Red Wolves face Huskies in Bowl

By Daniel McFadin

Published: Saturday, January 7, 2012

Updated: Saturday, January 7, 2012

            MOBILE, ALA.---Arkansas State's long wait to play in the Bowl, the penultimate bowl of the year, is almost over.

            In less than 48 hours, ASU will take the field at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala. against the MAC champion Northern Illinois Huskies. It's been more than a month since the Red Wolves finished out their regular season against Troy on Dec. 3, and Northern Illinois defeated Ohio in the MAC championship on Dec. 2.

            Going into bowl weekend, it is clear that both teams are ready to return to the field after a 35-day layoff.

            "Let's play a football game, that's the state of this football team," interim head coach David Gunn said with a smile following a Friday press conference.

            "It seems like it's been forever and it's time to play," Gunn continued. "Preparation is done. Polishing will continue to be done over the next two days, but it's time to play."

            Gunn, a 10-year ASU veteran at the running back coach position, leads the 10-2 Red Wolves against the 10-3 Huskies, led by first-year head coach Dave Doeren.

            "[ASU] is a team that a lot has been said about on both sides [of the ball]. I think they're mirror images of each other in a lot of ways," Doeren said Friday. "I think there's a small margin for error for either team defensively against the speeds that both offences possess."

            Going into Sunday's game, the eighth meeting between the schools, the Red Wolves are ranked 23rd in the nation in total offense, averaging 453.4 yards per game.

            Hugh Freeze, the mastermind behind the Red Wolves offensive success during the past two seasons, is now at Ole Miss, along with four other members of this year's coaching staff.

            However, Gunn does not seem to be worried about their departure, having added help from ASU player and former Memphis defensive coordinator Kenny Ingram and a successful Arkansas high school head coach in the form of Billy Dawson to help out the offense.

            "What we do, they're already very familiar with the concept," Gunn said. "Terminology was a little different, but we've had 36 days to prepare for that."

            Secondary coach Corey Batoon will take Dave Wommack's place as the defensive coordinator Sunday as wide receiver's coach Tyler Siskey will be the main signal caller on offense.

            "Our system is still intact, our offense system is still intact and our defensive system is still intact," Gunn said. "We're going to follow the same script we've followed all year long. Our coaches know that script very well."

            It does not hurt that the Red Wolves are led on the field by junior quarterback Ryan Aplin. Aplin is the heart and soul of the Red Wolves offense, averaging 329 yards of total offense a game, and throwing 18 touchdowns while rushing for another nine. His performance earned him the Sun Belt Player of the Year honors.

            The offense will go up against a Huskies defense that gives up 31.1 points per game, which has put NIU in many close situations, with seven of their games being decided by a touchdown or less and with the Huskies coming out on top in the final five.

            Coach Gunn describes the NIU defensive unit as a having a "bend but don't break" style that should remind fans of teams in the Big 10 conference.

            "I think they're very talented in the secondary," wide receiver's coach Tyler Siskey said. "They're led by Jimmie Ward, a young man I know very well."  Ward recorded 93 tackles and one interception this season.

            Offensively, the Huskies are led by senior quarterback Chandler Harnish, NIU's leader in both the air and ground game. Harnish, the owner of 23 NIU records, tops the NCAA among quarterbacks in rushing yards per game with 106.3 and is 18th in passing efficiency.

            Harnish has thrown for 26 touchdowns and only five interceptions, but will face an ASU defense that is ranked eighth in the country in interceptions with 18, where senior cornerback Darryl Feemster leads the team with five, the most by an ASU player since 2007.

            ASU will have to keep its high level of play going after the long break in-between games, which Gunn sees a positive.

            "It was good to get the kids away from football after a long, strenuous season," Gunn said. "When you look at football starting on August 1 and now we're at January 8th, it can serve as healthy thing to get away from it."

            The Red Wolves will be without junior defensive back Tausean Holmes due to "nerve damage," Gunn said. The defensive line, anchored by Brandon Joiner and Dorvus Woods, could be without Amos Draper. The lineman is day-to-day according to Gunn, as Draper works to overcome a turf toe injury he has been afflicted with since the second half of the season.

            This bowl week has been a homecoming for sophomore receiver Carlos McCants, who grew up in Mobile and attended LeFlore High School, even playing games at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.

            "It's been a great experience, with this being my first bowl game," McCants said at practice Friday. "It's like a dream come true, being able to come and play in my home stadium where I played all of my high school games."

            After beginning their season with a 1-2 record, the Red Wolves reeled off nine straight victories, giving Arkansas State its best season since 1986. ASU hopes to put a bow on it by winning its first bowl game since joining the Division 1A level and earning their first trip to the nation's top 25 college programs.

            The 2012 Bowl will kick off at 8 p.m. Sunday night and can be seen on ESPN.



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