Sun Belt Donnybrook: Arkansas State Red Wolves vs Louisiana Ragin Cajuns

Arkansas State (6-4, 6-0)  v Louisiana (4-6, 3-3)

Saturday, November 26th, 11 AM CST at Cajun Field

You Can Watch This Game On: ESPN 3

Wagering (as if you’d dabble in such shabby pursuits): -6 Red Wolves, 31.1% FPI Cajuns

First of all, the Red Wolves are making no apologies for last Thursday’s deep-sixing of the the Sun Belt’s first ever AP Top 25 team. Yes, it would have behooved the Sun Belt to remain nationally relevant for at least another week. Indeed, it’d have been novel to see Troy jousting with Boise State, Western Michigan and Houston for a trip to the “Hey Don’t Forget the Group of Five” Cotton Bowl. But maybe we all kind of forgot something while wandering the intoxicating chaos of all this crazy excitement: Arkansas State does not lose Sun Belt games.

Red Wolves last loss in-conference November 20th, 2014 to the Texas State Bobcats. After that, the Sun Belt has been delicious gravy for Arkansas State. Quite frankly, Blake Anderson and his crew haven’t been challenged in 15 consecutive conference games.

What does it say for the Sun Belt when it’s dominated by a program that, for the last two seasons, has gone 1-7 out of conference? Furthermore, how poorly does it reflect on the Sun Belt that’s its first AP Top 25 teams couldn’t defend the distinction for even a week?

These are deep philosophical questions only SBC Commissioner Karl Benson is qualified to rip is goatee over. Ours is not to peek through the poorly latched shutters of possibilities! Ours is to examine the merits of Arkansas State versus Louisiana Ragin Cajuns!

When Last These Titans Met

As it usually is between the Cajuns and Red Wolves, last year’s meeting in Jonesboro was a gridiron bar fight. The Red Wolves posted 34 points in the first half, only to have the Cajuns buckle down and limit A-State to a field goal in the second half. Elijah McGuire was held to a mere 32 rushing yards (1 score), but tacked on 134 yards receiving and a score to nearly upend Arkansas State, who eventually held on for a 37-27 victory.

This year’s game with be the 44th between the two squads, with the Cajuns holding a 22-19 (one tie) advantage.

This ain’t your 2014 Cajuns

The 2014 Ragin Cajuns turned in another solid regular season, going 8-4 (7-1) and polishing off the year with a New Orleans Bowl win over Nevada. That capped an impressive four years of nine-win seasons, all ending in New Orleans Bowl victories and enhancing the stock of Cajun head coach Mark Hudspeth.

The last two seasons have not been kind. Without a reliable signal caller like the great Terrance Broadway leading the offense, Louisiana has floundered, going 4-8 in 2015 and currently scrambling for bowl eligibility in 2016. But despite the record, the Ragin Cajuns are not without skill. Elijah McGuire (who feels like he’s played in Lafayette since the 1990s) leads a ground game that ranks 53rd in the nation. QB Anthony Jennings takes a ton of sacks (25) and tosses too many interceptions (10), but he has 300 rushing yards and 7 ground scores. As a unit, the defense ranks 43rd in the nation and is lead by senior linebacker Otha Peters (37 tackles) and freshman linebacker Joe Dillon (six sacks)

But the Cajuns are scoring the third fewest points in the Sun Belt (23.2 per game) with the nation’s 87th ranked offense. Even in a win against Texas State, who gives up more than 41 points per game, Louisiana could only muster 27. Discounting the Texas State game (where the Cajuns held the poor Bobcats to a field goal), the Cajun’s victories have come by less than a TD (avg +5 points per win). There’s just not enough firepower on the offensive side of the ball to make the Cajuns overly dangerous.

These are your 2015 Red Wolves

It’s another year, and another season of Arkansas State rolling through the Sun Belt. Just like last year’s version, the 2016 Red Wolves are using a swarming defense to force turn overs and make plays. Since entering conference play, the Red Wolves total defense has improved from 118th in the nation to 58th, with Ja’Von Roland-Jones and Chis Odom rising to 1st and third in the Sun Belt for sacks (9 and 8 sacks, respectively).

What is unlike 2015 is the offense. Behind RB Michael Gordon and dual-threat QB Fredi Knighten, the Red Wolves ground game was deadly. This year, it ranks 102nd in the nation. Still, the Red Wolves are posting 34 points per game in six conference contests (with help from some defensive scores) while limiting the SBC opposition to an average of 14 per game – including just 3 to the Sun Belt’s most potent offense, Troy. Who needs a dominating offense when you have a soul crushing defense?

A strange time to make a career change

Scott Farmer, University of Louisiana Athletic Director, stepped down this Tuesday after serving at the position since 2011.

Kinesiology, by the way, is the “study of human and non-human motion.” For the moment, Deputy Director Jessica Leger is the interim athletic director. Under Farmer, UL enjoyed a number of successes, including the before-mentioned four New Orleans Bowl titles and the Cajuns hosting NCAA tournament regionals for both baseball and softball. That’s not a bad resume. Fun Farmer Fact: he’s a Georgia Southern grad and the Eagle’s former swim coach.

More weekly awards for the Red Wolves

A-State defensive end Chris Odom was awarded the Week 12 Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Week after forcing a pair of fumbles and recorded a sack against AP #25 Troy last Thursday night.

Cajun to Cage: Al Riles (WR)

Senior wideout Al Riles (5’10”, 210lbs) is enjoying a career year as Anthony Jennings’ prime target, picking up 51 receptions for 618 yards and a score. Louisiana’s run game is dangerous with Elijah McGuire, and the Red Wolves will be keyed in on limiting his damage. Don’t be surprised if Jennings’ finds a way to sneak a few big receptions to Riles this Saturday.

Wolf to Watch: Ja’Von Roland Jones (DE)

Junior defensive end Ja’Von Roland Jones (6’2″, 230lbs) is on a sacking safari since conference play began. He’s now the Sun Belts season leader with 9 QB takedowns. The Cajun offensive line has surrendered 25 sacks this season (2.5 per game), which likely has Jones itching to add to his totals.

Critical Gridiron Battle: Mark Hudspeth vs Blake Anderson

Despite Hudspeth’s four consecutive New Orleans Bowl victories and Anderson’s 15 consecutive Sun Belt victories, neither coach as earned Sun Belt Coach of the Year honors. That’s too bad, because both coaches are savvy tacticians and motivators with big personalties. With zero love lost between the programs, it will be interesting to see how the two sideline commanders approach Saturday night’s matchup.

Drop your keyboard and make a prediction, nerd!

The first rule of Sun Belt football is Red Wolves don’t lose in the Sun Belt. However, the stakes are high for the Cajuns. Arkansas State stands between Louisiana and bowl eligibility. Furthermore, Cajuns doan lahk Red Wolves. That said, this is another rebuilding year for Hudspeth. The offense lacks firepower, the offensive line is filled with gaps, and the defense is solid but not game changers. Look for Arkansas State to pound out a very businesslike win in Lafayette this Saturday. 

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