Sun Belt Scorn: Red Wolves to Throw Hands with the Ragin’ Cajuns.
Arkansas State and UL-Lafayette have traded punches since 1953. On Saturday, more than just the settling of old grudges hangs in the balance.
How does these things even begin? I mean, yeah, we know the series began in 1953, with Arkansas State topping ULL 13-12. Between then and now, the series became a grudge match, with the Cajuns clinging to a 23-20 advantage. Not a game goes by between these two without somebody administering a push or a kick or some other kind of cheap shot. The rivalry, ridiculously, awards no gimmicky trophy to the winner. No rusty Bowie Knife. No broken plaster arm cast. No old hammer stained with gray matter and blood.
To the victor goes supremacy.
But in the year of the first Sun Belt Championship, far more than bragging rights await the winner. This time, Louisiana and Arkansas State play for a clear path to the Sun Belt West championship. Both programs enter the game 1-2 in conference. A loss makes a championship unlikely. On Saturday, hate will have to wait behind business.
When Last These Titans Met
The Cajuns arrived to Jonesboro talking spice, but their game was ice cold as Justice Hansen put up three total TDs and Ja’Von Rolland-Jones bagged 2.5 sacks to break ULL 47-3.
You know what? The Cajuns are only half bad.
Taking last season’s 5-7 record into account, and adding a casual glance to the Cajuns current 3-4 record, you’re tempted to dismiss Louisiana as another bumbling non-contender in the Sun Belt. However, new head coach Billy Napier has put together a stable program built around a run game that put 200 rushing yards on Alabama .At 32-points-per-game, the Cajuns offense ranks third in the Sun Belt despite playing some formidable competition. Senior quarterback Aaron Nunez (6-3 205) is capable of taking over when called up. Against New Mexico State recently, Nunez pitched five touchdowns on 315 yards passing.
Where the Cajuns suffer is on defense, which ranks 114th in the nation and gives up 460 yards per contest. The rush defense is invisible, surrendering 224 yards per contest. Within the Sun Belt, only Coastal Carolina has fewer picks than the Cajuns (3), and with only 15 sacks on the year, the familiar ULL pass rush is mediocre at best.
Still, Napier and Co. put up twice as many points (14) on Alabama than did Arkansas State. And while both programs bore losses to Appalachian State, at least the Cajuns put a couple in the end zone.
Bottom line? This isn’t the same team the Red Wolves trounced by 44 last season.
Did the point-a-palooza against Georgia State reset the Red Wolves’ offense?
Nobody is going to mistake Georgia State’s defense for anything resembling a gridiron challenge. Buuuuuuuuuut.…Hansen looked pretty saucy dialing up five total TDs (and no picks) for a 51-25 victory over the Panthers. It appears that the offensive coordinators (Blake Anderson/Buster Faulkner) are revising schemes and strategies to throw downfield and make use of the team’s large receivers.
Also looking good: freshman running back Marcel Murray, who turned in another fine performance. Murray is quickly becoming the ground game’s most reliable producer, with senior Armond Weh-Weh handing out bruises and senior Warren Wand providing some flash.
Yeah, but does that mean we’re finally seeing the offense that was promised in the preseason? The 51-point outburst raised the Red Wolves “points for” average by five points, which should tell you just how impotent the offense has been this season. Let’s wait to see how the Red Wolves perform at Cajuns Field before we start high-fiving.
That Cajuns run game is something
The Red Wolves have already faced (and fell to) the best run offenses in the Sun Belt (Georgia Southern and Appalachian State). But the Cajuns – who’s ground game is ranked 18th nationally – is just as dangerous.
There may not be a better one-two punch in the Sun Belt than sophomore running back Trey Regas (680, 5 TDs) and sophomore running back Elijah Mitchell (497, 7 TDs). Both are bruising, 5-11, 220 lb backs who pound defensive lines into meek submission.
The Red Wolves have faced run-first offenses all year, and with mixed results. Either the defense rises to the challenge, or it’ll be up to Justice Hansen and the offense to out-gun the Cajuns.
Actually, both teams should have little trouble running the damn ball
The Red Wolves have faced an unusual number of run-first offenses this season, which may be one reason the rush defense ranks 120th in the nation. But the Cajuns aren’t much better, ranking 118th. It’s possible that both rushing attacks will have a banner evening on Sunday.
However, one player that could spoil the Red Wolves ground game is sophomore linebacker Chauncey Manac, who had 22 tackles in his first five games including 4½ for a loss, the team’s second-highest TFL total. A shoulder injury has recently sidelined Manac, but he could be back in time to thwart Arkansas State.
Cajun to Watch: Ja’Marcus Bradley, junior wide receiver
Bradley has totaled only 18 receptions is only averaging 43 yards per game, but the 6-1 junior ranks second in the Sun Belt for receiving touchdowns (6). When Nunez needs a big play, he looks for Bradley.
Red Wolf to Watch: Forrest Merrill, junior defensive lineman
The Bearded Wrecking Ball is a huge addition to the Red Wolves defensive line. Merrill will be key to not only stopping the Regas/Mitchell combo, but he’ll be relied on to put pressure on Nunez to force a mistake.
- Louisiana has lost four games, including one to Coastal Carolina. But the remaining three losses came on the road to #1 Alabama, Mississippi State and #25 Appalachian State.
- Yes, the Red Wolves and Ragin’ Cajuns are bitter Sun Belt rivals. But they were also once rivals in the Big West Conference (1993 to 1995) and the Southland Conference (1971 to 1981).
- Arkansas State has won 23 of its last 29 conference road games dating back to the 2011 season.
Red Wolves Win This Game IF
The Big Play has plagued the Red Wolves defense all year. Stopping the Cajuns running game – or at least containing it – will require hard-nosed, high-focused play from Tajhea Chambers and the Red Wolves linebackers.
Cajuns Win This Game IF
The Cajuns can’t allow the Red Wolves pass game set the tone. Instead, Louisiana needs to manage the minutes on their own terms, using Mitchell and Ragas as methodical battering rams to pound rkansas State into submission.
What’s Gonna Happen, Cap’n?
The last time the Red Wolves visited Cajuns Field, Louisiana stopped Justice Hansen at the goal line to secure a wild 24-19 victory. I expect we’ll see twice as many points scored on Saturday, with Blake Anderson performing to the top of his game to keep the Red Wolves in position to win the West.
The Ragin’ Cajuns host the Red wolves on Saturday, 6:00 PM on ESPN+
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.