Ragin' Cajuns and Red Wolves meet with both in search of second Sun Belt win
A second win in Sun Belt play will be on the line as Louisiana travels to Arkansas State with both sides coming off their first loss in conference action. This will be the Red Wolves' first of two midweek games of 2019, while marking the second and final such game of the year for the Ragin' Cajuns.
Louisiana's (4-2, 1-1 Sun Belt) season began with a loss by 10 points at home to Mississippi State, but the Ragin' Cajuns quickly found their footing to the tune of four consecutive wins before falling again at home to Appalachian State. The Red Wolves' (3-3, 1-1) campaign also started with a home defeat at the hands of now-No. 19 SMU, but it's been a little bit more choppy, as they've yet to string together more than two straight wins. Like Louisiana, Arkansas State also lost to its only SEC opponent of the year, a 55-0 shutout at then-No. 3 Georgia.
Thursday will mark the 46th meeting between Louisiana and Arkansas State, a series that began in 1953 with a 13-12 Red Wolves win. The matchup has been fairly even over the years, with the teams alternating wins over the last five games and Louisiana holding a 24-20-1 edge.
Louisiana at Arkansas State
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 17 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Louisiana -6
When Louisiana Has the Ball
No question about it: The story of the season for the Ragin' Cajuns is their ground game. To this point, Louisiana has averaged 282.2 yards per game on the ground in six contests, which leads the Sun Belt and is the sixth-best mark in the FBS, 45 yards per game below national leader Navy.
With such solid numbers as a team, it stands to reason that there would be individual standouts carrying the ball for the Ragin' Cajuns — and there certainly are. Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell are two of the best in the Sun Belt this season in every rushing category, with Ragas leading all FBS rushers with 9.08 yards per carry and Mitchell's nine rushing touchdowns good for the high mark in the conference and sixth in the nation. In the air, Levi Lewis' 1,111 passing yards this season might have a better chance of winning the lottery than any passing titles, but the strength of the run game undoubtedly has helped to take pressure off the junior signal-caller.
Suggesting that the Red Wolves' defense has struggled in 2019 might be too polite. Arkansas State has allowed 535.8 yards per game this season, better only than UMass' 554.4 per-game mark. Additionally, the unit ranks in the bottom 10 nationally in scoring defense, allowing 38.7 points per game. One bright spot for the Red Wolves is the play of William Bradley-King, who ranks second in the Sun Belt with 0.83 sacks per game and fourth with 1.3 tackles for a loss per game.
When Arkansas State Has the Ball
While Louisiana boasts a dominant rushing attack, the Red Wolves can lay claim to the most prolific passing offense in the Sun Belt entering this week. Led by wide receiver Omar Bayless and his 10 touchdown catches, tied for the FBS lead with Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb, Arkansas State has averaged 317.2 yards passing per game, good for 14th in the FBS.
With quarterback Logan Bonner out for the season after surgery on his throwing (right) hand, Arkansas native and former Alabama quarterback Layne Hatcher has started each of the last two games for the Red Wolves. Hatcher took over right where Bonner — who led the conference in passing yards (1,052) at the time of his injury — left off, passing for 739 yards and eight touchdowns in just two games.
In the five games since the season opener against Mississippi State, the Ragin' Cajuns have yet to allow more than 25 points in a game, going 4-1 in that stretch. The only loss came this past week when Appalachian State came away with a 17-7 win. For the season, Louisiana's average of 20.7 points allowed per game leads the Sun Belt and sits just outside the top 30 nationally. The defense has continually held opponents to low point totals despite being merely average in turnover margin and one of the nation’s worst in tackles for a loss.
Both teams have more-than-functional offenses that rely on different strengths, with Louisiana emphasizing the ground game while Arkansas State loves to air it out. But a big key will be whether the Red Wolves can solve any of their defensive woes: if they cannot, the Ragin' Cajuns look poised to run away with this conference matchup.
Prediction: Louisiana 41, Arkansas State 28
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
(Top photo courtesy of @RaginCajunsFB)