Appalachian State and Arkansas State meet for a rare Tuesday night showdown in a game that has significant implications for the Sun Belt. The matchup between the Mountaineers and Red Wolves could be an early preview for the inaugural conference title game on Dec. 1. Of course, there’s a lot of football left, and both teams have obstacles within their own division in order to make that happen. Appalachian State is locked into a tight battle with Troy for the top spot in the East, while Arkansas State is 0-1 in league play after a loss at Georgia Southern in Week 5.
Appalachian State started its season by putting a scare into Penn State. The Mountaineers took the Nittany Lions to overtime before falling 45-38 in the season opener. Coach Scott Satterfield’s team has been on a tear since the loss to Penn State. Appalachian State defeated Charlotte 45-9, dominated FCS opponent Gardner-Webb 72-7 and beat South Alabama 52-7 in its Sun Belt opener.
Arkansas State opened the 2018 campaign with a convincing win over FCS foe Southeast Missouri State (48-21), and as expected coach Blake Anderson’s team didn’t have an answer for Alabama (57-7) in Week 2. The Red Wolves rebounded with back-to-back victories over Tulsa (29-20) and UNLV (27-20), before suffering a 28-21 loss at Georgia Southern in Week 5. Despite outgaining the Eagles 493 to 409, Arkansas State lost a fumble and had three drives end on downs.
This is the third time Arkansas State and Appalachian State have met as members of the Sun Belt. The Mountaineers won 37-32 in 2014, while the Red Wolves won the ’15 meeting 40-27.
Appalachian State at Arkansas State
Kickoff: Tuesday, Oct. 9 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Appalachian State -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Arkansas State QB Justice Hansen
The catalyst for Arkansas State’s offense is Hansen, the reigning Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year. The senior has passed for 67 touchdowns in his career in Jonesboro and is off to another fast start in 2018. Hansen has connected on 64.8 percent of his throws for 1,329 yards and 11 touchdowns to just two interceptions. He’s also rushed for 189 yards and two scores.
Helping Hansen’s cause is a deep receiving corps and a capable stable of running backs. Receiver Dahu Green was lost for the year in the opener, but Kirk Merritt (29 catches), Justin McInnis (23) and Omar Bayless (13) are a capable trio, with Jonathan Adams, Kendrick Edwards and tight end Javonis Isaac providing support. Needless to say, Hansen isn’t hurting for options on the outside. On the ground, freshman Marcel Murray (261 rushing yards), Warren Wand (204) and Armond Weh-Weh will handle the carries.
In Arkansas State’s last game (Georgia Southern), Hansen threw for 376 yards against Georgia Southern – one of the better defensive backfields in the Sun Belt. Appalachian State’s secondary ranks first in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense and has allowed only two passing scores through four games. In the opener against Penn State, the Mountaineers gave up 230 yards on 21 completions to quarterback Trace McSorley. Appalachian State’s secondary entered the season as Athlon Sports’ No. 1-ranked secondary in the Sun Belt, with cornerback Clifton Duck headlining this unit.
Appalachian State is only giving up 4.03 yards per play and 17 points a game. However, this unit has generated only eight sacks. Protecting Hansen is a concern for Arkansas State, as the team gave up six sacks in the loss to Georgia Southern. While Hansen is off to a good start, the Red Wolves are averaging only 26.4 points a game, have struggled to convert third downs, and rank near the bottom of the Sun Belt in plays of 40 yards or more. Even if the Mountaineers don't get to Hansen for sacks, creating a pressure on the senior is a must, especially after the struggles of the line against the Eagles.
How successful will Hansen and his receiving corps move the ball on the Mountaineers? Can an Appalachian State defense that's allowing only 17 points a game keep the senior in check? Or is this the game where Arkansas State's offense puts it together and scores more than 30 points for the first time this year against a FBS opponent?
2. Appalachian State’s Ground Attack Against Arkansas State’s Defense
Appalachian State has finished first or second in the Sun Belt in rushing offense every year since joining the league in 2014. Additionally, the Mountaineers have had a 1,000-yard rusher in all four seasons at the FBS level. Satterfield’s team is on track to reach both goals this fall.
Entering Tuesday night’s matchup, Appalachian State ranks second in the conference by averaging 269.5 rushing yards a game. The Mountaineers average 6.5 yards per rush and have recorded three rushes of 50 yards or more. Senior Jalin Moore is on pace to lead the offense for the third consecutive season in yardage. Moore recorded 1,402 yards in 2016, posted 1,037 in ’17 and has 368 yards and five touchdowns on just 56 attempts. When Moore needs a break, Appalachian State can rely on sophomores Darrynton Evans (127 yards) and Marcus Williams (139).
Arkansas State enters Tuesday night’s matchup near the bottom of the Sun Belt in rush defense. The Red Wolves are giving up 244.4 yards a game, which is no surprise considering this defense has faced its share of potent ground attacks in Alabama, Tulsa, UNLV and Georgia Southern. Anderson’s defense had to replace standout edge rusher Ja’Von Rolland Jones as well as Dee Liner and Caleb Caston in the trenches. Ball State transfer Kevin Thurmon (29 stops) and end Ronheen Bingham (5.5 TFL) have been key cogs for defensive coordinator Joe Cauthen, helping the Red Wolves rank second in the conference with 38 tackles for a loss through five games.
Arkansas State is going to have its hands full trying to slow down the Appalachian State ground game. Can the Red Wolves improve upon their defensive performance through the first five contests and find a way to slow down Moore and the Mountaineers’ running backs?
3. Appalachian State QB Zac Thomas
Thomas inherited big shoes to fill when he won the starting job to replace Taylor Lamb. However, Appalachian State’s offense hasn’t missed a beat with Thomas leading the way. The sophomore has started all four games, completing 68.2 percent of his passes for 896 yards and eight touchdowns. Thomas has tossed only three picks and has been a factor on the ground with 157 yards and five scores. Additionally, he’s completed three passes of 40 yards or more – two less than Georgia State’s Dan Ellington, who has collected five in six contests to pace the Sun Belt. Thomas’ go-to receiver has been Kansas State transfer Corey Sutton (15 catches for 327 yards and three touchdowns), but Malik Williams (11), Dominique Heath (seven), Thomas Hennigan (12) provide plenty of options for the sophomore.
Thomas has already crossed off a big hurdle in his development by playing well in a road start at Penn State. And now the sophomore heads to Jonesboro looking to keep the Appalachian State offense firing on all cylinders against an Arkansas State defense that ranks fourth in the conference in pass efficiency defense and is giving up 29.2 points a contest. While the Red Wolves want to contain Moore and the Mountaineers' ground game, Thomas' fast start has showcased why this defense won't be able to key too much on the running game.
Tuesday night college football is never a bad thing, but there’s added appeal for this one. Arkansas State and Appalachian State could meet again in the league title game this December, and these are two solid programs from the Group of 5 ranks. In terms of offensive firepower, it’s no secret both teams have plenty of it. The Mountaineers want to establish Jalin Moore and their ground game, with Zac Thomas looking to continue his efficient (and hot start). On the other sideline, the Red Wolves are averaging 26.4 points a game, so there’s room for improvement here from coach Blake Anderson’s talented group. Both teams have been stingy when it comes to third-down defense, while the turnover margin is relatively even. On paper, Appalachian State has been the better team so far in 2018. However, Arkansas State has lost only one Sun Belt game at home since 2015.