Sheriff Shootout: Arkansas State Red Wolves versus #25 Troy Trojans

Arkansas State (5-4, 5-0) v Troy (8-1, 5-0)

Thursday, November 17th, 8:30 CST at Troy University Veterans Memorial Stadium (on Larry Blakeney Field)

You Can Watch This Game On: ESPNU

Wagering (for those of you who ingloriously eschew the purity of the game): -9 Trojans, 19.9% ESPN FPI Red Wolves

Well hey there, Cameron Echols-Luper
Well hey there, Cameron Echols-Luper

Once a marquee Sun Belt matchup, Red Wolves versus Trojans hasn’t meant much for a long time. The two teams haven’t even faced each other since 2013, when A-State was in the midst of ruling a Sun Belt dynasty, and Troy was several seasons removed from its own. But these are new and exciting times, for both Troy and the Sun Belt. The #25 Trojans enter the week with the conference’s first AP Top 25 ranking ever. Second-year head coach Neal Brown is coming off a big win against conference favorite, Appalachian State. Troy is poised to reclaim the Sun Belt Sheriff’s badge.

Except maybe the Red Wolves aren’t ready to surrender it. The Sun Belt schedule has revived an Arkansas State team that began the year a catatonic 0-4. In particular, the defense has suddenly come to life, with sack monsters Ja’Von Roland-Jones (8) and Chris Odom (7) leading a squad that’s third in the conference for sacks (22). Both teams head into Thursday night’s “Sheriff’s Showdown” undefeated in conference. The victor likely wins the Sun Belt trophy.

When Last These Titans Met

Following conference expansion in 2013, the Sun Belt put the Arkansas State/Troy rivalry on a two year hiatus. That was too bad, because the series was always hard fought, with Arkansas State winning 6 of  the last 10 meetings, including the last, when Bryan Harsin’s Red Wolves benefited from three interceptions to outlast the Trojans 41-34 in Jonesboro.

How is Troy “rebuilding the wall?”

Neal Brown, once the youngest head coach in the FBS (and maybe still is, I dunno), brought new zest and vigor to a Troy program that had grown complacent under longtime (and legendary) head coach Larry Blakeney. Brown endured typical Year One growing pains, going 4-8 in 2015. But his Trojans did take Appalachian State to three overtimes, proving that Brown and his young team had chops.

Those chops became perfectly seasoned in 2016 upon the maturation of junior signal caller Brandon Silvers. The Sun Belt’s second ranked QB (140.1 rating), Silvers is third in the conference for passing yards (2,308), third for completed passes (203), first for TDs (19) and has only been sacked a league low three times. Silvers may be the most capable quarterback in the conference.

But it’s not just Silvers pacing the nation’s 27th best offense. Running back Jordan Chunn is a ton of production in the backfield. Second in the Belt for yards (1,208) and leading the conference in rushing TDs (10), the 230lb Chunn is hard to bring down. Meanwhile, sophomore wide receiver Deondre Douglas has five touchdowns on 532 yards and his running mate, junior Emanuel Thompson, has 5 TD grabs and 470 yards. The Trojans can hurt you in many ways.

While the offense gets the babes, its the Trojan defense is the one actually building a wall, ranking 38th in the nation and tied for first in the Sun Belt for sacks (25). Rashard Dillard (7 sacks, 1 INT) is a huge disruption at defensive end and defensive tackle Baron Poole (4 sacks) brings the pain. The frontline gives up a very stingy 105 yards per game on the ground and only 7 total TDs. Bottom line, you don’t run on the Trojans. 

Yawn, the Red Wolves are undefeated in conference again

Since staggering through their out-of-conference tilt, Arkansas State has rung up five straight victories over conference opponents. The turnaround is impressive. See how the statistics improved for the Red Wolves after Week 4, when Arkansas State began to feast exclusively on Sun Belt talent.

