Werewolf of Butchboro: A Tale of Two Openers

After destroying Grambling State 58-3, Butch Jones revealed he didn’t sleep a wink during this time last season

The Howlraiser headline one year ago was: Red Wolves and Hatcher wear out the UCA Bears 40-21. James Blackman started the game, just like he did approximately 365 days late. Like this season, too, Blackman didn’t finish the game.  

Against the UCA Bears, Blackman lost his helmet early in the third quarter and he never returned to the game. Instead, backup QB Layne Hatcher recorded an astronomical 315 QB rating after going 12/12 for 150 yards and 4 TDs. Corey Rucker collected 3 TD grabs. Samy Johnson snagged a pick. Kivon Bennett chalked up his first sack as a Red Wolf. It seemed like a pretty good night.

Except the Red Wolves were down 7-6 at the half. That night, the Arkansas State secondary surrendered the first Bitter Big Play of a season made infamous by Bitter Big Plays –  a 66 yard TD to UCA’s Chris Richmond. But a win is a win, right? On the surface, 40-21 seemed like a good win over an in-state foe known to provide trouble. Butch Jones emerged from the victory deeply troubled.

“I didn’t sleep wink after that game,” Coach Jones reflected during Saturday evening’s post-game press conference. Jones, the Werewolf of Jonesboro, lay sleepless beneath his blanket of victory, with all of the game’s errors and mental lapses and unstable team chemistry gnawing at his guts.

The victory over Grambling State simply felt different for Jones, who is acutely conscious of his team’s attitude. Still reflecting about last year’s season opener, Coach Jones said “I didn’t like the way we celebrated after the game,” a statement he didn’t really expand on, but one can fill in the blanks. Jones likes confidence. He likes professionalism. He likes his team yoked and stoked after big plays. He likes accountability. He didn’t really see that after UCA.

Jones liked what he saw before, during and after Grambling State, an opponent held to just 9 first downs and 102 total yards. There were no early struggles for starting quarterback James Blackman, who cooly threw a pair of touchdown passes and ran in two more for himself. The run game was refreshingly effective, led by a physically reformed Johnnie Lang (124 yards, 1 TD) and newcomer Brian Snead (57 yards, 1 TD), but five running backs contributed the 329 yards on the ground.

Johnnie Lang looks physically capable of fighting Thanos

When Blackman was removed from the game, Miami (OH) transfer quarterback AJ Mayer became the team’s second leading rusher, piling up 74 yards and a score. Unlike last year, the defense didn’t surrender a single big-play score. It was as though everything was going according to script. We are supposed to destroy Grambling without effort. And that’s exactly what happened, with Blackman completing 15 of 20 passes and the only Grambling score derived from a brief spate of Red Wolves penalties that seemed to be triggered by Grambling’s own frustrated aggression.

The game just felt, well, competent.

Which is probably why Butch Jones slept like a baby on Saturday night. With Lang and Snead providing hard-hitting running, an offensive line that is approaching the size and physicality he has publicly desired, and a wide receiver bearing the sure hands Champ Flemings displayed against the Tigers, his offense is no longer the stuff for which antacids were invented. Defensively, everybody seems to understand their roles and appear physically capable of executing.

Sleep well, Red Wolves fans.