Sun Belt Bowl Season: Arkansas State Red Wolves (7-4) vs Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (6-6)
Middle Tennessee finally has a chance to pay back the Red Wolves for a humiliating loss.
Raycom Camellia Bowl
Middle Tennessee vs. Arkansas State
Saturady, Dec 16, 8 p.m., ESPN
The rumors surface almost immediately after Arkansas State’s dramatic 32-25 loss to the Troy Trojans – the Red Wolves would be facing MAC runner-up Akron Zips in the Raycom Camellia Bowl. It wasn’t a bad match-up. The Zips are 7-6 and match-up evenly with the Red Wolves. Still, there is no heat between the programs. The two have met only once, in 1991.
Reportedly, ESPN (owner of the Camellia Bowl) felt the chill, and worked to create a meatier match-up. The result was a surprise opponent to the Sun Belt runner-up – Middle Tennessee, a former Sun Belt rival for which zero love is lost.
When last these titans met
To understand Arkansas State/Middle Tennessee animosity is to know the circumstances surrounding the last game played between the two programs. In 2012, the Red Wolves and the Blue Raiders entered the last game of the season 6-1 in conference play, with their meeting to determine the outright winner of the Sun Belt title. Days before the game, Middle Tennessee joined Western Kentucky in announcing that both programs would be leaving the conference to join CUSA.
Aggravated by the announcement’s timing, the Red Wolves said “adios” to the Blue Raiders by unmercifully pounding them 45-0. Arkansas State won the title, and Middle Tennessee never crossed the fifty yard line. Red Wolves head coach Gus Malzahn would parlay the victory to a new gig at Auburn.
A Take of Two Middle Tennessees
The Blue Raiders are an uninspiring 6-6, finishing 5th in the CUSA East division. But that’s only half the story.
In Week 2, Middle Tennessee pulled off a 30-23 win over Syracuse, led by three TD passes from Brent Stockstill (6-0, 221), the Blue Raider junior QB who had thrown 61 touchdowns the last two seasons. But the victory came at a dire price. Stockstill injured his throwing shoulder and proceeded to sit out the next six games. The Blue Raiders lost four of those contests.
Middle Tennessee’s fortune’s reversed with Stockstill’s return, winning 3 of its last four with Stockstill throwing 10 TD passes on top of only three picks. The Blue Raider offense is simply a different animal under Stockstill. Without Stockstill, Middle was averaging 19.5 points a game. With Stockstill, the Raiders are putting up 30.
The Blue Raiders play black-and-blue defense
With the offense struggling for half a season without its all-star quarterback, head coach Rick Stockstill (and Brent’s pop) has relied on his defense to keep games close. The unit had only one player named to the CUSA All Conference 1st and 2nd Team Defense – sophomore linebacker Khalil Brooks (5-11, 200), who has seven sacks. With Brooks dumping quarterbacks, Middle Tennessees’ defense ranks a solid 30th in the nation, surrendering a manageable 24 points per game.
Middle Tennessee is a bit stouter against the run than the pass, with a secondary that gave up 15 TDs and about 212 yards a game. WKU’s Mike White, the leading passer for Conference USA, nailed the Blue Raiders for 450 yards and 5 TD passes in an OT win.
Justice Hansen is having a Ryan Alplin-esque season
In 2012, legendary Red Wolves quarterback Ryan Aplin broke the school record for TD passes with 22 – three thrown against Middle Tennessee in the 45-0 win. Flash forward to 2017. Justice Hansen has shattered the school mark with 34 touchdown strikes, earning the junior quarterback Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year honors.
Hansen will need to channel the spirit of Aplin to break the Blue Raiders on Saturday. In the season ender against Troy, Hansen threw three costly interceptions, including a 100-yard pick six. Hansen is mostly a cool and collected customer who rarely allows mistakes to rattle him. If the offensive line can contain Brooks and allows Hansen to do his work, then head coach Blake Anderson can simply sprinkle the production amongst his many pass-catching weapons.
Red Wolves secondary vs. Stockstill and Ty Lee
The Red Wolves give up 242 pass yards per game, utilizing a secondary that relies on a fearsome front seven to force mistakes. Still, Blaise Taylor and Arkansas State’s secondary has come up with big plays, coming up with 11 picks. DC Joe Cauthen will need a few big plays to put the brakes on Stockstill and sophomore wide receiver Ty Lee (5-9, 163). The spy pass catcher has gobbled up 385 yards and a pair of TDs since Stockstill’s return.
Last hurrah for Ja’Von Rolland-Jones
The Sun Belt rewarded the senior defensive end’s conference leading 13 sacks by awarding him his second SBC Player of the Year honor. The most sack-happy player in Sun Belt history will have one last opportunity to show out for NFL scouts. In only six games, Stockstill has absorbed 15 sacks. Rolland-Jones and his good friends Dee Liner (also looking to impress pro scouts) and Caleb Caston will be looking to give Red Wolves fans an encore performance.
Brent Stockstill wasn’t the only big injury for Middle Tennessee
Red Wolves take pleasure in defeating Blue Devils
The 2012 destruction of Middle Tennessee State is the game most remembered by Arkansas State fans, but 45-19 beating by Hugh Freeze’s version of the Red Wolves wasn’t bad either.
Let’s review the Cameilla Bowl swag
Bowl games aren’t about pride or sportsmanship or entertainment. It’s all about the loot! Every bowl sponsor provides a package of swag for players ($550 limit). Go to the Fiesta Bowl, get a PlayStation PS4 PRO bundle. Go to the Taxslayer Bowl, get a…football. Okay, some swag bags are better than others. What awaits the Blue Raiders and Red Wolves?
- Gift suite
- Fossil watch
- Ogio duffel bag
- Big Game autograph football
I’m not sure what a “gift suite” is, but what the hell do you do with a beanie? The duffle bag seems nice, but who’s autographing the football? Beyonce?
Thanks to the injuries at key positions, it’s hard to gauge the Blue Raiders. Stockstill’s return at quarterback makes Middle Tennessee better than a 6-6 team. The loss of Ritchie James is a big blow, but Stockstill is still putting up impressive passing numbers against CUSA competition.
But the Red Wolves are a 4 point favorite to win the “Red and Blue Bowl,” and ESPN FPI favors Arkansas State at 62%. The Red Wolves put up 25 points on Troy – the second most allowed by the Trojans all year. The Blue Raiders play good defense, but it’s not Troy good. Justice Hansen should have a good game.
But the tipping point isn’t Hansen. The Red Wolves front line will have to fluster Stockstill to allow the secondary to make field-flipping plays. Rolland-Jones & Co. will be ready for this challenge, and I expect the Red Wolves to leave Alabama with a victory.
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.