Mobile, AL (SportsNetwork.com) - For the third straight season the Arkansas State Red Wolves will finish up the year in the GoDaddy Bowl at Ladd- Peebles Stadium, where they will square off with the Ball State Cardinals.
Not only has Arkansas State made its way to the GoDaddy Bowl in each of the last three seasons, it has also earned at least a share of the Sun Belt Conference titles in each of those campaigns. This time around the Red Wolves won four of their final five games to finish 5-2 in conference play, which was enough to be named co-champion with Louisiana.
The last three seasons have also seen three different head coaches for Arkansas State, with Hugh Freeze leading them to a 10-3 mark in 2011 and Gus Malzahn pushing them to a 9-3 mark in 2012 before taking the job at Auburn, a team he has lifted to the BCS National Championship. Bryan Harsin took over for Malzahn but left to take the head gig at Boise State earlier this month. Former North Carolina offensive coordinator Blake Anderson is set to be the head man next year but John Thompson, the Red Wolves' defensive coordinator this season, will serve as the interim head coach in this bowl game.
Thompson will be attempting to lead the way for Arkansas State's second straight bowl victory, after the team topped Kent State, 17-13, a year ago in this bowl. Overall the Red Wolves are 3-6-1 in their previous appearances in the postseason.
"We've got quite a few practices we're going to be able to get out here, so everyone is going to get work and this will make us better down the road," Thompson said of the extended time his team has to prepare. "We'll use this as an opportunity to look at some of our young guys, but at the same time we've got to remain sharp."
The Cardinals aren't dealing with a coaching change, though that might change at some point in the near future. In their third year under Pete Lembo the Cardinals finished 10-2 overall, their best mark since Brady Hoke led a 12-win squad in 2008. Hoke left for San Diego State the following season. In Lembo's three years Ball State has increased its win total each season going from 6-6 in 2011 to 9-4 last year and finally the 10-2 mark it has posted in the 2013 campaign. The three-year stretch marks the first time since 1988-91 that the Cardinals have had a winning record in three straight seasons.
Although they have been eligible for the postseason in each of the last three years, the Cardinals are making just their second trip to a bowl game under Lembo. Last year they were tied up in the Beef O'Brady's Bowl against UCF, which defeated the Cardinals, 38-17. The loss was the sixth in as many tries for Ball State in bowl matchups, a mark it desperately hopes to improve on this time.
"We have been able to accomplish quite a bit at Ball State the last few years, but the one thing that has never been done at Ball State is to win a bowl game," Lembo said. "We have an opportunity to put the icing on the cake of a 10-win season and go out and have a chance to win a bowl game this year against a great team."
If Ball State hopes to accomplish that goal it will need to earn a win against a team it has never faced, as this contest marks the first meeting between the Cardinals and Arkansas State.
Offensively speaking, the Red Wolves are a team that likes to run the ball. They led the Sun Belt in rushing yards (207 ypg) this season, though the one- sided nature of the attack had them just fifth in total offense (414.2 ypg).
The rushing attack was spread out among three ball carriers. Michael Gordon (742 yards, 10 TDs) has been the most effective back, leading the team in rushing yards, despite ranking third in carries with 106. Gordon averages 6.8 yards per attempt and has a 91-yard run under his belt this season. David Oku (559 yards, six TDs) is more of the pounding style back that is utilized in short yardage situations. Oku had one 100-yard game this season, while Gordon totaled four.
The third member of the rushing trio is quarterback Adam Kennedy, who piled up 663 yards and four scores on a team-high 147 carries. However, Kennedy is listed as questionable for this game with a knee injury. Kennedy suffered the injury during the team's finale with Western Kentucky. Taking over was Fredi Knighten, who threw for 61 yards and rushed for 47 more and a pair of touchdowns. Knighten is likely to get the start if Kennedy is not cleared to play but making up for a player who threw for more than 2,000 yard and 11 scores will be a tough task for the sophomore.
When Knighten does drop back to pass, should he get the start, he will be looking for J.D. McKissic (73 receptions, 590 yards, four TDs) and Julian Jones (51 receptions, 630 yards, four TDs). The duo accounted for nearly half of the Red Wolves' entire receiving production this season. McKissic has been the most utilized, and already has the career marks for career receptions (176) in just his sophomore season. Allen Muse (26 receptions, 356 yards, TD) has accumulated over 1,000 yards over his career and should not be overlooked.
The defensive side of the ball was where Arkansas State often fell short. The Red Wolves were lit up for 418 yards and 26.7 points per game, falling outside the top three in the Sun Belt in each category. However the team was the best in the league in terms of ball security with a conference best +6 scoring margin. Qushaun Lee (119 tackles) and Ryan Carrethers (87 tackles, 4.0 sacks) lead the way defensively, with Lee the first player in a decade to have 100 stops in back-to-back campaigns.
Ball State adheres to a different offensive philosophy. The Cardinals are a pass-heavy unit that ranked ninth nationally in passing offense (333.3 ypg) during the regular season.
Under center for the Cardinals is Keith Wenning, who has flourished this season. As the full-time starter, Wenning has throw for 3,933 yards and 34 touchdowns. He has done so at an efficient rate, completing 65.2 percent of his pass attempts, while only being intercepted six times. Wenning threw for six touchdowns and 445 yards in the season finale against Miami-Ohio, marking the fourth time this season he has had at least four passing scores.
Wenning doesn't spread the ball around much, with three players taking in more than 60 receptions and just one other recording finishing with more than 10. Willie Snead (97 receptions, 1,429 yards, 14 TDs) and Jordan Williams (68 receptions, 1,016 yards, 10 TDs) are the primary targets. Snead ranks among the top 20 pass-catchers in the country in receptions, yards and touchdowns. Jamill Smith (63 receptions, 855 yards, eight TDs) will also get plenty of looks as he proved against Miami-Ohio, finishing with seven catches for 127 yards and three scores.
Even though the running game often takes a back seat, Jahwan Edwards was still able to turn in a strong season out of the backfield for Ball State. Edwards rushed for 964 yards and a Mid-American Conference leading 13 touchdowns on 184 carries. He eclipsed the century mark in three games and only once had fewer than 50 yards on the ground. Edwards will not have backup Horactio Banks (595 yards, seven TDs) to provide fresh legs, as Banks is out for the rest of the season with a knee injury.
While the offense has been spectacular, the Ball State defense has been, at best, mediocre. The Cardinals are letting up 420.8 yards of total offense each game, though they did finish third in the MAC in points allowed (24.8 ppg). Opportunistic play from the Cardinals has helped them keep teams from scoring at a high rate, as they tied for the most forced turnovers (30) in the MAC. Jeffery Garrett (49 tackles, 7.5 TFL, five INTs) was a major reason for the success in that area, while Jonathan Newsome (11.5 TFL,. 8.0 sacks) leads the pass rush. Brian Jones (90 tackles, four fumbles) has a nose for the ball as well.