College football’s midweek slate continues on Tuesday night, as Arkansas State and UL Lafayette look to remain unbeaten in conference play in this critical league matchup. The Sun Belt has experienced plenty of changes during the recent realignment period in college football, but the top of the league has remained the same. The Ragin’ Cajuns and the Red Wolves have emerged as two of the Sun Belt’s top programs over the last four seasons, and the winner of Tuesday night’s matchup will take a step forward in the competition with Georgia Southern and Appalachian State as the league’s 2015 favorite.
Arkansas State improved to 2-0 in league play last week with a 49-31 victory over South Alabama. The Red Wolves have won three out of their last four games and are poised for a run at the league title with a healthy Fredi Knighten back at quarterback. UL Lafayette gave Kentucky all it could handle in its season opener but proceeded to lose two out of its next three games. The Ragin’ Cajuns rebounded with a 49-27 victory over Texas State on Oct. 10 in their Sun Belt opener.
UL Lafayette holds a 23-19-1 edge over Arkansas State in the all-time series history. The Ragin’ Cajuns have won two in a row over the Red Wolves and five out of the last seven between these two teams.
UL Lafayette at Arkansas State
Kickoff: Tuesday, Oct. 20 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Arkansas State -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Quarterbacks
After missing three games due to a groin injury, Arkansas State quarterback Fredi Knighten returned to the starting lineup last Tuesday. Knighten was steady in the win over the Jaguars, completing 10 of 17 passes for 119 yards and two scores and adding 40 rushing yards. After a week to knock some of the rust off, Knighten should be sharper in Tuesday night’s game against the Ragin’ Cajuns. UL Lafayette is fourth in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense, but the secondary will be tested by Knighten and a solid group of receivers, headlined by J.D. McKissic (29 catches). While Knighten is one of the league’s top quarterbacks, the Ragin’ Cajuns are looking for stability and production under center. Brooks Haack started the first three games, but Jalen Nixon has started the last two contests. Nixon has showed promise in his first two starts, including 238 yards and three touchdowns against Texas State. The Red Wolves lead the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense. Can Nixon take care of the ball, make plays with his legs and pickup where he left off against Texas State?
2. Stopping the Run
The focal point of UL Lafayette’s offense is running back Elijah McGuire, and the Arkansas State defense will have its hands full in trying to slow down the talented junior. In two career games against the Red Wolves, McGuire has rushed for 375 yards and averaged 12.9 yards per carry. Arkansas State’s defense ranks third in the Sun Belt against the run this year, limiting opponents to 4.2 yards per play and 145.7 yards per game. UL Lafayette’s offensive line suffered a setback in early October, as standout lineman Mykhael Quave was lost for the year with a shoulder injury. Even with Quave out and some shuffling of the starting five, McGuire is going to be a tough matchup for Blake Anderson's defense. Arkansas State’s rushing attack will present its own share of problems for the Ragin’ Cajuns. The Red Wolves have rushed for at least 333 yards in two out of its last four games and posted 226 against South Alabama last Tuesday. Michael Gordon and Warren Wand suffered minor injuries in last week’s game, but both are expected to play against the Ragin’ Cajuns. Gordon leads the team with 490 yards, while Wand (293) is second. Knighten’s mobility is also a huge asset for the Arkansas State offense. Which team will establish the ground attack and take the pressure off its signal-caller on Tuesday night?
Turnovers played a huge role in the outcome of last Tuesday’s game. Arkansas State forced five South Alabama turnovers, finishing with a plus-four margin in the 49-31 victory. Additionally, the Red Wolves scored two defensive touchdowns on turnovers in the fourth quarter, which helped propel Anderson’s team to the victory after trailing 31-20 at the start of the final 15 minutes. Could a similar scenario play out on Tuesday night once again? UL Lafayette is minus-seven in turnover margin through five games. The Ragin’ Cajuns have forced just four turnovers this season but lost zero in their last outing (Texas State). Arkansas State is minus-one in turnover margin after last week’s effort and are tied for first in the Sun Belt with 15 forced takeaways. With both teams possessing enough firepower to make this a high-scoring game, a turnover or two in the second half could be the difference.
As most anticipated in the preseason, the Sun Belt’s top four teams are clear: Arkansas State, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and UL Lafayette. After seven weeks, those four teams are the only remaining unbeaten teams in conference play within the Sun Belt. After Tuesday night, the list of unbeaten teams will be cut by one. The Ragin’ Cajuns have won the last two meetings, but the edge on Tuesday night goes to the Red Wolves. Knighten knocked the rust off in last week’s game against South Alabama and should test a UL Lafayette defense giving up six yards per play. The Ragin’ Cajuns should be able to get McGuire on track, but Nixon has to make plays on the road in his third career start. The edge at home goes to Knighten and Arkansas State with a late fourth-quarter drive to seal the victory.