Arkansas State travels to Statesboro to take on Georgia Southern, as the midweek portion of college football’s 2017 schedule kicks off on Wednesday night. This is the conference opener for both teams and begins a key stretch of games as the heart of Sun Belt play begins in October.
Georgia Southern enters Wednesday night’s matchup winless (0-3) and desperate to change that. The Eagles are struggling in coach Tyson Summers’ second year at the helm, but the arrival of Sun Belt play should provide a good barometer of where this program is in relation to the rest of the league. Georgia Southern lost to Auburn 41-7 in Week 1, was defeated by FCS opponent New Hampshire in Week 2 and suffered a 52-17 loss to Indiana on Sept. 23. Summers guided Georgia Southern to a 5-7 record last season, which was a four-win regression from 2015 under former coach Willie Fritz. Needless to say, there’s a lot of pressure to produce in his second year as the program’s head coach – or someone else will be roaming the sidelines in 2018. In an effort to get the offense back on track, Summers hired Georgia Tech assistant Bryan Cook as the new play-caller. Cook has extensive roots running the option, which the program seemed to get away from in Summers’ debut. However, the tough schedule has limited Georgia Southern to just 12 points per game.
Arkansas State’s Blake Anderson is one of the Sun Belt’s best coaches and has this program poised to contend for the league title once again. The Red Wolves are 25-17 since 2014 and are 15-1 in Sun Belt games over the last two seasons. Arkansas State gave Nebraska all it could handle in the opener but fell short in the upset bid, losing 43-36 in Lincoln. The Week 2 matchup against Miami was canceled due to Hurricane Irma, with the Red Wolves pounding FCS member Arkansas-Pine Bluff 48-3 a week later on Sept. 16. Anderson’s team fell 44-21 at SMU on Sept. 23 and will hit the road for three out of their next five contests.
Arkansas State and Georgia Southern have played each other previously just twice. The Red Wolves won 27-26 last season in Jonesboro, while the Eagles won in 1986 in the I-AA (now FCS) national title game.
Arkansas State at Georgia Southern
Kickoff: Wednesday, Oct. 4 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Arkansas State -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Georgia Southern’s Offense Find a Spark?
As mentioned in the introduction, Georgia Southern’s offense expected to return to the flexbone option this season under Cook’s direction. Through three games, it’s hard to find improvement or a complete shift back to the option offense. Will that change on Wednesday night? The level of competition has factored into the slow start on offense, but the Eagles are averaging just 181.6 rushing yards per game and rank last in the Sun Belt with 12 points per contest. Also, Georgia Southern’s rushing attack has produced just one play that's gone for at least 30 yards this season.
Quarterback Shai Werts has showed flashes of promise in his first year as the starter and leads the team with 179 rushing yards through three games. The freshman ran for 124 yards against New Hampshire but was limited to just 45 yards on 36 attempts combined against Auburn and Indiana. Through the air, Werts is 21 of 44 for 230 yards and two touchdowns.
Werts has handled the bulk of the carries for Georgia Southern’s offense so far, accumulating 67 through three games. But he’s not the only weapon for the Eagles. L.A. Ramsby rushed for 816 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2015 and has posted 343 yards and eight scores on 84 attempts last season. He’s joined by Wesley Fields (492 yards last year) as the main options at running back. Georgia Southern’s offensive line should be a strength for this unit in 2017. The Eagles have four starters for Wednesday night’s game listed as juniors, with sophomore Drew Wilson rounding out the group. While this unit has potential, it has struggled through the first three games. The Eagles have allowed 14 sacks and are generating only 3.4 yards per rush.
Arkansas State’s defense went into the year with just four returning starters, but one of those was end Ja’Von Rolland-Jones – the Sun Belt’s top defensive player. The Red Wolves surrendered more than 40 points in games against Nebraska and SMU but should be up to the task on Wednesday night.
The tough schedule has made it difficult to evaluate Georgia Southern prior to this game. Will the Eagles use some different looks with extra time to prepare? On paper, this matchup heavily favors Arkansas State. The Red Wolves are strong up front (albeit struggling against top competition so far this year) and are facing a rushing attack that averages less than four yards per carry.
2. Arkansas State QB Justice Hansen
The health of quarterback Justice Hansen is the biggest x-factor to watch in Wednesday night’s game. Hansen has been on fire through Arkansas State’s first three games, throwing for 985 yards and 10 touchdowns to just two picks. However, he suffered a back injury against SMU and is listed as day-to-day. If Hansen is unable to go, freshman Logan Bonner will get the start or see snaps in relief. He’s passed for 70 yards on nine completions in two appearances this year.
Assuming Hansen plays, he will have a shot at a Georgia Southern secondary that entered 2017 with two new starters and ranks eighth in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense. The Eagles have allowed six passing scores through three games but no opponent has reached the 200-yard mark. While the 200-yard mark is a good sign for the defense, this unit hasn’t been pressed that much in 2017. Auburn and Indiana didn’t need to throw to win and combined for just 48 pass attempts. New Hampshire threw the ball 22 times in its Sept. 9 victory over Georgia Southern.
Hansen (or Bonner) has a deep group of options at his disposal on the outside. Christian Booker and Omar Bayless each have 14 receptions, with tight end Blake Mack catching three touchdown tosses and 13 passes so far this year. Arkansas transfer Kendrick Edwards (15), Justin McInnis (seven), Chris Murray (13) and steady senior Dijon Paschal (seven) round out the key weapons in the passing game. If Hansen is at full strength, this will be a tough offense for Georgia Southern to contain, especially since the Eagles have struggled to generate a pass rush (just five sacks in three games).
3. Arkansas State’s Ground Game
With Hansen dealing with a back injury and potentially starting at less than full strength, Arkansas State’s ground attack needs to take on a bigger role in Wednesday night’s game. Even though the Red Wolves rank 10th in the Sun Belt in rushing offense (120.7 ypg), increased production out of this group shouldn’t be a problem on Wednesday night.
Warren Wand (5-5, 191) is the team’s go-to option and is a big-play threat (6.1 ypc). But he’s not the only option for Anderson, as Johnston White (105 carries for 472 yards last season) is expected to play after dealing with a thigh bruise through the first three games. Senior Armond Weh-Weh was also banged up in September, but he’s expected to play on Wednesday night, giving Arkansas State a deep stable of running backs to lean on if Hansen can’t play.
Even if Hansen is at full strength, Arkansas State should have plenty of opportunities to attack Georgia Southern’s run defense. The Eagles rank 11th in the Sun Belt, giving up 259.3 rushing yards per game. Summers entered the season needing to rebuild the front seven after some significant personnel losses, and it’s clear this group is still under construction.
Considering both teams have played tough schedules to start the year, it’s hard to get a read on where they stand entering Sun Belt competition. However, it’s clear Arkansas State has a decided advantage at quarterback and receiver, along with a track record of success under Anderson. The Red Wolves should improve on defense throughout the course of the season, and Georgia Southern’s offense has yet to find its rhythm under Cook’s watch. The Eagles should be able to move the ball better than they have through the first three games, but it’s tough to see Werts, Fields and Ramsby generating enough production to pull off the upset.