Sun Belt Battle: Arkansas State Red Wolves vs Georgia Southern Eagles
Georgia Southern and Arkansas State butt helmets in Statesboro on Saturday, and it will be gooooooooooood.
Georgia Southern entered the Sun Belt fray in 2014 and immediately turned the SBC establishment on its head, going a perfect 8-0 in conference with a confounding offense and a stifling defense. Lead by Willie Fritz, the Eagles seemed perched for an era of domination.
But then, Coach Fritz bailed Statesboro for a job at Tulane, and the Eagles wandered college football’s desert in search of its identity. Mid-season last year, Georgia Southern found its lost identity on its own sideline, elevating assistant Chad Lunsford to head coach and re-dedicating their faith in the All Powerful Triple Option.
Today, the Eagles are 2-1 with its only blemish coming at the hands of #2 Clemson. They square off against the 3-1 Red Wolves, whose only loss came to #1 Alabama. Have the Eagles returned to its 2014 form? Or is Georgia Southern only a faded facsimile of its former glory? Saturday reveals all.
When last these titans met
The Red Wolves were reeling. But as usual, the Sun Belt provided the soothing ointment of success. After opening the season a disappointing 1-2, Arkansas State found their mojo against an equally-reeling Eagles team. Justice Hansen found the end zone four times and came away with a 43-25 victory in Statesboro – despite Hansen’s four INTs. The Red Wolves are 2-0 over the Eagles as Sun Belt opponents.
Are the Eagles good again?
Georgia Southern was balls aflame in 2014, and pretty damn bad ass in 2015, too. The wheels fell off as the Eagles began to lose established playmakers and adopted a new offensive strategy under Willie Fritz’s replacement, Tyson Summers.
Somewhat later than the fans, the Georgia Southern top brass understood that Summers wasn’t their guy, and installed Lunsford – the triple option disciple Statesboro craves. Since Lunsford’s rise to head coach, the Eagles are just 4-5. The difference lies in the numbers. Georgia Southern is back at being a national leader in the run game, averaging 244 ground yards in 2018. Their leading rusher is sophomore quarterback Shai Werts.
Georgia Southern is also back to being the nation’s least prolific passing team, averaging a chuckle-worthy 81 yards per game. But then again, the Eagles success isn’t (ironically) through the air, but through shifty run schemes that break the ankles off defensive ends. In a 34-14 victory over UMASS, the Eagles racked up 334 ground yards on 59 attempts.
So are the Eagles good? Throw out the FCS opponent and the game against the nation’s #2, and you have UMASS as your sample. Georgia Southern was good against the Minutemen – and surprisingly well balanced. Werts tossed a couple touchdowns. But we honestly won’t know the Eagles’ place in the Sun Belt solar system until they play the Red Wolves.
The Red Wolves are well-versed at stopping the QB driven run game
UNLV and Tulsa may not be top-tier opponents, but they both play ground-pounding offenses led by quarterbacks with the ability to run. The Red Wolves held Tulsa’s Luke Skipper to 22 yards. The next week, the defense more contained than stifled UNLV’s Armani Rogers, who put up 180 yards. But the ground game was all the Rebels had, as Rogers managed a mere 23 yards through the air.
Shai Werts (5-11, 200) is a smaller QB than Skipper and Rogers, but the triple-option gives Werts more leverage. Senior running back Wesley Fields is still a potent weapon in the Eagles backfield, and the Red Wolves defense will need to have a plan for both.
Eagles Pass Game vs. Red Wolves Run Game
To the naked eye, this appears to be a battle between arms and legs. However, the Red Wolves ground game of Marcel Murray, Armond Weh-Weh and Warren Wand has been very, very good, averaging 190 yards per game. Furthermore, Justice Hansen is a threat to run, too. The resurgence of the Red Wolves running attack is a big reason why Arkansas State is 3-0.
Indeed, the Eagles aren’t even averaging a field’s length in passing yards, but Werts can throw – his longest of the season is 40 yards. And he had the two TD passes against the Minutemen. But let’s be real: the Eagles have 14 receptions on the year. The Red Wolves notched 19 in their game against UNLV alone.
This game will likely be won with defense
Georgia Southern is a very good defensive team, ranked 58th for total defense and giving up a manageable 356 yards per game. By contrast, Arkansas State’s total defense is ranked 92nd and surrenders about 50 more yards a contest.
Still, where the Red Wolves excel on defense is scrimmage line disruption. Arkansas State ranks 18th nationally for TFL and leads the Sun Belt with 13 quarterback sacks. Junior defensive lineman Forrest Merril is the Sun Belt co-leader in sacks with three. Merril is joined by Ronheen Bingham, William Bradley-King and Kevin Thurman as the new lineup of Red Wolves Sack Monsters.
On the other hand, Georgia Southern is stingy in the backfield, allowing only 177 yards per game and one passing TD. Senior linebacker Tomarcio Reese is a human tackle machine, and defensive back Monquavion Brinson is a Sun Belt preseason first teamer.
Watching this epic battle of defense may be far more entertaining that seeing Hansen sling or Werts scramble.
Enough! What’s the verdict?
The Sun Belt is just better when the Eagles are playing well. The fan base is too passionate to be muted by mediocrity, and they should be excited about the direction Lunsford is headed. But the Red Wolves are too deep, too complete on all sides of the ball. Look for Arkansas State to begin wearing the Eagles out by the end of the third quarter.
Red Wolves 35, Eagles 17
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.