I can still remember it like it was yesterday.
September 28th, 2013, at Bobcat Stadium, Texas State vs Wyoming. That was the date and site of Tyler Jones’ Bobcat debut. Texas State was 2-1 going into that game but the offense looked listless in those first three games and so the decision was made to turn he reigns of the offense over to the freshman quarterback out of Stephenville.
On Jones’ second play from scrimmage, he raced past several Cowboy defenders for a 38-yard run. Five plays later, he handed the ball off to Robert Lowe who ran the ball in for a 1-yard touchdown run, capping off a successful first drive for Jones as a college quarterback.
There would be a 3 hour, 29 minute lightning delay later in the game but Jones remained unfazed, throwing his first career touchdown pass, a 26-yard connection with Ben Ijah to tie the game at 14-14 right before halftime. Jones would guide the Bobcats on four more scoring drives the rest of the game as Texas State beat the visitors from Laramie 42-21.
Tyler Jones would start 40 more games after that night with several other memorable games along the way. His 4th and 24 connection with Ijah later that season in a 33-31 win over South Alabama. A bowl eligible-clinching win at Idaho a week later. An emotional triple-overtime win at Tulsa in 2014, a game which saw Jones make play after play in the bonus football periods. A come-from-behind victory at ULM and dominating wins against Arkansas State and Georgia State as well that season. His masterpiece in a losing effort against Southern Miss last season and his clutch play against Ohio this year, another triple-overtime thriller that resulted in a Texas State victory.
No quarterback gained more total yards in their career wearing the maroon and gold than Tyler Jones. To date, he has 9,847 yards, recently surpassing Barrick Nealy for the record. He’s second all-time in school history in passing yards (8,450) and second in touchdown passes (55) and he’s done it all with a quiet confidence.
Unfortunately, Jones’ final season isn’t ending the way he, or anyone else would’ve liked and the same goes for the other 17 seniors who are suiting up for the final time on Saturday. There will be no bowl game to go to or championship to celebrate. But there are the memories, and Jones and this senior class have given us their share. Perhaps they can give us one more memorable moment with a win over Arkansas State at Bobcat Stadium. Here are five things to know about the game.
1) Arkansas State has had an unconventional path to success this season
To say the Red Wolves struggled to start the season would be an understatement. The reigning Sun Belt champions were beaten soundly at home by Toledo in their season opener, 31-10. After (an expected) loss to Auburn, the Red Wolves lost their next two games as well against Utah State (a team which finished 3-9) and FCS Central Arkansas (at home). While Arkansas State had bounced back from a 1-3 start the year before to win the Sun Belt, it seemed highly unlikely that the Red Wolves could pull that trick off again.
According to a conversation I had with Arkansas State broadcaster Matt Stolz, the Red Wolf players held a players only meeting after that loss to Central Arkansas to try and figure out how they were going to dig themselves out of their 0-4 hole.
Initially, it appeared that meeting had gone for not as Arkansas State was staring down the barrel of an 0-5 record, trailing Georgia Southern in its Sun Belt opener 26-20 with just two minutes left to play and facing 4th and 16 at its own 24-yard line. That game, and really the Red Wolves’ season, looked over. However, quarterback Justice Hansen scrambled for 18 yards to keep the possession alive and later threw the game winning touchdown pass to Omar Bayless with nine seconds left.
Arkansas State hasn’t looked back ever since. The Red Wolves rattled off six straight wins after that 0-4 start, a streak that ended last Saturday in a 24-19 loss at Louisiana. But that was just a minor bump in the road for the Red Wolves who are still in a position to win a share of the Sun Belt title on Saturday, what would be the programs’ fifth championship in six years. All of this for a team that was 0-4, a play away from being 0-5, and left for dead. Remarkable.
