Old School Sun Belt: Red Wolves Cross Swords with the Warhawks
Both teams began the year cold. Both heated up just in time to make a run at the Sun Belt West.
In 1959, the first time Arkansas State locked horns with ULM, legendary A-State head coach Hugh “Bones” Taylor led the Indians to a 15-0 victory over…the Indians. Yes. Both teams were named the Indians until the NCAA outlawed all college programs bearing native American monikers (excluding trillion-dollar programs like Florida State). Of course, dubbing the game the “Trail of Tears Rivalry” was, in hindsight, maybe not the most sensitive thing to do.
Anyway, the re-branded Red Wolves and Warhawks have met 38 times, with the series becoming lopsided of late – Arkansas State has triumphed the last eight meetings. But no recent meeting may be more important than this Saturday’s dust-up, with the first Sun Belt West title up for grabs.*
* The Cajuns clear their throats
When Last These Titans Met
It was damn entertaining. With both teams locking the defenses in the clubhouse, the Red Wolves and Warhawks combined for 117 furious points. Arkansas State survived the atomic fallout 67-50, thanks to Justice Hansen’s 4 touchdowns on a whopping 520 yards passing.
Warhawks quarterback Caleb Evans was just as fantastic, combining for six touchdowns and passing for 454 yards. The biggest difference? Hansen tossed one pick to Evans’ three, with one returned to the house 85 yards by Blaise Taylor.
Four of the Sun Belt’s five fiercest sack monsters will be in Jonesboro on Saturday
The Red Wolves and the Warhawks feature the 20th and 41st ranked offenses in college football. But the impact players on the gridiron may be the pass rushers for both squads.
Arkansas State’s Ronheem Bingham ranks first in the Sun Belt for sacks with seven, and teammate William Bradley-King is third with 6. ULM’s Kerry Starks and David Griffith are tied at fourth with 5 apiece. Hansen and Evans, who are both fleet of feet, may find themselves running more than usual on Saturday.
We’ll see the SBC’s most prolific passers, too
In 2018, Justin Hansen has 22 touchdowns on 2,650 yards passing. Caleb Evans has 13 TDs on 2,450 yards. These yardage numbers lead the Sun Belt by far, and fans should expect an air show with their football on Saturday.
The quarterbacks are studs, but the receivers are the stars. ULM senior Marcus Green and junior R.J. Turner account for about 1,100 yards of Evans’ production, with the diminutive Green (5-8, 191) amassing 7 touchdowns.
Hansen has considerable weapons, too. Junior wide receiver Kirk Merritt has been lava as of late, posting 365 yards in his last three games. And senior Justin McInnis, the 6-6 moose out of Canada, continues to be a huge and reliable target. Look for every receiver on the field to have a big day in Jonesboro.
Anderson and Viator are fighting to salvage the season
The Warhawks and the Red Wolves entered the season with heightened expectations – but both teams struggled to meet the hype.
Last season, ULM’s offensive flourished under Matt Viator, who seemed to be just a handful of safeties and cornerbacks away from making a serious run at the Sun Belt. But after 6 games, the Warhawks were 2-4 and the defense was as horrible as ever, surrendering 42 points a game. More discouraging, the offense was only putting up 21 per contest. Not only were the Warhawks losing, they were blandly losing.
But like a thunderbolt hurled by mighty Jupiter, the offense made a sudden return, winning the last four games and averaging 37 points. More miraculously, the defense improved, too, limiting opponents to a manageable 17 points. Suddenly, Viator was captain of the team advertised at the beginning of the season.
The Red Wolves entered the season pegged to win the Sun Belt, but opened conference play 1-3, which included a loss in a shootout to bitter rival Louisiana. Since posting only 9 points at home against Appalachian State, coach Blake Anderson has rediscovered his offensive mojo, averaging 44 points per game his last four outings.
At season’s end, both teams have peaked. Somebody has to crater.
How the Warhawks win this game
As entertaining as it would be, Viator can’t want a repeat of last year’s chuk-a-thon. Evans already leads the Sun Belt with picks, and picks were the Warhawks’ undoing at last season’s meeting. Nope, what Viator needs is defense and more excellence from Kerry Starks and David Griffith – plus a world class performance from their defensive backs.
How the Red Wolves win this game
The Big Play has killed Arkansas State all year. Marcus Green is averaging 18 yards per play, which means if the Red Wolves want to mitigate their risk, that means neutralizing Green. It will also mean neutralizing Evans. But not his arm. The Warhawks QB is the team’s leading passer and rusher. Taking away Evans’ legs is just as critical as grounding Green.
What’s Gonna Happen, Cap’n?
Points ahoy! Darth Viator is not only playing for a SBC West title, he’s also gunning for revenge. He’l throw everything Evans and Green has to win this game. However, the Red Wolves secondary, led by Darreon Jackson and Jerry Jacobs, has quietly shutdown the conference’s premiere wide receivers.
Despite the good coverage, you can still make the Red Wolves pay with big plays. But can the Warhawks stop the Red Wolves from marching into the end zone on every possession?
All signs point to “nope.”
Arkansas State welcomes ULM to Centennial Bank Stadium on Saturday, 2:00 PM. The game can be viewed using ESPN+ sorcery.
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.