It was late in the third quarter of the ASU-Louisiana Lafayette game that I seriously wondered if Tampa, Fla. native Ryan Aplin had surfed through one too many wipe-outs in his younger years. The Red Wolves’ junior quarterback, the fifth-most prolific passer in Sun Belt history, was driving his team deep into ULL territory while trailing 21-20.
No less than a grip on the Sun Belt title was at stake.
And there was the 6-1, 200-pound Aplin, continually pulling the ball out on zone reads and scrambling through seams in the defense, sometimes sliding to the ground, but more often than not simply plowing into any Rajun Cajun trying to stop him.
At one point, I even saw the most instrumental player in ASU coach Hugh Freeze’s go-go gadget offense tuck the ball, dart through a crease, get low and ram his head into a wall of thick Cajun.
No injury occurred and a few plays later, it was all good – Aplin trotted in for a 4-yard TD to help clinch what became a 30-21 win in Jonesboro.
The win makes Arkansas State (8-2, 6-0) a veritable lock to win at least a share of the the Sun Belt title with two games left, and it gives the Red Wolves a stronger shot at playing in a non-sucky bowl.
It also confirmed Aplin’s emergence as a serious running threat in the latter part of the season.
Consider in ASU’s first five games, Aplin rushed for a total of 177 yards and one touchdowns on 62 carries (2.9 ypc). In the last four games, his average rushing gain has more than doubled (58 runs for 352 yards) while he’s totaled seven touchdowns.
This bodes well for the team’s stretch run, if Aplin can stay healthy.
And that’s where some irony seeps into this story of supercharged stats.
Freeze, of course, is known for his role in coaching left tackle Michael Oher in the best-selling book and movie The Blind Side. Much of that story’s narrative hinged on the importance of Oher’s position in protecting a right-handed quarterback’s “blind side” from premier pass rushers like Lawrence Taylor and Dwight Freeney.
For this reason, the left tackle has become the most important position on the offensive line. “It’s huge. They call him the money guy,” Aplin told me in mid-October.
Aplin’s left tackle is the 6-5, 300-pound Delano Moore, and he has made sure to show Moore and the other o-linemen some love. “Usually every year before the season, I take them out to eat and I plan on having the whole o-lineman for dinner some time down the road.” This season, he and quarterback Phillip Butterfield took the group out to Ron’s Catfish before the Virginia Tech game (good timing). Aplin said he paid for the entire meal, although Butterfield offered to split the bill several times. “It was us being able to go and have a good time and relax and kind of have fun. Our main thing is we want to win but my goal is to keep our mind off of football for a couple hours, let those guys have a good time and get a good meal.”
After Saturday’s win, the good times keep coming for Aplin and his offensive linemen. He’s not a traditional pocket passer with a blind side that needs to be protected on nearly every down but, then again, very little about this team is traditional anyway.
Which seems to be working so far.
With each passing week, Aplin and his o-linemen are clicking more and more. Those big men up front are blocking for a quarterback who’s become the team’s top runner, while paving the way for a season no ASU fan will ever forget.