2) The Red Wolves’ Defensive Line is the Best in the Sun Belt
While Arkansas State’s offense improved dramatically during its six game win streak (from 17 PPG during the 0-4 start to over 32 PPG since), the Red Wolves’ defense is what has truly led the way to the team’s in-season turnaround. A-State hasn’t given up more than 26 points since September 24th and in conference play, the Red Wolves are surrendering just 15.4 PPG. They’ve enjoyed that success with a fearsome defensive line.
At the two defensive end positions are Ja’Von Rolland-Jones and Chris Odom who have combined for 20.5 sacks this season, the second best sack duo in the FBS. Those two have more sacks than six Sun Belt teams do all season and a lot of their damage has come in recent weeks. All but four of those 20.5 sacks have come in the last five games alone (9 for Rolland-Jones, 7.5 for Odom). In fact, Rolland-Jones, who is only a junior, is one of the greatest pass rushers to ever play in the Sun Belt. His 28 career sacks are the most ever for a Sun Belt player and are tied for the most in A-State history.
The job of a defensive end is easier when the secondary is good (and Arkansas State’s secondary is great) and also when you get some help from the interior of the defensive line. Like the secondary, that’s another check for the Red Wolves who have one of the better nose guards in the country in Waylon Roberson, a pre-season 1st team all-conference defensive lineman. Roberson, who will likely be drafted this coming spring, measures out at a massive 6’2”, 341 pounds. Needless to say, the Bobcats’ offensive line will have its hands full Saturday night.
3) Justice Hansen is Developing Into a Solid Quarterback
The biggest hole to fill for Arkansas State this past off-season was at quarterback as Fredi Knighten, a veteran and talented quarterback, had graduated. To fill that void, the Red Wolves turned to a couple of transfer quarterbacks, first handing over the reins of the offense to Chad Voytik, a graduate transfer from Pitt. Voytik started the first three games of the season for Arkansas State and struggled, eventually being sent to the bench after a poor start at Utah State. The Red Wolves gave the “keys to the car” to Justice Hansen (a former 4-star recruit and Oklahoma Sooner) and haven’t looked back since.
Hansen has been Arkansas State’s starting quarterback since Week 4, and while he lost his first start to Central Arkansas, he has since settled in nicely, guiding the Red Wolves to a 6-2 record in his time as the starter, including a 2-1 record on the road. He’s twice been named as the Sun Belt’s Offensive Player of the Week and is currently second in the conference in pass efficiency and is tied for third in touchdown passes with 14. Even in defeat last week, Hansen played well, completing 35 of 57 passes for 393 yards and a touchdown at Louisiana.
At season’s start, everyone knew Arkansas State would have a great defense, a veteran offensive line, and great players at the skill positions but questioned whether or not that would be enough to overcome a lack of experience at football’s most important position: quarterback. While that in fact seemed warranted during the first month of the season, this appears to no longer be an issue for Arkansas State.
4) The State of Texas Has Been Good to A-State
It should come as little surprise that a good chunk of Arkansas State’s talent comes from Texas: 17 of the Red Wolves’ players hail from the Lone Star State. The only state that Arkansas State draws more players from is from the state of Arkansas. In fact, the three defensive lineman highlighted a few paragraphs above are all from Texas.
Not only do the Red Wolves poach the state for talent, but they have a habit of beating teams from Texas as well. Over the past nine years, Arkansas State is 11-1 against teams from the state of Texas. That lone loss? I’ll give you one guess.
5) It’s Senior Day at Texas State
This of course is something I went into detail earlier, reminiscing about the great career of Tyler Jones. He isn’t the only player taking the field for the final time on Saturday, so here is a list of the 18 seniors playing their final game on Saturday. Please click the links provided for more information on each player and if you’re at the game, please be sure to give them your support and make their final college football experience as memorable as possible.
Thank you to each of them for what they’ve done for the Texas State Football program, here’s to hoping their careers end on a winning note Saturday night against Arkansas State.
And those are five things you should know about Saturday’s game. Eat ‘Em Up!
- Brant Freeman