Breaking down Ohio State’s non-conference opponents: Arkansas State

We’ll have a lot to say later about Notre Dame – the Buckeyes’ first opponent in 2022. Marcus Freeman is already giving us plenty of material for stories and locker room reviews. But what about the other two non-conference foes, Toledo and Arkansas State?

Well, we’ll give them a preview way too soon. What to be excited about in these two games? What to worry about?

red wolves

A week after the Irish, the Arkansas Red Wolves will enter Ohio Stadium to face the Buckeyes. The two teams have never faced each other; there is no history to examine. While conferences have come and gone and changed member schools, Arkansas State has been in the Sun Belt forever – and there have been a few successful years.

In his year at Jonesboro (2012), Gus Malzahn went 10-3, using the year as a convenient stepping stone to Auburn. Coach Blake Anderson had some great seasons during his seven-year tenure, but a 4-7 campaign in the COVID-tainted 2020 season cost him his job. His successor, Butch Jones, struggled last year, leading the Red Wolves to a dismal 2-10 record. In their only top game, they lost to Washington, 52-3.

If you look at last year’s statistics, it’s easy to identify the problems. Wolves gave up a lot of yards (over 500 per game) and a lot of points. Meanwhile, Arkansas State had a decent passing offense, but couldn’t complement it with any kind of ground game. Ultimately, they really couldn’t handle the top teams in Sun Belt — Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina and Louisiana-Lafayette.

There’s an old joke where a coach is asked about this year’s prospects, and he replies, “we had nothing last year, and they’re all back.” That’s not really the case with Arkansas State in 2022: They had nothing last year, and a lot of them left.

At quarterback last year, James Blackman competed with Layne Hatcher for the starting role. Hatcher is gone, but Blackman returns to lead the Red Wolves in 2022. He completed nearly 60% of his passes last year (109 of 183) and had eight touchdowns for four interceptions. Corey Rucker, last year’s top receiver, has moved on, but last season’s second- and third-top receivers will be on hand to face the Buckeyes. Te’Vailance Hunt had 52 passes in 2021, and Jeff Foreman was right behind him with 31. So the passing offense will bring back some veterans and looks to be the strength of the offense.

Let’s face it. Butch Jones’ side struggled to rush last year. In fact, they averaged just 83 rushing yards per game. Sure, there were frequent sacks and negative plays to affect the net total — but, really, 83 yards per game? Lincoln Pare, last season’s top runner, is gone. And Johnnie Lang is likely to start at running back. He rushed for 263 yards on his 65 carries last year (average of 4.0 yards). Clearly, Wolves will have their hands full against Buckeye’s defensive line.

None of the best tacklers from last season are on the roster for 2022 yet. It’s really hard to predict what the defense will look like. Given how bad they were a year ago and how powerful Ohio State’s offense was, it probably doesn’t matter. They will take a beating.

The good news is that Red Wolves’ recruiting class of 2020 was ranked among the best in the Sun Belt by Rivals, and 247Sports gave it a composite ranking of 67.e nationally. Not bad. The class is loaded with three-star recruits (not four or five), and I imagine many of them will see a lot of shots.

Both College Football News and ESPN predict Arkansas State will finish ninth (out of 14) in the Sun Belt this year. A 6-6 record seems the most likely finish. A definite improvement on last year and good enough for a bowl offer – if they can pull it off. Having hosted Grambling in their opening match, however, Wolves face an almost impossible task against the Bucks.

Ohio State’s Perspective

As the power conferences continue to grow (especially the SEC and the Big Ten to follow, I think), we’ll see less and less of these lag plays early in the season. Conference schools like the Sun Belt need such revenue showdowns, but they can be brutal — and I expect this one to be.

Looking at Arkansas State’s defense, I don’t see them stopping against CJ Stroud and company. Look for OSU to walk the field and score touchdowns on their first four possessions (at least). ASU won’t have the skill or speed to cover Jaxon Smith-Njigba or Marvin Harrison, Jr. I remember last year, after Ohio State’s lopsided victory over State from Michigan, one of the Spartan defensive backs said, “you know, you think you got your dude covered and then you look up and they throw him over your head. The Red Wolves will fare much, much worse. Look for passes going overhead from DBs when Buckeye receivers pass.

And certainly, OSU will also be able to run the ball. I expect TreVeyon Henderson, Miyan Williams and Evan Pryor to put up big numbers, as the offensive line brings people out.

On defense, the Buckeyes will stop any run play Arkansas State can handle. Thus, the wolves will turn to the air. With individual shifts on the line and in the backfield, look for sacks and interceptions. Oh, Blackman could make a few decent passes, but overall I doubt his team will score more than 10 or so points.

Regardless of what happens in Week 1, Ohio State won’t overlook the Red Wolves. The game will quickly be unbalanced and give Ryan Day the opportunity to look into his depth. We will not only see second strings, but also a number of real freshmen. Devin Brown (with his 57 TD assists of the senior year) might just see some quarterback action in this one. Will he get his first TD college pass?

Prediction: Ohio State 62, Arkansas State 10

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