The Washington Huskies and Arkansas State Red Wolves out of the Sun Belt will meet for the first time ever on Saturday inside Husky Stadium.
Washington kicked off its 2021 campaign with lofty aspirations and a top-20 national ranking. The Huskies then proceeded to suffer an embarrassing 13-7 loss to Montana in the season opener, becoming just the fifth ranked FBS team to lose to an FCS program since 2007. A Week 2 trip to the "Big House" to face Michigan offered a shot at redemption. But it wasn't meant to be, as the Washington offense once again sputtered, and the Husky defense surrendered 343 yards and four touchdowns on the ground en route to a 31-10 loss to the Wolverines. Now 0-2 for the first time since 2008, the Huskies find themselves in desperate need of a victory on Saturday. Another poor offensive performance and an 0-3 start will put second-year head coach Jimmy Lake and offensive coordinator John Donovan squarely on the hot seat.
Arkansas State finds itself in rebound mode as well. The Red Wolves made easy work of FCS Central Arkansas in a 40-21 win to open their 2021 season under new head coach Butch Jones. Unfortunately, Week 2 would not be as kind, as a fourth-quarter rally fell short in a 55-50 loss to Memphis. Now 1-1, the upset-minded Red Wolves will take their high-powered passing attack to Seattle in search of a signature win.
Arkansas State at Washington
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 18 at 4:15 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Washington -16.5
When Arkansas State Has the Ball
Moving the chains and putting points on the scoreboard has not been a problem for an Arkansas State offense that is averaging 596.5 yards and 45 points per game. The passing game, in particular, has thrived so far in new head coach Butch Jones' up-tempo offense, despite an unconventional two-quarterback system. Florida State transfer James Blackman has completed 64.8 percent of his pass attempts for 475 yards with four touchdown passes and no interceptions. Meanwhile, sophomore signal-caller Layne Hatcher has found similar success, completing 70 percent of his passes for 426 yards with five touchdowns and zero picks.
Blackman and Hatcher have plenty of help at the wide receiver position, with three high-value targets that are each averaging more than 100 receiving yards per game — Corey Rucker (14 rec., 214 yds., 4 TDs), Jeff Foreman (13, 253, TD), and TCU transfer Te'Vailance Hunt (15, 219, 2).
An Arkansas State offensive line that returns four starters from a season ago has been a bit shaky in pass protection, surrendering five sacks through the first two contests. And this group needs to provide more running room for a Red Wolves ground game that has generated a modest 146 rushing yards per game, headlined by a three-man rotation at running back consisting of Alan Lamar (24 att., 90 yds., TD), Johnnie Lang Jr. (17, 54), and Marcel Murray (7, 63).
Arkansas State will be matched up against a Washington defense that currently leads the nation against the pass (74.5 ypg) and has yet to surrender a touchdown through the air. That said, the Huskies have yet to really be challenged in that department. That will change on Saturday, as the Huskies face a big test against the Red Wolves' high-octane passing attack. In order to be successful, Washington must get its pass rush going and find a way to force turnovers, something that has been a real challenge so far without All-Pac-12 linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui (torn Achilles). A defense that was so opportunistic a season ago has yet to produce a single turnover and has just one sack to its credit through two games. The Huskies also have struggled mightily against the run, giving up 235 yards per game and five rushing touchdowns, although most of that damage came against Michigan. While that seems to bode well for the visitors on Saturday, running the football is not what Arkansas State does best.
When Washington Has the Ball
An offense that has been heavily criticized for being far too predictable and lacking in creativity under coordinator John Donovan has been largely to blame for Washington's 0-2 start. Redshirt freshman quarterback Dylan Morris managed to beat out highly-touted five-star prospect Sam Huard for the starting job. However, Morris has yet to provide a real spark for the passing game, completing just 56.6 percent of his passes for 519 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. Morris also has been sacked seven times, which is a real head-scratcher when considering that Washington returned all five starters from an offensive line that was supposed to be among the best in the country, led by first-team All-Pac-12 performer Jaxson Kirkland.
A rash of injuries at the wide receiver position has left the Washington offense in short supply of pass-catchers as well. The good news is that the Huskies were able to get go-to wide receiver Terrell Bynum back in the lineup last week against Michigan, where he was one of the few bright spots for the Husky offense, hauling in five catches for 115 yards and a touchdown. Morris also has been able to lean on freshman wideout Taj Davis (12 rec., 137 yds.) and all-conference tight end Cade Otton (11, 115).
The Washington coaching staff hoped to place a heavy emphasis on running the football behind its behemoth offensive line this season. However, that endeavor hasn't exactly gone well either. Through two contests, the Huskies are averaging just 57.5 rushing yards per game and less than two yards per carry. Despite their lack of success so far, running backs Richard Newton (29 att., 86 yds.) and Cameron Davis (13, 30) will likely continue to carry most of the load.
The Washington offense hopes to reverse its fortunes on Saturday. And it's not hard to like their chances against an Arkansas State defense that is giving up more than 500 yards and 38 points per game. The Red Wolves have been absolutely torched through the air to the tune of 356.5 passing yards per game, allowing eight touchdowns in the process. Washington will need to be wary of Tennessee transfer and pass-rush specialist Kivon Bennett (1.5 sacks), but there should be ample opportunity to exploit an otherwise suspect pass defense. There's also plenty of reason for optimism for the Huskies on the ground against an Arkansas State run defense that has allowed more than five yards per carry thus far.
This is a dangerous matchup for the Huskies given their early-season struggles. However, Washington is in no position to take this game lightly, and won't. Arkansas State will test the Huskies' pass defense, but they match up fairly well in that regard. And despite Washington's struggles against the run, the Red Wolves don’t pose much of a threat on the ground. This matchup also holds plenty of promise for the Huskies' struggling offense to finally come to life. Home-field advantage, along with an overall edge in talent and depth will go a long way in helping the Huskies avoid the upset and prevail for their first win of the season.
Prediction: Washington 34, Arkansas State 24
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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.