we'll get him back by Saturday. If not, we'll get him back for the next game."
The South Alabama offense -- which Cauthen said has a "run-first" personality -- does not have another running back on the roster that has recorded a rushing touchdown this season, but Anderson called the Jaguars' fourth-ranked scoring defense in the Sun Belt (25 points per game) "one of the best defenses in the league, so it'll be a challenge for us offensively to score points."
Most of the challenges that have slowed ASU's 10th-ranked scoring offense in the nation (40.4 points per game) have been self-inflicted.
Two weeks ago, ASU trailed New Mexico State 14-7 at halftime when the Red Wolves accumulated more penalty yards (111) in the first half than it had in any game all season. ASU recovered to win 37-21.
On Oct. 14, ASU's 51-17 victory over Coastal Carolina was only 17-7 at halftime because a 50-yard run by senior running back Johnston White was called back on an illegal formation penalty.
Redshirt sophomore kicker Sawyer Williams has missed four extra points this season, and he has missed 2 of 5 field goal attempts in the past two games -- including a 39-yard attempt against New Mexico State.
The mistakes have not been costly against ASU's first four conference opponents, which have a combined .265 win percentage, but they could become more of an issue against the four upcoming opponents, which have a combined .444 win percentage.
"I think that's the case any week," Anderson said. "It could have definitely lost the game at New Mexico State. Had the defense not played as well as they did -- had we not had a couple of explosive plays down the stretch -- those little mistakes would have cost us the game. Fortunately, we overcame it, and we found a way to win anyway. We were able to learn from it without it costing us a game."
Anderson said the team spent a large portion of its bye week on those "small, detail-oriented things that can make us better in all three areas," which he said is difficult to correct when a team doesn't have the consequence of a loss.
"Human nature is: 'You won, so it's OK,' " he said. "You have to coach harder after a win than you do a loss sometimes. You get a loss, you leave with a gut-wrenching feeling anyway.
"I think that's the sign of a good football team, a mature football team, that can take a win -- even if it was by double-digits -- and realize there are still things you have to correct."
It was the small details that contributed to ASU's only conference loss last season to Louisiana-Lafayette, when the Red Wolves lost 24-19 despite outgaining the Ragin' Cajuns 521-292 in total offense. ASU scored just one touchdown on its six opportunities in the red zone, which included a lost fumble near the goal line as time expired.
Cauthen has not addressed how to avoid a potential slip-up like last season.
"How do I prevent it?" Cauthen said. "I'm not even worried about it. I'm just concerned about how am I going to stop them on third and 4? What are we going to do on first and 10 and they're backed up on their goal line? That's kind of our deal right there."
Sports on 11/07/2017
ARKANSAS STATE at
WHEN Saturday, 4 p.m.
WHERE Ladd-Peebles Stadium, Mobile, Ala.
RECORDS Arkansas State 5-2, 4-0 Sun Belt; South Alabama 3-6, 2-3
Print Headline: Sun Belt scenario familiar for ASU