In a Sun Belt heavyweight showdown on Saturday, the Arkansas State Red Wolves travel to Lafayette to take on the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns for a marquee West divisional alignment affair. The showdown pits two of college football's high-scoring offenses against one another in what should be a thriller.
Since 2011, the Red Wolves have essentially ruled the Sun Belt West roost, winning eight or more games in all but two of the nine seasons. Due to a shortened season and a tough schedule, that streak is in peril in 2020. After a 37-24 loss to Memphis, ASU (3-4, 1-3 Sun Belt) rebounded taking down Big 12 stalwart Kansas State, 35-31. But since then, the Red Wolves' play, especially on the road, has been shaky. With the ASU offense putting up 31.1 points per game, the defense has wilted under the pressure and allowed 40.3 per game, 11th-worst nationally.
If not for a three-point mid-October loss to now No. 15-ranked Coastal Carolina, the Ragin' Cajuns might still be in the AP Top 25. Since the loss to the Chanticleers, Louisiana (4-1, 2-1) has rebounded with road wins over UAB and Texas State fighting to stay atop their bracket and tied with South Alabama for the right to head to New Orleans on Dec. 19 for the SBC Championship Game.
Arkansas State at Louisiana
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 7 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Louisiana -14
When Arkansas State Has the Ball
Getting the ball up and down the field between the 20-yard lines is no problem for ASU. The Red Wolves have not one but two fantastic gunslingers in Layne Hatcher (1,240 yards, 11 touchdowns, 2 interceptions) and Logan Bonner (1,160, 11, 3). The duo is third and fifth in passing yards in the SBC, respectively, and both complete passes at an identical 61 percent rate. Whoever slings the ball has a big three to connect with Jonathan Adams Jr., Dahu Green, and Brandon Bowling. Adams and Green are atop the SBC in receiving yards and touchdowns.
In Red Wolves victories, they have passed for over 330 yards with five or more touchdowns. When limited below the threshold, the running game has not been strong enough to make up the difference. Lead back Lincoln Pare is averaging a capable 6.7 yards per carry but has been limited to about seven carries per game. The ground game has been held to 73 yards or less in three games and has produced four total touchdowns that came in two contests (Memphis and Appalachian State).
The ASU offensive line has to show up in this one since it's going against one of the nation's best pass defenses. The Cajuns are holding the opposition to 181.0 passing yards per game, and their season high was just 255 yards to Georgia Southern. Louisiana's Achilles heel is its run defense. Four teams have reached 178 yards or more. The Red Wolves will get yards in the air, but can the rushing attack occupy defenders in spurts to open up passing lanes? Watch for Louisiana linebacker Lorenzo McCaskill, a true tackling machine.
When Louisiana Has the Ball
As stats go, Louisiana has the second-best passer in the SBC in Levi Lewis. Although ideally sized as a dual-threat, Lewis is more of a pocket passer with a 60.5 completion rate and 1,384 passing yards on the season. His mobility in the pocket keeps drives alive by avoided big losses on sacks. Where he can get into trouble is throwing picks — he has just nine touchdowns to five interceptions. Against Georgia Southern, he did a great job of spreading out the pigskin to eight different receivers for 18 completions.
Taking the burden off of Lewis' arm is a very talented stable of backs. Louisiana, led by Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas, is chomping up 193.0 rushing yards per game. The pair are both going over five yards per carry and rank in the top 10 in the Sun Belt in rushing. Ragas enters this one fresh off a 19-carry, 131-yard, three-touchdown game. Mitchell backed his efforts rolling for 96 yards on 17 totes.
With only three defensive starters back from the 2019 squad, ASU knew it was in trouble in the preseason. Two coaches have been fired off the ASU staff already this season, defensive coordinator David Duggan and passing game coordinator Ed Pinkham. The opposition is compiling 488.1 yards a game against the Red Wolves and turning that into 40.3 points.
Strength against strength, Arkansas State's passing game against Louisiana's pass defense, and strength against weakness, the Cajuns' rushing attack against the Wolves run defense... who wins? Louisiana has a more balanced attack and will be able to control the clock with the ground game by relying on a strong defense to limit Arkansas State's touches. ASU has had trouble putting points on the board of late but always has the potential of getting into a shootout taking shots downfield.
Prediction: Louisiana 35, Arkansas State 21
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.
(Logan Bonner photo by Travis Clayton/Arkansas State, courtesy of astateredwolves.com)