Butch Jones, Arkansas State relish in securing bowl appearance

Arkansas State running back Ja'Quez Cross (2) tries to shake off an opponent during a game at the Red Wolves' Centennial Bank Stadium in Jonesboro in this Sept. 23, 2023 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

Following his team's 77-31 rout of Texas State on Saturday afternoon, Arkansas State football Coach Butch Jones donned a T-shirt at the postgame news conference that read "2023 Bowl Bound" with a Red Wolves logo above.

With the win, ASU (6-5, 4-3 Sun Belt) clinched a bowl game appearance for the first time since 2019. The win also halted the three-game winning streak Texas State (6-5, 3-4) held in the series between the two programs.

Behind three defensive touchdowns and a kickoff return for a touchdown, the Red Wolves outscored the Bobcats 42-14 in the second half. At one point the ASU offense did not see the field for 17:01 of game time, yet still managed to outscore TSU 28-14 in that span.

"I've been coaching a long time and I've never been through a half of football like what we experienced in the second half," Jones said. "I've never been a part of anything like this. We won the explosive play battle and we won the turnover battle. It's pretty much undefeated when you're able to do that."

While the Red Wolves offense was not asked to do much in the second half, they did produce 28 points in the first half by dominating the Bobcats defense at the line of scrimmage. All four of the Red Wolves' first-half touchdowns were scored through the rushing attack.

Ja'Quez Cross and Zak Wallace each had a pair of touchdowns under their belt by the halftime break. Cross finished the game with 139 rushing yards and 320 all-purpose yards. It was the most all-purpose yards in a game from a Sun Belt player in a conference game since 2017.

"I can't say enough about the offensive line and the running backs," Jones said. "Those individuals [running backs] compliment each other in terms of different skill sets. They're also each other's biggest fans."

Cross added, "We are all each other's biggest fans but we also compete against each other. Zak getting the two [TDs] in the first quarter, I was like 'Okay, I gotta do something.' It just shows how much we're working week in and week out pushing each other."

While fans can now start looking at bowl projections to see which destination the Red Wolves will land, Jones and his team still have one more regular season test next week on the road at Marshall.

It's been a massive turnaround for ASU after being outscored 110-3 in its first two games of the season against Oklahoma and Memphis. Since then, the Red Wolves have won six of their last nine games and now hold winning records both overall as well as in conference games.

Jones said he is extremely proud of what his team has been able to accomplish to this point, but that he is still focused on the process of building the program and believes there is still much more left to accomplish.

"We're still a work in progress," Jones said. "We've come a long way in a very short period of time. I know we are measured by the scoreboard and it's an outcome oriented business, but I could see the progress that we were making even when we were coming up a little bit short."

With the Thanksgiving holiday on the horizon and a bowl bid secured, Jones made a point to thank the players, fans and others involved with the program as the team prepared to head to Huntington, W.Va., for the final game of the regular season next week.

"It's our players, they set the culture," he said. "It's their night, it's exciting. Now we got that great challenge ahead of us after Thanksgiving, but there's a lot to be thankful and grateful for."