Toledo Rockets vs. Arkansas State Red Wolves: For The Third Damn Time in Two Years

Toledo (0-0, 0-0) vs Arkansas State (0-0, 0-0)

September 2, 8:00PM CST at Centennial Bank Stadium, Jonesboro, AR

Betting: -2.5, Arkansas State

Watch it on: ESPNU and WatchESPN

 

When Last These Titans Met

In 2015, the Rockets entered the game against the Red Wolves having already bested A-State in the GoDaddy Bowl earlier that January. Furthermore, Toledo did its Group of Five duty by upsetting Arkansas in Little Rock and trumping Iowa State at home. Meanwhile, Arkansas State took injury-inducing defeats to #8 USC and #21 Missouri before collecting a win over FCS Missouri State. But the Red Wolves lost several key players, including starting QB Fredi Knighten, in the process. That left backup James Tabary to helm an offensive more suited for Knighten’s dual-threat capabilities. The result? Tabary tossed 3 INTs and zero touchdowns to earn a 3.0 QBR while Toledo’s talented RB Terry Swanson thumped the Red Wolves defense for 71 punishing yards and a pair of scores in route to a 37-7 drumming.

 

 2015 Rockets Revisited

Toledo went 10-2 in 2015, was perfect against P5 competition, and at one point cracked the AP Top 25. Then they lost to Northern Illinois (as usual) and Western Michigan, which somehow landed the Rockets third in the MAC Western Division. The 2015 Rocket squad was damn good on both sides of the ball. The defense ranked ranked 2nd nationally in the red zone. The offensive line gave up the 2nd fewest sacks (5) in the nation. The Rockets didn’t win the MAC, didn’t finish in the AP Top 25 and weren’t invited to an access bowl, but they did end the year crushing #21 Temple in the Marmot Boca Raton Bowl.

 

Side Note: How do you retaliate against a G5 team that beats your P5 program? Steal its head coach! Iowa State poached Matt Campbell from Toledo at season’s end, and now former Rocket OC Jason Candle is calling the shots.

 

2015 Red Wolves in Review

After enduring a miserable 1-3 OOC campaign in 2015, Arkansas State concentrated its efforts on crushing the Sun Belt, going 8-0 and winning the conference title. Like Toledo, the Red Wolves were potent on defense. But while Toledo played a hard-nosed, don’t budge brand of defense, the Red Wolves used speed and high-risk/high-reward tactics to grab the most interceptions (26) and Pick Sixes (6) in the nation. The Red Wolves finished the regular season an all banged-up 9-3, and they were overmatched by a bigger, fresher Louisiana Tech team in the New Orleans Bowl.

 

Side Note: Coach Blake Anderson joined Hugh Freeze as the only Red Wolves coaches in history to register an undefeated season in the Sun Belt. The conference was not impressed, choosing to bestow Coach of the Year honors to Trent Miles of Georgia State.

 

So What’s Up With The Rockets?

iToledo’s defense lost six seniors on the defensive line and four starters in the secondary. But the Rockets are bringing in some intriguing transfers online for 2016 – like junior college transfer Tuzar Skipper, sophomore Notre Dame transfer Jhonny Williams and Earl Moore, a 6-1, 302-pound senior graduate transfer from the Miami Hurricanes. The year’s defense may not be as game changing as last year’s version, but there is still plenty of talent to keep offenses in check. 

 

On offense, the Rockets have plenty of fuel, especially in the backfield. Senior rusher Kareem Hunt and junior Terry Swanson deliver the mightiest 1-2 punch in the MAC, with Damion Jones-Moore providing above-average backup.  Hunt, who was injured for much of 2015, ran for 973 yards to lead the MAC in rushing yards per game (108.1). Swanson racked up 923 yards and was second in the league in yards per carry (6.5) in 2015. All three of Toledo’s primary runners have racked up 100 yard games against the Red Wolves. 

