Sun Belt Battle: Appalachian State Mountaineers vs Arkansas State Red Wolves
The Mountaineers have waited since 2015 to avenge a bitter home loss to the Red Wolves. They get their shot on Tuesday night.
Red Wolves fans didn’t exactly take the Week 5 loss to Georgia Southern with good cheer. After all, Arkansas State (particularly on offense) has underperformed all season. Squeezing out wins against Tulsa and UNLV is well and good, but to fall to a conference foe with yet another anemic display of offense proved unbearable.
For the third week in a row, the Red Wolves saw a drop in points. Take away the Week 1 blowout of SEMO, and the Red Wolves have yet to break 30 points this season. And it’s confounding! Blessed with a capable run game, a seasoned quarterback and a stable of talented wide receivers, the offense should be making the defense’s job easy. Instead, the defense has been called to save the Red Wolves’ butts game after game. And it caught up with them in Statesboro.
Meanwhile, in Boone, the Mountaineers are rolling through their schedule, with the only blemish an OT loss to Penn State. The Mountaineers rank 8th nationally in total defense, giving up a miserly 277 yards per game. Total offensives is just slightly worse – 11th nationally. In quarterback Zac Thomas, Scott Satterfield has lost nothing in losing Appalachian State legend Taylor Lamb. Thomas ranks tops in the Sun Belt for QB rating. Remove Alabama from the equation, and the Mountaineers will be the strongest opponent for the Red Wolves in 2018.
So yes, Arkansas State fans are a little on edge.
When Last These Titans Met
As mentioned, the last time these two tangled was in 2015 – and most if the primary players from that game are gone. Fred Knighten and running back Flash Gordon led the Red Wolves to 26 consecutive points, out slugging Taylor Lamb and the Mountaineers hard-hitting defense 40-27. I must mention that Knighten ran for 69 yards that night because #nice.
Is This the Best Mountaineer’s Team the Sun Belt Has Seen?
In my Sun Belt Preseason Preview, I cast a ton of doubt on Zac Thomas’ ability to take over for Tyler Lamb, who provided a remarkably consistent four years of excellence behind center. But Thomas has been outstanding, gaining 10.5 yards per pass attempt while tossing 8 TDs in the process. The result is a well balanced offense (again, 11th in the nation) with senior RB Jalin Moore tacking on 5 touchdowns and 6-3 wide receiver Corey Sutton providing a consistent receiving threat. Give a ton of credit to Mountaineer offensive line; Thomas has absorbed the fewest sacks in the Sun Belt as a starter.
If the offense is good, the defense might be better. Led by hard-hitting line backers Noel Cook and Jermaine McDaniel, Appalachian State is among the toughest teams to attempt a third down conversion. You can’t run on them – the Mountaineers allow less than 3 yards per attempt. Don’t try to pass, either. Appalachian State ranks 25th against it.
In short, this might be the most complete Mountaineers squad we’ve seen since Appalachian State entered the Sun Belt.
The Red Wolves Need To Find Some Offense Pronto
Entering the season, few would have guessed that the problem with the Red Wolves would be scoring points. But that’s exactly where we are. Continuing a theme from last year, the red zone remains kryptonite for Arkansas State. Last season, the Red Wolves made up for the deficiency with big plays, but even with a cadre of huge wide receivers, there hasn’t been enough big plays to get the Red Wolves into the end zone.
The offensive line has also been a mixed bag. While improved over last year’s model, it gave up six bone-crushing sacks to Georgia Southern, making Hansen the second-most sacked signal caller in the Sun Belt. Hansen has to buy too many costly yards from lateral pass routes, which isn’t going to put much fear into capable defense.
As a result, every game after Alabama has seen a heavy reliance on the defense to create turnovers and make stops. The overwhelming, unpredictable offense that should be dominating games has yet to materialize. This is a Rubik’s Cube that Coach Blake Anderson needs to solve by Tuesday, or it will be a bad night to be on national TV for the Red Wolves.
The Red Wolves Are Not Without Skills and Advantages
The Red Wolves defense isn’t statistically equal to the Mountaineers’, but it’s really good. In fact, it’s the most enjoyable aspect of the Red Wolves to watch. The defensive line is relentless, and the secondary has done its job. When the defense is on the field, fan confidence is high (or, at least, mine is high).
It stands to reason that a team with this much offensive talent can’t remain dormant forever. Eventually, everybody is going to realize that the biggest dudes on the field are the Red Wolves wide receivers and that Marcel Murray is the guy who needs the rock on third down and short. Maybe at home, against a spirited foe, will finally pull the team out its terrible coma.
Dumb-ish Facts of the Game
- Tuesday marks Arkansas States’ 1000th football game played.
- The series record is 1-1, with both teams winning on the road.
- Arkansas State has a winning record after five games for the seventh time since joining the FBS in 1992.
- Dating back to the 2010 season, Arkansas State holds a 22-2 record over its last 24 games played in the month of October.
What’s the Word, Thunderbird
The Mountaineers opened the season playing to the top of their game and haven’t let up. By contrast, we have yet to see the Red Wolves play to their potential. That moment could come Tuesday, on ESPN2 before a home crowd.
If it doesn’t, well, on to Georgia State.
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.