Unlike most of his players, Arkansas State coach Butch Jones knows what it’s like to play — and beat — a highly ranked team.
In a long coaching career with stops as head coach at Tennessee and Cincinnati, he also was a special assistant to head coach Nick Saban when Alabama drilled Ohio State in the national championship game, 52-24, in the 2020 season.
Jones is in his second season as head coach at Arkansas State (1-0), but coming off a 58-3 victory vs. Grambling State, the Red Wolves will move into a different stratosphere Saturday when they play at No. 3 Ohio State (1-0).
“The one thing is when you play a high level of an opponent, the mistakes you make are magnified, so your margin of error is a lot slimmer,” Jones said Monday. “A lot of the mistakes that we made Saturday night, if we make those same mistakes against Ohio State, they’re going to turn into explosive plays and negative-yardage football plays and possibly turnovers generated.”
The Buckeyes opened with a marquee matchup against then-No. 5 Notre Dame and overcame a 10-7 halftime deficit to record a workmanlike 21-10 win.
Ohio State and its Heisman Trophy hopeful quarterback, C.J. Stroud, struggled for much of the game due to the absence of standout wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who suffered a leg injury during the Buckeyes’ second series. Smith-Njigba played a few snaps just before halftime and then sat the rest of the game.
Coach Ryan Day said Tuesday he was uncertain whether Smith-Njigba will be available Saturday.
“We will not bring him back if there’s any risk of him getting hurt for the future,” Day said.
Stroud, meantime, still completed 24 of 34 passes for 223 yards with two touchdowns, turning to Emeka Egbuka for a career-high nine catches for 90 yards. The Buckeyes displayed balance, rushing for 176 yards against Notre Dame, with TreVeyon Henderson gaining 91 yards and Miyan Williams 84.
Ohio State led the nation in scoring last season with an average of 45.7 points per game and is expected to be an offensive juggernaut again, but the story of the game was the defense under first-year defensive coordinator Jim Knowles.
Knowles was lured from Oklahoma State to fix a unit that was 59th out of 130 schools in total defense (372.9 yards per game) last season. The Buckeyes held Notre Dame to 253 total yards (72 in the second half) and forced the Fighting Irish to punt on their final six possessions.
“That’s the start we were looking for, for sure,” Day said. “Watching the film, (the defense) played really hard. They played fast and decisive.”
Arkansas State, 2-10 last season, has an experienced quarterback in second-year starter James Blackman, who had been a part-time starter at Florida State. He found an immediate connection this season with Oregon State transfer Champ Flemings, who caught seven passes for 122 yards against Grambling State.
“He’s dynamic with the ball in his hands,” Jones said of Flemings. “Champ is also one of those guys who’s come into our program and bought into our standards, our expectations but has also brought us a whole another level of competitiveness.”
Stroud said the Buckeyes’ goal to win every game will help them avoid a letdown after an emotional victory.
“Arkansas State is a good team,” he said. “They won last week. We’re both 1-0.”
–Field Level Media