Stat Category Rank: W2 Rank: W4 Rank: W6 Rank: W8 Rank: W 10 Reaction
Total Offense 117th 102nd 98th 89th 88th The offense is what it is
Rushing 112th 125th 98th 101st 108th And it isn’t a rushing offense
Passing 91st 38th 72nd 56th 55th It’s better at throwing
Total Defense 128th 118th 92nd 77th 68th Meanwhile, the D is getting dominant
Rushing Defense 127th 115th 94th 86th 76th Especially against the run
Passing Yards Allowed 115th 89th 79th 65th 67th But it’s not bad against the pass, too.
Defensive 3rd Down Conv. 122nd 127th 117th 115th 71st As a result, stAte’s getting better at this
Red Zone Offense T-117th 111th 115th 84th 100th But the Red Zone D is 54th
Time of Possession 116th 114th 100th 100th 99th O ranks 127th for 3rd down conversions
Punt Returns 7th 79th 114th 120th 73rd Blaise has picked it up, yo
Net Punting 72nd 106th 117th 114th 77th So has Foncham

The only areas where the Red Wolves remain stagnant are running the ball (disappointing) and red zone offense (alarming!). As a result, the Red Wolves find themselves in familiar territory: relatively unchallenged and steamrolling to another conference championship. Much of the success can be attributed to Justice Hansen, the top rated QB in the Sun Belt (141.6). But the bulk of the credit goes to the Arkansas State Monster Defense, which has recorded nine takeaways in five conference contests.

Troy’s national ranking is legit (and should be higher)

The might of Troy was evident the moment the Trojans nearly upended Clemson in Death Valley in Week 2, Yet, it took seven more victories to gain the attention of the Associated Press, who finally awarded Neal Brown’s wrecking crew a 25th ranking in Week 12. Life in the Sun Belt! This is the Sun Belt’s first appearance ever in the Top 25, an honor denied to very talented Sun Belt teams like the 2012 Red Wolves, the 2011 Red Wolves, the 2009 Trojans, and the 2003 Mean Green.

For the Red Wolves, this is last year’s game against Appalachian State all over again

In 2015, the 4-0 Red Wolves met the 4-0 Mountaineers in Boone for a Thursday night ESPNU matchup. Appalachian State entered the evening a 10.5 favorite, and ESPN FPI gave the Red Wolves a minuscule 16.6% chance of winning. In 2016, the 5-0 Red Wolves face the 5-0 Trojans in Troy for a Thursday night ESPNU matchup under eerily similar odds.

Arkansas State defeated the Mountaineers 40-27.

Head-2-Head Battle I: Justice Hansen vs Brandon Silvers

Thursday night’s tilt features the two highest rated signal callers in the Sun Belt: Hansen (141.6) and Silvers (140.1). Silvers (6’3″, 214lbs), a junior from Alabama, has been brilliant, tossing a conference leading 19 TD strikes. But he also benefits from a offensive line that’s given up only 3 sacks on the year, and a running game spearheaded by the bruising Jordan Chunn.

Hansen (6’4″, 220lbs), a sophomore out of Oklahoma, didn’t assume the starter’s role until midway through the third game of the season. Since then, Hansen completed 58% of his passes and tossed a dozen touchdowns. While the run game as struggled for the Red Wolves, Hansen’s arm has steadily elevated the A-State passing attack to 55th in the country.

Hansen’s passes yield a conference leading 12.6 yards per attempt. But having seen regular reps for three seasons, Silvers has far more experience than the rookie Red Wolves quarterback. The edge goes to Silvers.

Head-2-Head Battle 2: Blace Brown vs. Money Hunter

cxqidmpucaax-cmTwo of the conference’s more accomplished cornerbacks face off this Thursday in Troy. Brown is a 6’1″ sophomore who’s quickly becoming a Sun Belt superstar, ranking second-in-the-nation with 6 INTs. Brown has recorded a pick his last two games, and he’ll be the menace Hansen must avoid.

Meanwhile, 6’1″ senior Money Hunter collected his fourth career Pick 6 on Saturday against New Mexico State, tying him for the all-time Sun Belt lead (and earning him SBC Defensive Player of the Week honors). If Silvers is to add to his impressive TD totals, he’ll need to look away from Hunter.

