Buckle Up Sun Belt: South Alabama vs. Arkansas State Red Wolves

South Alabama (3-2, 0-2) v Arkansas State (1-4, 1-0)

October 15, 6PM CST, Centennial Bank Stadium (Homecoming)

You Can Watch This Game On: ESPN3

Wagering (how vulgar!):  Red Wolves -5, 63.6% FPI, Red Wolves

Heh.
Heh.

There may not be a stranger pairing in the Sun Belt this season than Jaguars vs Red Wolves. The Jags are the ultra-rare Sun Belt program who has dominated its OOC with signature wins against Mississippi State and #19 San Diego State, and yet remains winless in conference, having lost to Georgia Southern and Louisiana. Pacing on the other side of the spectrum, the Red Wolves, who are 1-0 in conference but have endured its worst OOC performance in recent memory. The Red Jags would be a compelling Group of Five team.

NCAA rules forbid South Alabama and Arkansas State to join forces, so they are forced to play one another. A South Bama loss to the Red Wolves would likely remove the Jaguars from any serious discussion of a conference title, which is too bad considering how much Heat it has generated for the Sun Belt. Conversely, an A-State loss to the Jags would merit an immediate return to the dark depression from which a victory over the Eagles provided an all too brief respite.  But somebody has to lose. It won’t be the fans, or anyone tuning in on ESPN3. Because this game should be fun watching.

When Last These Titans Met

The Red Wolves are a perfect 4-0 against South Alabama, though it’s rarely easy. In 2013, A-State made a second half comeback against the Jaguars, saving the season with a hair-raising 17-16 victory. Last year, the Red Wolves trailed in the 4th quarter 31-20, but rallied with 29 unanswered points and a pair of defensive TDs to put the Jags away. That was a classic defensive game for the 2015 Red Wolves who haven’t shown even a glimmer of that form in 2016. This season’s Jags, meanwhile, have single-point wins over Mississippi State (impressive) and Nichols (not impressive), so they know how to close escrow.

Battle of the POWs

South Bama’s Cole Garvin, who tossed 3 TDs to lead the Jags to a win over #19 San Diego State, was named the Sun Belt’s Offensive Player of the Week in Week 5. The Red Wolves’ Justice Hansen, whose 4th quarter heroics cemented victory over Georgia Southern, was awarded the title in Week 6. BONUS POW: Jags starting QB Dallas Davis won the distinction in Week 1 after thwarting Mississippi State.

The Jags are chucking awesome at chucking the pill

The Jags like to throw, averaging 274 yards per game, 35th best in the nation. Dallas Davis has already thrown for 1,130 yards, and he didn’t even play against San Diego State. Arkansas State’s defense is allowing a very soft 245 yard per game, which is likely having Joey Jones and his staff dreaming of big downfield plays – and without consequence. The Red Wolves ranked 1st in the nation for Pick Sixes and INTs in 2015. In 2016, the unit ranks dead last. Look for South Alabama to pick and prod the Red Wolves secondary until it proves it can make a big play.

The Jags suck at running, tho

The preseason hype on junior running back Xavier Johnson simmered on the back burner behind flashier conference names like Elijah McGuire, Matt Breida, Larry Rose III and Marcus Cox. But Johnson averaged 6.6 yards a tote in 2015, and was expected to be among the Sun Belt’s elite enter the season. However, Johnson is only averaging 3.4 yards per carry in 2016, and he was held out last week thanks to a bum ankle. Johnson is expected to return against the Red Wolves, but the Jags are still a operating a running attack that ranks a puzzling 120th (109 yards per game) in the nation. And don’t look for any dual-threat action at the QB position: Davis has 23 yards on 26 rushing attempts. Garvin is averaging less than one yard per carry.

Will the Red Wolves run or pass or both?

Justice Hansen threw for more than 400 yards in a loss to UCA, but tossed for less than 200 in the win over Georgia Southern. The Red Wolves offense is simply more effective when the ground game is clicking. Both Johnston White and Warren Wand recorded 100-yard games over the Eagles’ tough run defense, and Hansen himself flashed dangerous wheels when it was absolutely necessary. But while 200 yards passing isn’t going to win many Heisman’s, it’s worthy to note that 8 different receivers made catches against Georgia Southern. South Alabama ranks 9th in the country for defending the pass, but has only two takeaways and average a shade fewer than 2 sacks per game. Hansen has the skills to diversify the game plan and keep the Jag secondary off balance. Look for the Red Wolves to lean heavy on the run, but also to break South Bama’s spirit with big pass plays.

