Time and Date: Saturday, September 12 at 12 p.m. ET
Location: Bill Snyder Family Stadium — Manhattan, KS
Spread: Kansas State (-10.5)
ESPN FPI: Kansas State has 89.8% chance to win
All-time series: Kansas State leads, 2-0
Last meeting: Kansas State 31, Arkansas State 7 — September 27, 1980
In an unexpected plot twist of the 2020 college football season, Arkansas State has become attached to the national spotlight. One week after serving as the visitor in ESPN’s marquee Saturday night matchup at Memphis, the Red Wolves kick off on FOX to battle Kansas State on Saturday morning.
A sudden schedule change of the start time and network for the matchup comes as a direct result of the postponement of the Baylor-Louisiana Tech game, which initially held FOX’s noon kickoff slot. But back in the limelight, the Red Wolves (0-1) aim for a different result after a week of game film already in the inventory.
Previewing the Arkansas State Red Wolves
Arkansas State showed flashes of potential in its trip to Memphis, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Facing a team coming off a 12-2 campaign and New Year’s Six appearance, Arkansas State didn’t back down and held a 14-7 lead after its first three possessions.
The inability to exchange an interception for a touchdown at the beginning of the third quarter was the turning point for the Red Wolves. Trailing 21-17 instead of tying the score, head coach Blake Anderson elected for an onside kick and Memphis’ offense capitalized after being gifted a short field. It was a mistake-ridden third quarter for the Red Wolves, but the Red Wolves aim to amend those errors in Week 2.
The starting quarterback in Manhattan, KS will either be Logan Bonner or Layne Hatcher. Bonner, No. 1 on the depth chart before a season-ending injury in 2019, earned the starting nod in Memphis and finished the night with 133 yards passing, one touchdown, and a pair of interception. Hatcher, who pioneered the Red Wolves offense for the majority of 2019, received ample playing time in the opener and completed 65 percent of his passes for 166 yards. Anderson may continue to juggle quarterbacks through the second week of action and split time between the two.
There’s the adage, “If you have two quarterbacks, you have none,” but both of Arkansas State’s passers would be more-than-capable starters for many FBS programs, and many teams will spend this chaotic month of September experimenting with different looks.
With All-American wideout Omar Bayless out of Jonesboro, one of the primary focuses in Arkansas State’s opener was finding the next receiving target to direct the offense. The Red Wolves may have found their answer in 6’5” receiver Dahu Green. The Oklahoma transfer led the team in yardage with 99 on five receptions at Memphis, and he has all the makings of a phenomenal red zone target. Given his size and catch radius, Green could be useful in snagging 50-50 balls in man coverage. He lost one potential catch to Memphis cornerback Sylvonta Oliver in Saturday’s opener, but if he utilizes that moment as a learning experience, Arkansas State can have one of the Sun Belt’s best targets on its roster.
The running game is the lesser established component of the Red Wolves’ offense compared to the passing attack. Against Memphis, Arkansas State utilized four runners and given the allocation of carries, Jamal Jones appears to be the feature back for the moment. Two of three Arkansas State touchdowns were scored on the ground in Week 1, and the unit looked solid in short-yardage red zone situations despite averaging 3.5 yards per carry against Memphis.
On the defensive side of the ball, Arkansas State performed above standard until the disastrous sequence unfolded in the third quarter. An ill-advised onside kick and fumble on consecutive drives gave Memphis a short field on back-to-back possessions. Earlier, the unit managed to force a timely turnover by pressuring quarterback Brady White and intercepting an errant sideline throw for its lone takeaway of the night. However, applying pressure in the backfield was a rarity last Saturday and the Red Wolves exited the Liberty Bowl without a single sack.
Previewing the Kansas State Wildcats
Year one of the Chris Klieman era featured an unexpected wave of success for the purple and silver. Klieman followed up the legendary Bill Snyder and improved the Wildcats by three wins in his debut season, attaining a signature win for the program by dismantling Oklahoma in a 48-41 thriller last October.
What’s next for Kansas State? Offensively, the Wildcats must replace a great portion of their 2019 production. Quarterback Skylar Thompson has the starting role for the third-straight year, and while he also is a winning quarterback, he is a complete antithesis of Arkansas State’s passers.
Layne Hatcher surpassed the 300-yard passing mark in six of 11 contests a season ago. Meanwhile, Thompson has yet to accomplish that feat in 32 appearances as a Kansas State Wildcat. While Thompson doesn’t display Lamar Jackson-speed, he’s a capable runner especially in QB power sets. His 11 rushing touchdowns led the team, and Kansas State will frequent his number when needing to convert on the goal line or in short yardage situations.
Under Bill Snyder, Kansas State loved keeping the ball grounded and eating up clock, and those traditions are still visible under Klieman. The Wildcats weren’t shy about running the ball in 2019, and four rushers earned 65 or more attempts on the season. The primary running back in 2020 is shaping up to be Harry Trotter, who ranked fourth on the team in rushing last year.
Kansas State plays a disciplined brand of football, almost always excelling in the “forgotten” parts of the game — including offensive line play and special teams. The Wildcats feature one of the best lines in the Big 12, headlined by junior left guard Josh Rivas. Arkansas State couldn’t manage a sack a week ago, and Kansas State may not make things much easier for the Red Wolves.
Facing a program with a playbook that heavily favors the run game, Arkansas State must show progress in that area on defense. The Red Wolves allowed 227 yards and a rusher over the century mark last Saturday night, but the upset potential is on the table if Arkansas State can clamp Kansas State’s rushers and control the line of scrimmage.
Kansas State’s receiving corps does not enter the matchup with much experience. The leading receiver from 2019, Dalton Schoen, has graduated, leaving the Wildcats with a group of returning receivers that all caught under 30 passes last year. Arkansas State already faced a more potent aerial offense in Memphis, so containing Kansas State should not come with as much difficulty as the previous matchup.
Kansas State presents a litany of talented defenders when the Red Wolves offense is on the field. Defensive end Wyatt Hubert shined in a monstrous 2019 campaign with 12.5 tackles for loss along with seven sacks. Outside linebacker Elijah Sullivan led the Wildcats in tackles and has proven to positively impact the coverage game as well. Cornerback A.J. Parker is a ballhawk, and picked off three passes a season ago. The 5’11” corner may draw Dahu Green in coverage in the upcoming matchup — a must-see 1-on-1 battle on Saturday morning.
The key to the game for Arkansas State is to establish a productive offense from the opening kickoff. The Red Wolves attained that feat against Memphis, but this time, they’ll have to cut down on the three turnovers. No matter which quarterback is taking snaps, Arkansas State has more firepower in its passing game than Kansas State, but the Wildcats have the ability to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. The final result of this game will be within two touchdowns, and I think Kansas State’s defense and offensive line carry the Wildcats a close victory in Manhattan.
Prediction: Kansas State 31, Arkansas State 23