Old Dominion is a new foe for the Red Wolves.
“Nobody knows anybody,” opines Tom Reagan in the Cohen Brothers classic Miller’s Crossing. Nowhere is this observation more true than when Arkansas State meets Old Dominion in Norfolk, two football programs who have never met and nor would have likely ever met were it not recently fused by the Monarchs joining the Sun Belt. Separated by 970 miles, the two meet eye-to-eye in a conference matchup that will determine the trajectory for both programs.
What do we know about the Monarchs? Well, they didn’t even suit up in 2020, when COVID-19 made everything stupid. The program rebounded with a 6-6 record in 2021 and a Myrtle Beach Bowl bid – to which they ultimately lost to Tulsa. This season, Old Dominion made a national splash by exposing Virginia Tech on a Friday evening, briefly crowning the Monarchs the King of the Sun Belt.
The Problem with Old Dominion
The Monarchs have a hate/hate relationship with the goal line, ranking 121st in total offense and scoring a measly 18 points per contest (compare that to the Red Wolves’ 34 ppg). Sophomore quarterback Hayden Wolff has been careful with the ball – only one pick – but he’s averaging around 225 yards a game, so he’s not exactly bombs-away. Wolff isn’t helped by the running game, which is the second most measly in the Sun Belt, behind only the Trojans of Troy.
So What Makes The Monarchy So Dangerous?
Old Dominion gives up 24 points per game, which isn’t bad, but they also surrender the most yards in the entire Sun Belt (459 ypg). However, the Monarchs have studs at linebacker like senior Ryan Henry and the nation’s second-most prolific total-tackler Jason Henderson. The secondary makes plays as well (ask Virginia), with three picks from the unit. There is an astonishing amount of bend in the defense, but the Monarchs will make the Red Wolves earn every yard in the Red Zone, where Old Dominion boasts the nation’s 28th stingiest defense.
How the Red Wolves Assume the Throne
You can run on the Monarchs. Opponents have to the tune of 209 yards per game. It’s essential that the combo of Brian Snead and Johnny Lang (with a pinch of Marcel Murray) get off to a fast start – and then sustain it. That puts pressure on freshman offensive lineman Noah Smith, thrust into starter duty with the season-ending injury to Robert Holmes. Both Snead and Lang have the power to punish the Monarchs linebackers. They just need the openings.
Dominic Zvada Is Perfect
Thus far, Arkansas State kicker Dom Zvada has yet to miss an XP or a field goal, enabling the Red Wolves to move on from Blake Grupe without pain. The perfection was threatened in Memphis during an XP attempt, when the holder juggled the snap. Zvada remained cool and nailed the kick.
Butch Jones Saw Good Things in the Loss to Memphis
Last season, Coach Butch Jones was often subdued and contrite after losses. Post-Memphis, Jones was critical of the team’s mental collapse, but was effusive in his praise for the team’s attitude in the locker room. Whether the scoreboard reflects a win or a loss, Jones clearly likes the team’s growth, which is evident by improvements made on defense and special teams.
Is Seydou Traore the Next A-State Super Star?
The 6’4″, 214 tight end seemed unstoppable against Memphis, putting up 120 yards and a TD in a breakout game for the sophomore. The Red Wolves haven’t had a consistent offensive weapon at tight end since Blake Mack. Perhaps the big London-born receiver can provide the safety outlet needed for quarterback James Blackman to diversify his receptions portfolio.
Old Dominion Has a Pretty Decent (and very tall) Tight End, Too
Junior tight end Zack Kuntz is 6’8″ and 250 pounds of target for Wolff, who may be over focusing too much on 6’2″ WR Ali Jennings III (20 receptions, 419 yards, 4 TDS.) Kuntz is second to Jennings in yards (95) and receiving touchdowns (1), and if you’ve seen him lumbering down the field, it’s quite a sight.
Te’Vailance Hunt is Still Powering Up
The Big Hunt Return only produced one catch for five yards against the Tigers, who were keyed in on thwarting the receiving game. Hunt, featured on the 2022 Biletnikoff Award Watch List, is reportedly healthy after a nagging leg injury, and a good game from the 6’1″ senior could be big against Old Dominion.
The Final Analysis
It’s a tough draw, playing the first conference game nearly 1,000 miles from home. But the Red Wolves have been toughened inside the crucible of tough road matchups, and they won’t be bothered by the cramped confines of the Monarchs’ cozy stadium. If Arkansas State and break Old Dominion’s rugged Red Zone defense and continue to play relatively clean of penalties and turnovers, the Red Wolves should leave Norfolk with a win.
PHOTO CREDIT: It’s mine, and it’s a bit outdated.