NCAA Football: Murray State at Georgia

Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart reacts on the sideline against the Murray State Racers at Sanford Stadium.

ATHENS — Arkansas State was having its regularly-scheduled team meeting at a Las Vegas hotel last Saturday when a familiar voice bellowed from the back of the room.

“Got room for one more?” said Blake Anderson, the Red Wolves’ head coach. And a regimented, orderly team meeting burst into sudden chaos. Anderson was swallowed up in a spontaneous celebratory scrum of football players.

Their excitement was understandable. They hadn’t seen their respected leader for 19 days, and now Anderson was coming back hours before a road game against UNLV.

On August 19, Anderson made an announcement that he was taking a leave of absence to be with his wife and family. Wendy Anderson had been waging a two-year battle with breast cancer.

Less than 24 hours later, Wendy Anderson passed away. She was 49.

Anderson had remained at home with his daughter and two sons until this past Saturday. That the Red Wolves won 43-17 — their largest margin of victory against a non-conference FBS opponent since 2011 — probably is no coincidence.

But Georgia coach Kirby Smart says there’s this, too: “They’re a really good football team.”

“Y’all are all sitting there saying, ‘yeah, right, whatever,’” Smart said. “But they do. They have a really good quarterback, good wideouts, they’ve got explosive players on defense and all-conference players all over the place in a conference that I’ve got a lot of respect for.”

That’d be the Sun Belt Conference. The Red Wolves have won or tied for first in the Sun Belt in three of their five seasons under Anderson. So, he’s apparently a really good coach as well.

Meanwhile, Saturday’s game falls in an obscure spot on Georgia’s schedule. It comes a week after the Dooley Field dedication and a week before Notre Dame’s historic visit for an anticipated Top 10 matchup. Then, there’s the dreaded noon kickoff (on ESPN2) and the likelihood of a three-hour game in 90-degree heat.

Smart’s making sure any temptation to look past the Red Wolves is squashed.

“We don’t look past today, that’s the thing,” said Smart, who has watched the Bulldogs win their first two games 93-23. “We’re focused on today and getting better at us. I think when these guys turn on the tape like we did last night, we don’t ever lie to our players. We say, ‘this is what it is and here it is for you to see, you be the judge.’ We did that last week and we’re doing it this week. The tape speaks for itself this week. Arkansas State is a really good football team.”

Of course, Arkansas State is not what people are talking about in and around the UGA campus. Notre Dame, which was Georgia’s opponent in the 1981 Sugar Bowl when the Bulldogs last won a national championship, is playing between the hedges for the first time in school history a week from Saturday. The Bulldogs and Fighting Irish last met in 2017 when UGA fans overtook Notre Dame Stadium and Georgia pulled out a hard-fought 20-19 victory.

The Irish (1-0) are ranked No. 8 heading into this Saturday’s game against New Mexico in South Bend. Georgia is ranked No. 3.

“We’re not worried about Notre Dame right now,” sophomore center Trey Hill said. “We’re totally focused on Arkansas State and just dialing in on those guys. Those guys are a pretty good team.”

Smart has one of the largest support staffs in Power 5 football. Including offensive and defensive analysts, quality control specialists, graduate and student assistants and the like, they number more than 50.

But Smart insists none of his guys are looking at Notre Dame this week.

“Nobody in our building is going to be working on Notre Dame this week,” he said. “That’s not our focus. I have too much respect for (Arkansas State) and too much respect for how they play.”

Arkansas State (1-1) is similar to Murray State in that it is another fast-paced, spread offense that likes to throw the ball around. They average 36.5 points and 304 yards passing per game.

The Red Wolves showed more balance in the win over UNLV. Spurred by their coach’s sideline presence, they logged 214 yards rushing and 284 passing for a total of 498.

Anderson was thrilled — and emotionally spent, afterward.

“It’s been hard to put into words,” Anderson told Little Rock’s KATV after last Saturday’s victory. “It’s been a lot for them to do. They wanted to win (the first game) and we didn’t get it done. I just thought if I showed up today it’d lift their spirits a little bit. It definitely lifted mine.”

Smart was already impressed with the work Arkansas State has been doing under Anderson. A married man with three kids of his own, Smart said he “can’t even begin to fathom” how Saturday’s opposing coach is handling all he’s dealing with.

“When I first heard the news, I was crushed for him, his family, his kids,” Smart said. “I can never imagine what he’s having to go through because that’s really tough. ... I’ve met Blake a couple times and I’ve got a lot of respect for him as a person and a coach. I can’t imagine what he’s had to go through as far as his family, all his family, his kids and everything.”

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