The Red Wolves are led by sixth-year head coach Blake Anderson and finished the regular season with a 7-5 record.
Arkansas State enters the contest with the nation’s 14th ranked passing attack in yards per game (305.3) and are 31st in points per game (33.7).
Let’s take an early look at the opponent before both teams take the field in 12 days.
Arkansas State is led by their high-powered offense, which is driven by Anderson’s fast-paced, spread attack. In his tenure, Anderson’s teams have ranked among the top-30 scoring teams in the nation four times.
This season, they’re in the top third of FBS football teams in plays run per game (73.2), with the Red Wolves passing game setting the table for the entire offense.
Anderson comes from the coaching tree of former North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora and has carried Fedora’s offensive principles with him in his head coaching career.
Arkansas State operates primarily without huddling and the run-pass option (RPO) is a staple in a system that’s predicated on a high completion percentage from the quarterback to keep the defense on its toes.
As seen in the play below, the Red Wolves run an RPO and are quick to the line, without a huddle to run the next play.
Redshirt freshman Layne Hatcher took over the quarterbacking duties for Logan Bonner following a thumb injury that’s sidelined Bonner since week four.
In his eight starts following Bonner’s injury, the Alabama transfer has thrown for 2,553 yards with 23 touchdowns, en route to being named Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year. He’s ninth among FBS quarterbacks in yards per attempt (9.9), showing that he’s not hesitant to push the ball downfield.
The 6-0, 210-pound signal-caller is completing 68.3 % of his passes, utilizing the short and intermediate competitions that Anderson’s spread offense provides, which allow for the deep ball to come into play.
While the passing attack is the primary method of moving the football, the Red Wolves have a capable running back in sophomore Marcel Murray.
During his career, Murray has had over 20 carries four times and in each of those contests, he’s topped the 100-yard mark. In nine games, Murray finished the regular season with 782 yards and six touchdowns on 153 attempts (17 attempts per game).
Despite his success when called upon, whether its a lack of carries or issues in execution, the rushing attack as a whole hasn’t been stellar. Arkansas State ranks second to last in the Sun Belt with a meager output of 126.8 yards per game.
At the receiver spot, Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year Omar Bayless leads a talented group of sizable targets who are capable of making plays anywhere on the field.
The 6-3, 210-pound Bayless hauled in 84 receptions for 1,473 yards and 16 touchdowns during the regular season.
Alongside him are Oregon transfer Kirk Merritt, who was a 1,000-yard receiver for the Red Wolves in 2018 and Jonathan Adams Jr., who is the team’s second-leading receiver in yards with 788.
Anderson’s offense prioritizes the wide receivers in terms of targets, with the trio of Bayless, Adams Jr. and Merritt accounting for 206 of the Red Wolves’ 271 completions on the season.
Tight ends Reed Tyler and Javonis Issac have good size, with both being over 6-2 and 250-pounds, but will be used primarily as blockers, as they’ve combined for only 10 catches this year.
What has been an issue for Arkansas State is their offensive line, as they rank last in the Sun Belt and tied for 117th in the nation, having allowed 37 sacks this season.
Tackles Jarrett Horst and Ernesto Ramirez, guards Andre Harris and Ivory Scott, and center Jacob Still are the primary makeup of the line, with that lineup having started nine of the team’s 12 games.
Defensively, there are no two ways about it, they’ve struggled mightily at keeping opponents out of the end zone.
They rank 118th in points allowed per game (34.8), are second to last in the Sun Belt averaging 258.8 passing yards allowed an outing and their run defense has been abysmal, ranking 122nd out of 130 FBS teams in rushing yards allowed per game.
For a point of reference, FIU ranks 107th in the run defense statistic.
With all of that being said, they do have two playmakers on the defensive side of the ball who were named to the Sun Belt All-Conference First-Team last Wednesday.
Darreon Jackson is one of the best nickel defenders in the nation.
The 6-0, 205-pound redshirt senior started his career at Boise State, before transferring to Arkansas State after spending a season at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas.
He finished the regular season as the Sun Belt’s fourth-leading tackler (107), with 7.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and an interception.
While Jackson will shoulder the load in the secondary, defensive end William Bradley-King has to be accounted for on the line. The 6-4, 245-pound junior has 8.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss with 46 tackles overall.
The unit has been hampered by the loss of arguably its best cover-man when Jerry Jacobs was lost for the season during the Georgia game in week three.
Defensive coordinator David Duggan has used both a four-man front (4-2-5) and a three down lineman look with six defensive backs (3-2-6) this year. The final two games of the regular season, saw the Red Wolves use both three and four-man fronts, with the additional defensive backs’ being the constant.
On special teams, Arkansas State boasts the top specialist duo in the Sun Belt.
Kicker Blake Grupe connected on 17 of his 20 field goal attempts and was a perfect 49-for-49 on point-after attempts. His only questionable area has been from distance, as all three of the misses were from beyond 45 yards.
Punter Cody Grace led the conference with an average of 44.4 yards per punt and 43 of his 64 punts ended in either a fair catch or the ball landing inside of opponents 20-yard-line.
Both were named to the conference first-team.