 

The quarterback situation is interesting. Reclaiming the helm is Logan Woodside, who lead Toledo to a 9-4 record in 2014, but found himself backing up Phillip Ely in 2015, which didn’t matter because an injury bounced Woodside out for the entire season anyway. The 6’2″ Woodside doesn’t need to do much more than let the Hit Squad of Hunt & Swanson do the dirty work, but if he must stretch the field, Woodside has a decent pair of receivers in Cody Thompson and Corey Jones, the latter being an All-MAC punt returner with some first class wheels. 

 

The Big Difference: 6’8″, 310 lb offensive lineman Storm Norton

 

Are the Red Wolves All Bite or Bark?

Arkansas_State_Red_Wolves2We’re going to go with “all bite.” This preseason, 12 Red Wolves were named to the Sun Belt All Conference Teams, twice as many as anyone else in the conference. Not named to those teams are a host of ESPN 4 and 3-star transfers who put on A-State black-and-scarlet this year – defensive lineman Dee Liner (Alabama), wide receiver Kendall Sanders (Texas), wide receiver Cameron Echols-Luper (TCU), quarterback Justice Hansen (Oklahoma), and quarterback Chad Voytik (Pittsburgh).

 

The Red Wolves look to be even faster on offense, thanks to A-State’s fleet-footed wide receivers and new OC Buster Faulkner’s pass heavy schemes. The backfield loses Michael Gordon, but retain the services of Johnston White and Warren Wand, who are joined by 200lb bruiser Armond Weh-Weh, formerly of Texas Tech. Handling the passes are the the before mentioned transfers, plus veteran Dijon Paschal (541 yds, 3 TDs) and emerging red shirt freshman Omar Bayless.

 

Defense is where the Red Wolves have the most chomp. The front four is easily two-deep and is beastly, lead by Dee Liner and Big Waylon Roberson. The Sun Belt’s sack leader, Ja’Von Roland Jones, also returns with linebacker support from SBC First Teamer Xavier Woodson. The talent up front should make life fun for the Red Wolves speedy secondary, who want to top last year’s impressive total of 26 interceptions.

 

The Big Difference: 6’6″, 304 lb offensive lineman Jemar Clark

 

The Key For Toledo: Establish That Killer Run Game

Unleashing the duo of Hunt and Swanson will be a big test for the Red Wolves run defense. If Woodside can get wide receivers Thompson and Jones involved enough in the pass game to keep the A-State defensive line off balance, the rushing attack should be effective.

 

The Key For Arkansas State: Stop That Killer Run Game

Toledo’s might be the most talented running game the Red Wolves see all year. If Arkansas State can put a cork into the running lanes early, and put pressure on Woodside to create turnovers, then A-State should be in position to collect the W.

 

Rocket Man to Watch: Kareem Hunt

Hunt was injured for a chunk of 2015 and he still nearly cracked the 1,000 yard mark. Toledo will need Hunt healthy and dangerous all season long if the Rockets want to get past Arkansas State – and later Western Michigan, Akron, Bowling Green and Northern Illinois.

 

Beware of Wolf: Dee Liner

After transferring from the Alabama Crimson Tide, Liner sat out a year per NCAA rules. He used that time to get even stronger. Liner has looked dynamite in camp this fall. Whether or not Arkansas State can stop Toledo’s ground game is heavily dependent on the 320 lb D-Line man.

 

Factor That May (Or May Not) Come Into Play

Currently, there’s a ten degree temperature difference between Toledo and Jonesboro. Factor in Southern humidity, and team conditioning will play a role in the outcome of Friday night’s contest.

 

Prediction

Toledo has made easy sport of Arkansas State since the 2014-15 GoDaddy Bowl. But the Red Wolves have gotten stronger in 2016, and the Rockets seem to be taking a step back this year. Look for Arkansas State to finally get over the Toledo hump at home. Final score, Toledo 17, Red Wolves 35.  

 

Looking Ahead

Next week, the Rockets return to Toledo and catch a breather against Maine (3-8 in 2015). The Red Wolves pack up the Wolf Wagon and head to Auburn to face former A-State head coach Gus Malzahn.

 

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