The Arkansas State Red Wolves will host the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns on Thursday night for a matchup between Sun Belt rivals sitting on opposite ends of the divisional standings.
It has been a steep decline for Arkansas State and first-year head coach Butch Jones since opening the season with a 40-21 win over FCS Central Arkansas. In their most recent contest on Oct. 7, the Red Wolves surrendered 685 yards of offense in a 52-20 home loss to Coastal Carolina, extending their losing streak to five games. Now 1-5 overall and residing in last place in the Sun Belt West at 0-2, Arkansas State is the only Sun Belt team that has yet to secure a conference victory so far this season. The good news is that they have had 14 days to rest up and prepare for Thursday night's home tilt against Louisiana.
On the opposite end of the Sun Belt standings, you will find a Louisiana squad that sits in first place in the West, riding the momentum of a five-game win streak. The Ragin' Cajuns dominated Sun Belt powerhouse Appalachian State in their most recent outing on Oct. 12, limiting a potent Mountaineer offense to just 211 yards and capitalizing on four turnovers in the 41-13 victory. In the process, the co-defending Sun Belt champs extended their conference winning streak to eight games dating back to last season. The Ragin' Cajuns are 5-1 overall in the 2021 campaign, with their only loss coming on the road against Texas in the season opener. They remain unblemished in conference play at 3-0. Louisiana will now make its way to Jonesboro, where head coach Billy Napier hopes to improve his career record against divisional foes to a perfect 14-0 with a win on Thursday night. Napier also will be in search of his 12th straight regular-season road win against Sun Belt competition.
Louisiana leads the all-time series against Arkansas State 26-20-1. The Ragin' Cajuns have won each of the last three meetings in the series, including a 27-20 victory over the Red Wolves last season in Lafayette.
Louisiana at Arkansas State
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 21 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Louisiana -18
When Louisiana Has the Ball
Senior quarterback Levi Lewis leads the way for a balanced Louisiana attack that averages 30.5 points and 405 yards per game. For the season, Lewis has completed 62.3 percent of his pass attempts for 1,305 yards with eight touchdowns against just two interceptions. He is now three touchdown passes shy of surpassing Jake Delhomme for the school record (64) and needs just 14 yards on Thursday night to surpass Terrence Broadway for the second-most career passing yards in program history.
Helping Lewis in that cause is a veteran offensive line that has been solid in pass protection, allowing nine sacks in six games. Lewis also will rely on a collective effort from a receiving corps that has already featured 17 different pass catchers this season. While no one has really emerged as a consistent go-to target, wide receivers Dontae Fleming (15 rec., 176 yds., TD), Kyren Lacy (12, 167, 2), John Stephens Jr. (8, 121, 3), and Michael Jefferson (8, 190, 3) have all taken turns playing the role of favorite.
The Ragin' Cajuns feature a potent four-pronged rushing attack, consisting of running backs Chris Smith (65 att., 313 yds., 5 TDs), Montrell Johnson (59, 355, 5), and Emani Bailey (41, 283, 3) to go along with Lewis at quarterback (43, 131, 2). Those four players alone have collectively accounted for 1,062 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground in six games. Smith also stars in the return game, averaging 24.33 yards on kickoffs.
The Louisiana offense should have no trouble carving up an anemic Arkansas State defense that has struggled mightily against both the run and the pass this season. In fact, there isn't a worse defense in all of college football, as the Red Wolves rank dead last in the FBS in total defense (584 ypg), scoring defense (46.7 ppg), rushing yards allowed per carry (6.94), and yards allowed per pass attempt (10.3). The equal opportunity Arkansas State defense also surrendered 18 touchdowns on the ground and 18 additional scores through the air.
When Arkansas State Has the Ball
Despite the Red Wolves' shortcomings defensively, they have been solid on offense, averaging 440.2 yards and 30 points per game. Most of that damage has come through the air for a passing attack that sits atop the Sun Belt, producing 358.3 yards per game. The only issue is that Arkansas State will be without five-game starter James Blackman (shoulder injury) at quarterback on Thursday night. That will leave all the heavy lifting to Layne Hatcher, who has been splitting time under center and actually has better numbers overall. For the season, Hatcher has connected on 57.4 percent of his passes for 806 yards with nine touchdowns and three interceptions.
Hatcher will lean heavily on a talented group of pass-catchers that have been the strength of this offense — led by wide receivers Corey Rucker (32 rec., 482 yds., 7 TDs), Te'Vailance Hunt (30, 456, 3), and Jeff Foreman (22, 360, 2). The offensive line has struggled at times in pass protection, allowing a conference-worst 24 sacks. But that isn't completely shocking for an offense that throws the football 50 times a game. It does, however, bode well for standout Louisiana defensive lineman Zi'Yon Hill, who leads the Ragin' Cajuns in sacks (3) and tackles for a loss (6). The Red Wolves' high-powered passing attack will be put to the test against a veteran Louisiana defense that allows 218.8 passing yards per game (4th in the Sun Belt, 58th in the FBS).
While Arkansas State features the best passing attack in the Sun Belt, the Red Wolves average just 81.8 rushing yards per game and have produced only three rushing touchdowns all season. That ranks dead last in the Sun Belt and 128th nationally. Running backs Lincoln Pare (30 att., 146 yds., TD), Alan Lamar (36, 108, TD) and Johnnie Lang Jr. (34, 117) have collectively struggled to gain much traction on the ground. However, Pare has been solid as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. And Lamar and Lang have both played key roles as return specialists. Lamar actually leads the Sun Belt with 825 all-purpose yards, 627 of which have come by way of kick returns, including a 93-yard touchdown return against Tulsa. Meanwhile, Lang, an Iowa State transfer, is averaging 19.3 yards per punt return, including a 63-yarder that resulted in a TD against the Golden Hurricane. But in terms of finding success on the ground on Thursday night, the Red Wolves will have their work cut out for them against a Louisiana defense that allows a respectable 3.96 yards per carry.
Arkansas State should be able to put some points on the scoreboard via its explosive passing game. However, a veteran Louisiana defense that hasn't allowed more than 24 points in its last five games should be able to limit the damage against Arkansas State's one-dimensional offense. Meanwhile, Lewis and the Ragin' Cajun offense should have their way (on the ground and through the air) on Thursday night against the worst defense in all of college football. Louisiana wins big on the road, keeping Napier's perfect record against Sun Belt West teams intact.
Prediction: Louisiana 45, 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.