Trojan to Scrutinize: Deontae Crumitie (C)

Before the game with Massachusetts, the Trojans had given up exactly one sack, which occurred against Clemson. Sophomore center Deontae Crumitie(6’2″ 282lb) was credited for allowing the sack. All Curmitie did moving forward was lead an offensive line that kept Silvers perfectly polished for five consecutive games. If the Red Wolves Monster D hopes to put any pressure on Silvers, they’ll have to get past Curmitie.

Wolf to Watch: Kendall Sanders (WR)

Sanders is a former 4-star receiver who transferred from Texas. While he’s recorded some critical catches this season, the 6′ senior didn’t have a breakout game until last week against New Mexico State (101 yards, 2 TDs). The Trojans big play secondary will have to limit Sanders on Thursday.

A Trojan stat that will blow wide the doors of perception

We touched on how seldom Silvers is sacked. The offensive line has become the Trojan MVP in 2016. Consider that in 2014, in Silver’s first year at the helm, the freshman QB was sacked 19 times. The next year, the line managed to reduce that number to 11. This year, with three games left on the schedule, that number is three. Three! Whatever Neal Brown is feeding the offensive line, I want a helping.

Discipline don’t win championships

Statistically, the Red Wolves and Trojans are two of the least disciplined teams in college football. Arkansas State commits 7.4 penalties per game (106th). Troy is even rowdier, drawing 8.2 flags per game (123rd). It’s easy to assume that the team who plays cleanest on Thursday wins the game, but maybe it’s reckless passion that fuels the success.

Does the Sun Belt have a rooting interest? It should.

You are Karl Benson, commissioner of the mighty Sun Belt. You sit in a finely appointed office at Sun Belt Conference HQ, located inside of the Mercedes Benz Super Dome. In the conference’s 15 years of playing FBS football, it has yet to field a Top 25 team – until Week 12 of 2016. As Karl Benson, who would you rather see win this game: Arkansas State, which went 0-4 out of conference and lost to Central Arkansas, or Troy, who nearly defeated Clemson and finally broke into the polls?

There’s no question that a Troy victory is a win for the Sun Belt. The longer the Trojans remain in the Top 25, the longer the Sun Belt retains a slice of national relevance. But the Red Wolves, who aren’t much for knowing its role, will not lay down for Troy. In fact, nothing would amuse A-State fans more than sullying the season for a conference administration that didn’t even bother to personally hand the Red Wolves last year’s championship trophy.

Red Wolves have the nation’s second longest conference win streak

Arkansas State enters Thursday night having won 14 consecutive conference games. Only San Diego State’s 16-game winning streak is longer.

Troy is wearing black on Thursday

Very slimming.

Red Wolves are countering with white

How the Red Wolves pull off the upset

Despite five years of conference dominance, the Red Wolves always seem to be the team with something to prove. Arkansas State brings a pair of legit sack monsters into Troy (Roland-Jones and Odom). But the key to stopping Troy won’t be sneaking past its wall and plundering the backfield. It will rely on the yeoman’s work of limiting Chunn to the line of scrimmage while employing a bend-don’t-break mentality in the secondary. If the defense does its job, then it’s up to Hansen to exploit a secondary that surrenders a juicy 265 yards per game.

How the Trojans win (and remain in the Top 25)

The Trojans play fierce and fast. While defenders are struggling to catch a breath, Neal Brown will send 230-lb human bowling ball Jordan Chunn up the middle to deliver more pain. If the Trojans stick with the hypnotizing “Chunn-Chunn-Chunn-Chunn-Chunn-BIG PLAY” formula, while limiting the drive-killing penalties, then Neal Brown and his Trojans remain in the Top 25 and atop the Sun Belt standings.

Tell us your prediction or die!

Okay, okay! Relax. Honestly, you should never engage in a land war with Asia, and you should never bet against the Red Wolves when playing in conference. Arkansas State hasn’t lost to the Sun Belt in 728 days. Of course, they haven’t played the Trojans in that time either. But the Red Wolves have won championships by winning road games like this. Coach Blake Anderson won’t be intimidated by this challenge. Look for the Red Wolves to use its big game experience to retain the Sun Belt Sheriff’s Badge. 

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