Although technically at the top of the Sun Belt, ULM certainly hasn't looked as dominant as it would like a month into the season. They've barely gotten by all three of their wins and looked listless in the 31-0 loss to LSU (although the defense did put up a solid effort until about midway through the third quarter). Those three wins came against teams ranked 94th or worse in F/+. Eliminate some of the stupid mistakes and turnovers, and the Warhawks look a lot more impressive in those games.
For Arkansas State, this is a chance to get above .500 and get a leg up in the Sun Belt. After barely getting by Utah State a few weeks ago, they've had an extra week to prepare for the Warhawks' stifling defense.
Where: Jonesboro, Arkansas (Centennial Bank Stadium)
When: Saturday, 7pm ET (6pm CT)
Line: Arkansas St. -12.5 (opened -9), o/u 51.5
F/+ Rankings: Arkansas St 85th, ULM: 116th
What to watch for:
Blake Anderson likes to rotate a lot of players in at the skill positions, especially in the backfield. The Red Wolves have five players with 14 or more carries. That's important for a team that likes to play at as quick of a pace as possible, which the Red Wolves do (81 plays per game). It can become a problem, however, if the run game can't get much going. ULM is giving up just 2.82 yards per rush, and much of the credit can be attributed to the linebackers - Michael Johnson, Hunter Kissinger, and Ray Stovall each have 3.5 TFL so far this season. They've played fantastic on early downs, forcing third-and-longs. If they are able to continue this trend, ULM will be able to keep the Red Wolves from scoring - I'm not terribly high on Arkansas State QB Fredi Knighten. He tends to force a lot of balls and checks down too much.
However, Johnston White and especially Michael Gordon is a RB duo that should give the Warhawks more trouble than Wake Forest, Idaho, and Troy did on the ground. Gordon has missed the last two games due to bruised ribs, but he is probably the most explosive player on the Red Wolves roster. If they actually give him more than seven carries on Saturday, he could break a few big runs.
For the Warhawks offense, it seems to go as far as QB Pete Thomas takes them. In the first quarters against Idaho and Troy, he was able to connect with Ajalen Holley on a few deep balls and ULM jumped out to big leads. But later in those games he got put under more pressure, he made some bad reads resulting in interceptions, and gave an inferior opponent a short field to get back into it. That can't happen against an offense that doesn't need the help to score in the first place.
And after two straight underwhelming performances, I expect Centarius Donald to get 20+ carries, as he did in the first two games of the season. If he's pacing the offense, that takes a ton of pressure off of Thomas. The Arkansas State defense is giving up 5.18 yards per play, so there are holes that can be exploited with the right playcalling.
Arkansas State has a more balanced, varied attack with more options. Although the ULM defense is quite solid, I think you'll see them wear down a bit by the fourth quarter, much like the LSU game (although not to that extent). The one difference-maker could be turnovers (isn't it always?). ULM has forced six on defense and Arkansas State has given up nine (including SEVEN fumbles) on offense. A Red Wolves turnover at the start of a drive deep in their own territory could always turn the tide in favor of the Warhawks. Still, I'll bank on Arkansas State doing just enough on offense to win 28-20.