Sun Belt Showdown: Arkansas State Red Wolves vs Georgia Southern Eagles
The Sun Belt will own Wednesday night when the struggling Georgia Southern Eagles play host to the inconsistent Arkansas State Red Wolves on ESPN 2.
Wolves (1-2) @ Eagles (0-3), October 4th, 7:00 CST on ESPN2
There was a time, like a couple years ago, when fans of both the Red Wolves and the Eagles were groaning for a game. Georgia Southern entered the Sun Belt with a two-year bye from Arkansas State, and when the Eagles went 8-0 in conference in 2014, the Red Wolves howled. Eagles fans weren’t happy either, listening to Arkansas State fans (unfairly) question the legitimacy of a championship that didn’t make a stop in Jonesboro.
But times change, and so do staffs and rosters. Head coach Willie Fritz took his version of the triple option to Tulane, and many of Georgia Southern’s stars (Matt Brieda, Kevin Ellison, Iron Head Gallon, Favian Upshaw, Younghoo Koo) aged out. The result? A 0-3 start to a season that included a distressing loss to New Hampshire. Now Statesboro is rebuilding.
Meanwhile, Jonesboro is rebooting with a brand new offensive line and unfamiliar pieces in the secondary. After a thrilling one-score loss to Nebraska (and a business-like blowout of UAPB), the Red Wolves are coming off a sloppy loss to SMU. Is Arkansas State sufficiently staffed for another Sun Belt run? We shall soon see.
When last these titans met…
It was a transformative evening for the Red Wolves, who committed five turnovers and were down 26-20 with under three minutes to play when young Justice Hansen converted on a 4th and 16 scramble to keep a 13-play, 70 yard game-winning scoring drive alive. Red Wolves won 27-26.
The game’s outcome signaled two things: 1) the Red Wolves were rebounding after an 0-4 start to the season, and 2) the Eagles were on a rapid decline. Arkansas State would go on to win the conference championship, and Georgia Southern would finish with a 5-7 record.
Georgia Southern: The Reader’s Digest Version
In a nutshell, the Eagles’ offensive identity left with Willie Fritz, and new head coach Tyson Summers (a defensive mind) just wasn’t vested in the Triple Option that defined the program. Meanwhile, every veteran player that contributed to the Eagles’ Sun Belt success is gone, leaving freshmen to plug the holes – including current starting QB Shai Werts (5-11 190).
Werts has, understandably, struggled. He didn’t throw a TD pass until Georgia Southern’s third game, a 52-17 loss to Indiana. But the problems are more than just Werts. RB Wesley Fields is only averaging 2.7 yards per carry, and the defense is allowing 259 rushing yards a game while providing no pressure at the line of scrimmage. The offense isn’t scoring points (12 per game), and the red zone defense is among the nation’s worst.
Tyson Summers shook up his staff this offseason by firing his co-offensive coordinators and adding Bryan Cook from Georgia Tech. Cook may have a mind for the triple option, but he may simply not have enough experience on the field to carry it off.
What’s going on with Arkansas State?
It’s not terrible, really. The Red Wolves delivered an epic showing against Nebraska in Lincoln, then casually crushed in-state FCS program UAPB 48-3. Starting QB Justice Hansen (6-4 207) has been brilliant, completing 69% of his passes (#nice) while racking up 985 yards and 10 scores. His receivers are obviously talented, and lead RB Warren Wand is averaging better than 6 yards per carry. So what’s the problem?
Just like last season, the Monster Defense has been achingly slow to transform, with Sun Belt Player of the Year Ja’Von Rolland-Jones yet to collect a single sack. We touched on Georgia Southern’s woeful red zone defense; the Red Wolves haven’t been much better, surrendering 9 red zone TDs. The secondary hasn’t been bad, despite the new faces, but it doesn’t matter because the front line is surrendering 197 ground yards per game (103rd in the nation). The front seven was supposed to be a Red Wolves strength, but apart from linebacker Kyle Wilson, this unit has underperformed.
Lastly, the Red Wolves simply seem to lose focus when the going gets tough. Against Nebraska, the team looked mentally sharp (if physically rusty). But that focus evaporated in Dallas, which saw Arkansas State commit three personal fouls in the first half. If the Eagles somehow pick up an early score or two, head coach Blake Anderson will need to keep his team from imploding.
Who wants some observations? (A: You)
So, uh, Justice Hansen might not play
SMU pounded Hansen in the first half of their match-up, leaving the junior QB with a messed up back. Backup QB Logan Bonner finished the game, and let’s just say that the redshirt freshman was a little inconsistent (7/17, 50 yards and a pick). Bonner wasn’t ready for a team as physical as SMU. He might be ready for a team as inexperienced as Georgia Southern.
Wake up, Wesley Fields
Georgia Southern ranks 9th in the Sun Belt in rushing, which is unthinkable for an Eagles team. Young signal caller Shai Werts leads the team in rushing with 177 yards, with RB L.A. Ramsby (5-11 200) right behind him with 170. Coming in third, Wesley Fields (6-0 200), who’s rushed 43 times for 117 yards. His longest effort has netted the Eagles nine yards. NINE! Fields and Rambsy aren’t as talented as departed RB Matt Brieda, but they’ll need more production from the duo if their to defeat the Sun Belt champs. The Red Wolves soft run defense could be a perfect catalyst to jump start the Georgia Southern run game.
Georgia Southern’s pass defense vs Arkansas State’s air attack
Led by Justice Hansen and WR Christian Booker and TE Blake Mack, the Red Wolves bring the nation’s 9th ranked passing offense to Statesboro, putting to the test Georgia Southern’s surprisingly stout 21st ranked pass defense. Sophomore safety Jay Bowdry* (6-0 200) is having a fine season, recording a pick and leading the team in tackles, which might be more of a slight to the Eagles front seven. Still, giving up only 166 yards per game isn’t bad, and neither Power 5 QB the Eagles have faced enjoyed a particularly good game: Richard Lagow of Indiana finished with 130 yards and a TD. Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham netted just 185 yards.
*Jay Bowdry is reportedly injured and may be out for the season.
How Arkansas State wins this game.
Red Wolves have the size on the offensive line to allow Hansen or Bonner to do work, and Rolland-Jones can be kept dormant for only so long. Arkansas State simply overmatches the Eagles for four quarters, deepening the profound dismay in Statesboro.
Why Georgia Southern pulls it out.
Shai Werts and OC Bryan Cook are newcomers to the league, which makes them unknown and dangerous. The Eagles may be 0-3 with a loss to an FCS opponent, but Auburn and Indiana are pretty good opponents. Throwing Wertz into that fire may have burned him initially, but the Red Wolves physically won’t be any more opposing than the Hoosiers and Tigers. Look for the battle hardened Eagles to let loose their frustrations on the Red Wolves silky soft run defense.
There are few unbreakable rules in life. Sam never marries Diane. ESPN will forever pimp the Red Sox. And the Red Wolves do not lose Sun Belt games. Arkansas State is 15-1 the last two seasons in conference. It will take a better team than Georgia Southern to stop the Red Wolves from making a run at another SBC title.
A former notary public, Jeremy Harper is a professional writer and Chief Instigator for Storm the Castle Creative. He spends much of his free time staring blankly into space.