Are the Red Wolves back?

Beating Georgia Southern was a big relief for a Red Wolves team in desperate need of something positive to happen in 2016. The offensive line seemed to find its mojo, opening up huge lanes of traffic for Wand and White. And the defense was suddenly lights out, routinely overcoming the mistakes of the offense by forcing three-and-outs and giving the Eagles no room to run. But the Red Wolves can’t expect to cough up the ball five times like they did against Georgia Southern and come away with wins. And while the defense was spectacular, the turnovers are still missing. The Red Wolves aren’t back. But they certainly look more like Red Wolves.

ESPN3 Replay: How Louisiana beat the Jags

2011 -- ESPN3 logo
Unofficial Channel of the SBC

On Week 3, the Jags paid a visit to Lafayette to face the Cajuns, who had just fired its offensive coordinator. Meanwhile, Joey Jones & Friends were coming off a conference loss to Georgia Southern. Mark Hudspeth’s squad emerged from the locker room appearing refreshed and fast, coming away with a 28-23 victory. How’d they do it? Let’s visit Forgotten 5 (un)official sponsor ESPN3 for the replay.

No room to run. If the Jags were going to defeat Louisiana on Cajun Field, it was not going to be on the ground. Xavier Johnson pounded his body into clogged lanes all night, leading the team with 58 painful yards on 17 carries. When the Jags did damage, it was often through a Dallas Davis/Gerald Everett connection.

Cajuns brought the beef. According to ESPN3 announcers (who always prepare endlessly for the Sun Belt!), the Cajuns offensive line averaged 50-lbs more per man against the lighter South Bama defensive line. Elijah McGuire ran for 223 yards and a score behind that beef. Should the Red Wolves continue the offensive line play that destroyed Georgia Southern, it could be a magic night for Warren Wand and Johnston White.

No Fear. Sure, the Cajuns played it safe on the ground against the smaller Jags. But Mark Hudspeth wasn’t afraid to throw either. In fact, Cajun signal caller Anthony Jennings recorded 3 TDs and 256 passing yards against the Jags’ tough pass defense. But note, Jennings also surrendered two INTs, the only picks the Jags have grabbed all season. The Cajuns were aggressive, and sometimes they paid the price.

Play fast. The Cajuns often quickened the tempo on offense, which seemed to catch South Alabama off guard. Red Wolves play up-tempo with mixed results. After five games, Red Wolves OC Buster Faulkner should have figured out the formula.

Who’s got the tightest Tight End?

Blake Mack
Blake Mack

Entering into Week 7, guess who’s #2 and #3 in the Sun Belt for receiving? Yep, a pair of tight ends. South Bama’s Gerald Everett has 393 yards on 26 receptions. A-State’s Blake Mack has 23 receptions for 389 yards. Everett is a known commodity at TE, selected preseason John Mackey Award watch list after gobbling up 8 TD passes in 2015. Mack is a converted wide receiver who bulked up and learned to block. His name was just added to the midseason John Mackey Award watch list. Both players will get plenty of work Saturday night.

Which Jags QB emerges from the Mobile Thunderdome?

On the one hand, you have the Week 1 SBC Player of the Week who upset Mississippi State and has thrown for 1,100 yards.

On the other hand, you have Week 5 SBC Player of the Week who upset #19 San Diego State with 242 yards and 3 TD strikes.

It’s a real Sophie’s Choice for Joey Jones, who must choose between sophomore Dallas Davis and sophomore Cole Garvin. Davis won the starting job before the start of the season, and he looked pretty great until injuring his toe against Louisiana. He played through the pain, but then tossed four picks against Nichols.

Enter Garvin, a transfer from Marshall who hadn’t started a game in three years. All he did was destroy the access bowl hopes and dreams of San Diego State. And he looked sharp doing it, picking apart the Aztec secondary with huge downfield passes.

So who do you go with? Garvin looks too good to bench, but Coach Jones is spending the week pitting the two against one another in practice. We may not know who won until the Jags line up on offense this Saturday evening.

This preview is too long. Prediction, damn you!

AStateThe Jaguars must be frustrated having delivered two signature victories, and yet zero conference wins. Meanwhile, Red Wolves won ugly against Georgia Southern, but the victory injected a confidence unfelt since the opening quarter of Week 1. Both teams will be playing under a pressure that can only be relieved by victory. Look for coach Blake Anderson to take advantage of momentum and home confines to continue the winning streak over Joey Jones and the Jaguars.

 

 

 

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