WHO: South Alabama 5-3 (4-2) at Arkansas State 5-3 (3-1)
WHEN: Saturday, November 8, 3PM, ESPN3
WHERE: Centennial Bank Stadium, Jonesboro, AR
WEATHER: 59°/35° 0% rain
LINE: Arkansas State -3.7
This weekend must feel so odd for Blake Anderson's squad. For the first time in over a month, Arkansas State will play a football game in its Centennial Bank Stadium. But fear not, A-State fans, for playing in front of a home crowd is just like cycling-and, yes, Red Wolves can cycle. Will the Jaguars avenge last year's 17-16 loss?
South Alabama has four games left on its schedule, but only two in-conference-and it's these two that the Jaguars must aim to win in order to become bowl-eligible. That starts this week against an A-State team that has to keep winning and hope that both Georgia Southern and Lafayette have at least one hiccup before the end. The forecast calls for absolutely no rain, making this ideal for football. And this is in ideal place to look at a few keys to the game.
SOUTH ALABAMA PLAYERS TO WATCH
Quarterback: That's right-one of the two players to watch for USA is the quarterback position. Brandon Bridge has been banged up in the last two weeks, with an AC joint injury to his non-throwing shoulder against Troy, and then an ankle injury against Lafayette. He returned after the AC joint, but was definitely often in pain against both Troy and then Lafayette the following week.
However, Bridge's injury kept him out for the remainder of the Cajuns game. In relief, Matt Floyd went 4-of-8 for 93 yards, with the highlight being a crisp pass down the sideline for a long gain as the Jaguars drove in an attempt to retake the lead.
This week, the USA coaches have honored the time-tested tradition of staying tightlipped about who may get the start in Jonesboro. Bridge is a game-time decision.
Theo Rich, SR Defensive End: The senior has played like a madman this season with two passes defended, which is good, and seven sacks, which is excellent and enough for 15th in the FBS. He's been lethal especially since the beginning of October with five sacks, including a thorough destruction of Georgia State (i.e. 3.5 sacks). A-State quarterback Fredi Knighten likes to run with the ball, but doubt might start to creep in after a few hits from Rich. And if it does, that's an advantage for the Jaguars.
ARKANSAS STATE PLAYERS TO WATCH
Michael Gordon, JR Running Back: What could Michael Gordon have done more to be named the Sun Belt player of the week than to tie a conference record for most rushing touchdowns in a game, with five? It's critical for A-State that Flash takes advantage of what is the weak link of the USA defense-its run defense-but let's not minimize his role to this one game. If the Red Wolves offense is known as an explosive one, it's because of Gordon, who's been the spark the unit has needed-he's 64th in the NCAA for runs of at least 10 yards, and he only rises up the rankings as you select longer distances.
Ja'Von Rolland-Jones, FR Defensive End: Ja'Von Rolland-Jones is an A-State player who did win Conference player of the week for his wreckage of the Idaho backfield. His five tackles for a loss and four sacks against Idaho give him 10 and 6.5 in those categories for the season, which are good enough for 41st and 20th in the country. Not too shabby for a young man who missed last year with a knee injury. With him and Chris Stone, A-State has a solid pair of defensive ends.
TO BEAT A-STATE...
South Alabam's offense must play more consistently and hit on some of their vertical passes. In most of their wins, the Jaguars have used the vertical passing game and made big plays down the field-that's how their offense gets rolling, and it keeps opposing defenses honest. (Just ask Idaho and Appalachian State.) The flip side is that when they struggle, it's the entire team that struggles.
Against Georgia State and Troy, Bridge overthrew his receivers a number of times and the result was two wins against inferior opponents that should have come with bigger margins of victory. Last week against Lafayette, receivers were wide open behind the defense or in the end zone, and Bridge overthrew them again.
TO BEAT SOUTH ALABAMA...
Arkansas State must be more opportunistic. It's inconceivable, but the Red Wolves actually trailed, 21-17 early in the third quarter, in a game where they forced eight total turnovers. It's one thing to let opportunities go by when facing the Idaho Vandals and their defense, but it's quite another to do it against a talented unit South Alabama's.
For that reason, it will be important for Fredi Knighten to make the most of a short field if he does get one. Because points might come at a relative premium against the Jaguars, let's hope A-State didn't leave all the turnovers it had in Moscow.
Brian: I'm going to be a homer and pick the Jaguars in a close game, 26-24. I believe the coaches have dialed it up, because they need this win to be bowl eligible and at least one more solid win to feel like they have a really good shot at a bowl game. Beating A-State in Jonesboro would certainly qualify as such. Not only that, but the Jaguars have South Carolina and Navy as their last two opponents of the season-they need this game, and next week's game against Texas State, to have a good chance to accomplish their goal of a bowl.
CBG: Brian, I would have been disappointed with anything but a homer pick. If we're half the beat writers we think we are, then let's at least write to the beat of our own drums, right? The two teams are just about mirror images of one another in 2014-and I don't say this (strictly) because of their acronyms. South Alabama has been a great scoring defense in conference play (i.e. 19th in the NCAA), but a poor scoring offense (i.e. 72nd) while the opposite is true for A-State (10th on offense and 64th on defense). The Jaguars want to finish their Sun Belt season strong, but the Red Wolves' dream of a four-peat is still alive and Red Wolves feast on dreams. A-State wins 27-21.