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Opponent Defense Preview: Arkansas State

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Third time’s a charm?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 21 Arkansas State at Texas State Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

No intros. You know my policy. Intros are a waste of your time and my time and we all hate them.

To the defense:

Personnel and What to Expect

Arkansas State comes into this year with a new defensive coordinator, Rob Harley, who had previously been the linebackers coach at Pitt. And, to my surprise, their head coach is none other than Butch Jones of “Champions of Life” Tennessee fame. Before doing any research, my immediate reaction to a Butch Jones team is “...her?” — simply because his Tennessee teams weren’t exactly known for their, uh, precision.

That being said, Jones is most recently a graduate of the Nick Saban School For Former Head Coaches Who Want to Learn to Coach Good, and that’s rehabilitated guys in the past (although it’s looking iffy that Sark’s included there), so who knows. Maybe his defensive play will be cleaner at Arkansas State than at Tennessee.

On the other hand, the Red Wolves did give up 55 points to Memphis last weekend (21 to FCS Central Arkansas the week before). On the other other hand, Memphis is known lately for having a pretty explosive offense.

So far they look the part of a retooling defense, growing pains and all. From a 4-3 base, they’re giving up over 500 yards a game to two games into the season, although with such a small sample size and half of that being against Memphis’ potent offense, that probably skews the numbers somewhat. That being said, Arkansas State gave up more than 35 points on seven occasions last season (yet somehow managed to upset Kansas State in that same season).

In line with that, so far they’re giving up just over five yards per rush. If ever there was an opponent against whom Washington could not totally suck in the run game, it’d be these guys; Memphis — known for their passing offense primarily — got 191 yards out of their leading rusher last weekend. And through the air, if John Donovan manages to not be an idiot, there’s lots of potential too; Memphis threw for over 400 yards and five touchdowns on only 22 completions. It makes sense when you consider the secondary is generally their youngest unit, combined with a new coordinator trying to improve a defense that wasn’t great in the recent past.

Their top seven graded defensive players per PFF are either edge rushers or defensive linemen — insert “PFF is not gospel” disclaimer here — in particular their starting four. Senior DE Joe Ozougwu is especially noteworthy, with a 91 on pressure generation. He’s already forced a fumble with 1.5 sacks against Memphis and opposite him is former Tennessee sacks leader from 2020 Kivon Bennett, who also has 1.5 already to start the season. Meanwhile defensive interior linemen Terry Hampton is a returning starter with 30 games of experience who had six tackles for loss last season.

Behind them is the starting three linebackers of Caleb Bonner (Phil Steel’s pre-season All-Sun Belt 4th Team), Anthony Switzer, and Dane Motley. Switzer led the team in forced fumbles last year and already has forced another one two games into 2021.

From what I’ve seen, they’ll switch between a 4-3, 4-2-5, and some different 3-3-5 fronts, and it’s easy to see on tape why their front end gets higher “grades” than the back seven/eight; it’s not like that unit takes over games, but they do clearly hold their own.

On the other end of the spectrum, their tackling and angles in the linebackers and secondary are easily-identifiable weaknesses. Multiple Memphis touchdowns could have been stopped multiple times during the play had someone just finished the tackle or read the space better. And it’s not even like their tackling is weak because they do that “just hit the guy as hard as you can without getting your arms around him” thing that drives me (and probably you reading this) absolutely nuts — they just would wrap up and still the ball-carrier would get free.

If there’s one thing that stands out to me, it’s how much trouble they have with playmakers in space; even safety Antonio Fletcher, who led the team in tackles last game, probably could have had almost twice as many if it weren’t for his inconsistency in coverage and tackling.

Overall, this is a defense that could be decent in a while, but for now the linebackers and secondary have trouble with anticipation, reading plays, moving well in space, and finishing the tackle. On the plus side for Arkansas State, they’re really concrete problems to improve upon, but until then they could give up a lot of points this season.

Bottom Line

My first thought: Washington would destroy them if the Dawgs were running any other offense. Unfortunately, Washington is not running any other offense, and is running the one offense that doesn’t attack Arkansas State’s notable weaknesses. The absolute last thing you want to do against Arkansas State is I-formation that bad boy into the A gap (yes, “I-formation” is a verb now, deal with it).

This isn’t even me saying to not rely on the run against them; on the contrary, as has been pointed out, their run defense isn’t very good either. But if you’re gonna constantly crowd the line of scrimmage with extra bodies on your own team’s end that then also makes them put extra players there... I mean, that’s generally not a very good approach against anyone, but especially a team who’s primary issues come from ball-carriers in space.

Frankly, I’d welcome plenty of runs if there was a healthy amount of them that were running at the tackles or outside them, or with single back formations and a pulling guard, or from shotgun, or or or... (Sidenote — it feels like we haven’t run pulling guards as often this season as under Pete which, without going into further analysis, I think is stupid as heck.)

As it is, we’ll probably see more of the same, but Washington could put up a lot of points doing, well, not that.

On that note, I’m sad Sean McGrew has been apparently shunted to the bench, because he’d be perfectly frustrating for the Red Wolves. As is, Richard Newton should have the best opportunity he’ll have all year to bulldoze people, but I wish we could see McGrew more here, too.

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.