Fresh off a bye week, Georgia Southern kicks off conference play this Saturday when they face off against the Arkansas State Red Wolves in Paulson Stadium. The Eagles have had two weeks to lick their wounds after a 38-7 loss to #3 Clemson on September 15th. Georgia Southern put up about as good of a fight as you could have expected in that game (it was 24-7 midway through the 4th) but in the end, the Tigers were too much. Nothing to be ashamed of.
Unfortunately for the Eagles, the schedule doesn’t get much easier. As far as the Sun Belt goes, 3-1 Arkansas State is about as tough as it gets. The Red Wolves have won 5 out of the last 7 conference titles and have the reigning Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year, Justice Hansen, at QB. They boast an exceptionally productive defensive line and a revamped running game. They are fresh off wins vs. AAC member Tulsa and MWC member UNLV.
Arkansas State is the program in the conference that everyone is trying to emulate. They are, quite simply, the class of the conference.
While the win over UMass proved to us that this Georgia Southern team has improved. This game against Arkansas State will show us by how much. It is another, more critical, measuring stick. Is Georgia Southern ready to compete for conference titles again? Or are they still a cut below the top tier in the Sun Belt? We’ll find out Saturday night.
Here are the storylines to watch out for.
Justice Hansen vs. Georgia Southern Secondary
This is about as marquee a matchup as you are going to get in the Sun Belt. On one side you have the best QB in the league, Justice “Juice” Hansen. Reigning SBC OPOY, fresh off of a season where he threw for 37 TDs 16 INTs and just shy of 4,000 yards. So far in 2018, he’s picked up where he left off, throwing 10 TDs and 2 picks for 953 yards through four games.
On the other side, you have Monquavion Brinson, Kindle Vildor, Joshua Moon, and Sean Freeman, among others. This is a talented, ball-hawking secondary. Georgia Southern is 15th in the country in turnovers forced per game. They were able to get 2 interceptions vs. Clemson (plus a fumble recovery). In last year’s matchup, the Eagles picked off Hansen 4 times. Georgia Southern was unable to capitalize on those turnovers and ended up losing handily 43-25. But it wasn’t the secondary’s fault.
Keeping A-State’s offense off the field by forcing turnovers, along with controlling the ball on offense, will be the #1 key to an Eagle victory.
Arkansas State Defensive Line
No rest for the weary. Last time out, Georgia Southern faced the college football equivalent of The Avengers in Clemson’s D-Line. This week? Not much easier.
Despite losing three starters from last year’s squad, the Red Wolves defensive line hasn’t missed a beat. The quintet of Kevin Thurmon, William Bradley-King, Forrest Merrill, Dajon Emory, and Ronheen Bingham have combined for 11 of stAte’s 13 sacks and 19.5 of their 33 TFLs this season. Arkansas State is tied for 12th most sacks in the country. They are good at getting into opposing teams backfields. Georgia Southern’s offensive line will be put to the test.
If there is a silver lining for the Eagles, it’s that last week UNLV was able to run the ball effectively against State. The Runnin’ Rebs ran for 310 yards on the Wolves at 6.3 yards per carry. UNLV runs a similar shotgun-based option offense as Georgia Southern. Depending on how you look at it, that could be a good or bad sign. Good because UNLV was able to move the ball on State. Bad because State has had extra practice against the option.
It will be interesting to see how Bob DeBesse deals with this D-Line.
Georgia Southern is one of the least penalized teams in the country, averaging only 3.5 penalties a game for 27.5 yards per game, good for 5th and 4th respectively in the nation 4th. Arkansas State is the complete opposite, they average 10.7 penalties per game (125th) for 90.7 yards per game (129th). That’s a 63.2-yard difference between the two teams. That’s six extra first downs and some change. If Arkansas State is giving away six first downs for free Saturday night, that could be the difference between an Eagle loss and an Eagle victory.
Wesley Kennedy III
After a spectacular game against UMass, Wesley Kennedy had only 1 catch for 40 yards against Clemson. Bob DeBesse has to figure out ways to get Kennedy more involved in the offense. Whether it is jet sweeps, rocket tosses, or long bombs; Kennedy is one of the most versatile and dangerous weapons that the Eagles possess. Look for him to have a bounce-back game against Arkansas State as DeBesse opens up the playbook, little by little.
Week 1, Logan Hunt was suspended for breaking team rules. Week 2, it was Ellis Richardson. Week 3, it was Joshua Moon and Ian Bush. I pray we make it to kick-off without another critical starter getting suspended. I don’t know why this is happening, and I’m glad Chad Lunsford is keeping the kids accountable, but this has to stop. The most concerning part about this is that they are all seniors, Moon is a captain. They should be setting the example for the rest of the team.
These absences haven’t hurt the team that much in the first three weeks, but that could change. The injuries are starting to pile up, playing Clemson took its toll. Justin Birdsong, Todd Bradley, Tomarcio Reese, Lane Ecton, and Monquavion Brinson all suffered injuries during that game. Depth could be an issue this week and going forward. The Eagles are going to need all hands on deck to beat the Red Wolves.
I keep harping on this, but it needs to be addressed. Georgia Southern is averaging just over 15,000 fans a game at Paulson this season. That is unacceptable. Chad Lunsford is going above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to trying to convince fans to show up:
Do this man a favor. The Power of Paulson is real. Georgia Southern is 189-39 all-time in Paulson. The Eagles are 16-3 when attendance surpassed 20,000. Let’s at least get 18K in this puppy. It will be Military Appreciation Day, which is typically a well-attended game. Having Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield nearby certainly helps. We’re going to need all the juice we can get to beat Arkansas State.
Georgia Southern 24
Arkansas State 21
I think this is the tipping point guys. I believe the defense plays well and the offense does just enough to win. Tyler Bass could be the difference. Arkansas State is 3 point favorites. But Georgia Southern is 3-0 against this spread this season. I don’t think Vegas knows how to judge the Eagles yet. This is where that starts to change.