Big Build-Up: Red Wolves vs Golden Eagles Preview

Southern Miss and Arkansas State are in the midst of major renovation projects

Group of Five teams don’t reload, they rebuild. Yeah, it’s not an inspiring mantra, but it’s true. With a limited budget and a more modest spotlight, you simply don’t see a multi-year domination from G5 programs. Boise State, insulated within crevices of the Blue Mountains, comes close. Generally, you can expect a brief burst of excellence from the non-autonomy five, followed by a coaching defection, recruit poaching, and then the dreaded rebuild.

Both Arkansas State and Southern Miss have experienced periods of fame and glory, not long sustained but fondly remembered. Now both teams find themselves with new(ish) coaches and big challenges. How far along each program is in their renovation will be made more clear by the result of Saturday night’s game in Hattiesburg.

We Got History

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina not only wiped out New Orleans and a good number of coastal communities, it also wiped out the New Orleans Bowl, which was moved to Lafayette. For that unprecedented year, the 6-5 Red Wolves Indians confronted the 6-5 Golden Eagles, who defeated Arkansas State 31-19 before a modest crowd of 18,000.

Since 1977, Southern Miss has enjoyed a six game win streak over Arkansas State, the last a 27-24 win in 2008. Both teams evolved since their last head-to-head. USM has won a CUSA championship (and earned a runner up), and finishing the season ranked in 2011. Meanwhile the Red Wolves won five SBC champions. Losing isn’t familiar for either program.

Struggle Brothers

Last season, the Red Wolves put up an inglorious 2-10 record with only one FBS win. Southern Miss concluded the season with consecutive victories but still finished a dismal 3-9 – the same number of wins recorded in 2020. Neither team is recently acquainted with such pedestrian football (the Golden Eagles had earned a bowl bid in 2019).

Both Will Hall and Butch Jones were brought onto their respective campuses to shift the culture back to what Jones calls “winning football.” Hall, a former quarterback who was most recently the offensive coordinator at Tulane, is tasked with reforming a Southern Miss offense that never found its footing at the QB position last season. The Golden Eagles are scoring 27 points per game this season, which still ranks at the bottom half of the Sun Belt, but the arrow is trending upwards.

Have the Golden Eagles Found Their Signal Caller?

Last year, Southern Miss scrolled through more than half-a-dozen quarterbacks in an attempt to find leadership in the huddle. This season, the Big Wheel has landed on 6’3″ freshman Zach Wilcke, a native Mississippian completing 58% of his passes for 5 touchdown this season. Wilcke has had his growing pains. Against Troy’s tough defense last week, the freshman surrendered three picks in a 27-10 defeat.

Wilcke ha found a soulmate in 6’3″ senior wide receiver Jason Brownlee who received a career-high 12 receptions for 105 yards against Troy. Mitigating Wilcke’s production may be an exercise of covering Brownlee well.

Is Butchboro Working at Arkansas State?

Last season, football in Jonesboro emptied a record number of antacid bottles. While the Red Wolves are currently 2-4 at the season’s midpoint, the stats show that the team as clearly improved.*

For example, opponents have scored nearly 100 fewer points on the Red Wolves this season compared to opposition points scored at this point last year. On the ground, A-State has out-gained itself 720 yards to 501. At this time last season, the Red Wolves had committed 7 interceptions. This year, Blackman has thrown just one.

Compared to 2021, the Red Wolves have scored more touchdowns (23/18) and prevented more goal-line scoring (26/30) despite playing top ranked defenses like JMU and Ohio State. The basic X’s and O’s of football have improved as the team is molded more and more to Jones’ specifications. What remains? Wins.

* Special thanks to Kara Richey for compiling these stats.

How Does Arkansas State Win This Game?

Southern Miss’ defense is ranked 72nd nationally and the offense is ranked 108th. The Red Wolves’ success relies on the A-State defense rattling the freshman Wilcke while the offense plays cleanly, patiently poking the run defense to set up big Blackman connections through the air.

Will the Golden Eagles lead running back be a factor. Frank Gore Jr. hasn’t cranked 100 rushing yards since the opener when he ran for 178 yards in the 4OT loss to Liberty. Gore is a legit weapon and will be a challenge for Red Wolves linebackers. But right now, limiting Brownlee from breaking A-State coverage may be the bigger concern.

Analysis That Is Final

I think the Red Wolves are one year ahead in the program re-build. Southern Miss is dealing with inexperience at both the QB and the head coaching position while the Red Wolves are slowly but surely bricking over the team’s weak points and rediscovering their identity. Look for Arkansas State to pick up its first road win since November 13, 2021 when the Red Wolves downed ULM.

PHOTO CREDIT: A-State Athletics and Carla Wehmeyer