A lot has changed for both teams since Arkansas State was supposed to host Central Arkansas last month, and it's not necessarily good for the FBS program as it heads into Saturday's matchup trying to avoid another upset to its in-state FCS foe.
The original Sept. 19 meeting was postponed for three weeks because Arkansas State lacked a safe number of players within one position group due to injuries and COVID-19. At the time, the Red Wolves (1-2) were coming off an impressive road win over Big 12 member Kansas, but the momentum is gone after they were routed 52-23 at Coastal Carolina in their first game back last Saturday. Central Arkansas (2-2) looks even stronger now because it was coming off a 10-point loss (45-35) at UAB that wasn't as close as the score indicates and goes into the rescheduled game off an 11-point loss (39-28) at North Dakota State, the three-time reigning FCS champion, that was closer than the score indicates.
Like the first date with Central Arkansas, Arkansas State had a game against Tulsa postponed on Sept. 26, so Saturday's matchup is the Red Wolves' long-awaited home opener. Central Arkansas won 28-23 in Jonesboro in the previous meeting in 2016.
Central Arkansas at Arkansas State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 10 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Line: Arkansas State -13.5
When Central Arkansas Has the Ball
Arkansas State hasn't overcome its defensive struggles of a year ago, so Central Arkansas will attack first with its passing offense. Junior quarterback Breylin Smith, who set the school's single-season passing yardage record (3,704) and tied the mark for touchdown passes (32) last year, has distributed the ball to 13 receivers in only four games, most often to wide receivers Lujuan Winningham (five touchdowns) and Tyler Hudson. Smith's been prone to throwing interceptions, however — six this season to add on to the Bears' four lost fumbles.
Head coach Nathan Brown and the Bears hope to get the running game going again after facing back-to-back Missouri Valley Football Conference opponents with imposing defensive fronts — Missouri State and North Dakota State. Kierre Crossley and Cameron Myers are the only two running backs with carries this season, and they'll take aim on an Arkansas State defense that has surrendered 177 rushing yards per game.
In addition to the turnover woes, the Bears have struggled on third downs. They have converted 15-of-58 attempts, just under 26 percent.
When Arkansas State Has the Ball
Arkansas State's time of possession has been below 26 minutes in each of its three games, including just 18 minutes, 39 seconds in the loss at Coastal Carolina. With much of its expected lineup intact, the Red Wolves hope to gain offensive rhythm. Their program has beaten three straight FCS opponents since the loss to Central Arkansas in 2016.
Head coach Blake Anderson has committed to the two-quarterback system of Logan Bonner and Layne Hatcher, and the duo has led an offense that is averaging 326 passing yards and three touchdown passes per game. The two signal-callers prefer to locate 6-foot-3, 210-pound wide receiver Jonathan Adams Jr., who has 20 receptions and caught three touchdowns versus Kansas, while redshirt senior Brandon Bowling posted a career performance (115 receiving yards, two touchdowns) against Coastal Carolina. However, Central Arkansas boasts excellent cornerbacks in Robert Rochell and DeAndre Lamont.
UCA's defense has been mostly subpar against the run (175.5 yards per game), so the Red Wolves will want to try to keep that trend going. Marcel Murray, their 2019 rushing leader, made his season debut last weekend following a leg injury, and sixth-year running back Jamal Jones has done well in his absence.
Central Arkansas is riding a high after it held a lead at North Dakota State for nearly 29 minutes and the game wasn't in doubt until a Bison touchdown in the closing minutes.
Arkansas State seeks to get back on track against the lower-level opponent. It has never failed to play in a bowl game and is 27-8 at home during the Anderson era (since 2014), so the 2016 loss to Central Arkansas must be gnawing at him even if most of his key players were not involved in that game.
The potential is strong for both offenses to keep going up and down the field in an entertaining matchup.
Prediction: Arkansas State 35, Central Arkansas 26
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Photo courtesy of Arkansas State Athletics)