AUBURN, Ala. — Luke Matheson, like many people in Jonesboro, Arkansas, is quite familiar with Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn.
Matheson, who covers Arkansas State for Red Wolf Report and high school football in the state for Arkansas Varsity, followed Malzahn during his high school coaching days in Arkansas — when he crafted the hurry-up, no-huddle offense that made him a fast-rising sensation. Matheson was also there when Malzahn returned in 2012 for his one and only year as head coach of the Arkansas State Red Wolves.
On Saturday, the Red Wolves will make their second trip to Jordan-Hare Stadium since Malzahn’s departure for the Auburn head coaching job. For a perspective from Jonesboro, we asked Luke to chat about the defending Sun Belt champions and what they’ll bring to the Plains this weekend.
Auburn fans looking for a game day take from an A-State writer can follow Matheson on Twitter at @LukeMatheson.
Now, let’s get to Matheson’s thoughts on Arkansas State’s Week 1 loss and how the Red Wolves will try to attack the Tigers on Saturday night:
Arkansas State was such a strong Sun Belt champion last season, and its usual offensive prowess might have some on the Plains concerned. But last week’s 31-10 loss to Toledo was stunning. What went wrong for the Red Wolves? Do the Rockets just have Arkansas State’s number, or did some surprising concerns for the season emerge in that game?
Matheson: “There are many who believe Toledo simply has Arkansas State’s number. The Red Wolves’ worst games of the past three years have come at the hands of Toledo, when you look at games against Group of Five schools.
They did struggle to get anything going until late in the game against Toledo, and had major issues with the center getting the ball to the quarterbacks. The Red Wolves did not get the ball in the hands of a running back until their fourth offensive possession of the game, and that had many in the media questioning the game plan.
I asked (Arkansas State head coach) Blake Anderson about that, and he said it wasn’t planned, it was just how things played out. At the end of the day, the team didn’t seem to have much fire, and didn’t seem to be prepared for the game.”
Speaking of quarterbacks, Pittsburgh transfer Chad Voytik seems like he’ll continue to be the starter for Arkansas State at quarterback after the loss. But what does Oklahoma transfer Justice Hansen bring to the mix?
“Chad Voytik is the starter, per offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner. Voytik was able to make some plays against Toledo, but he saw several cut short due to bad snaps. He literally had two or three snaps roll back to him when he was in the shotgun, and the play was over before it even began.
Hansen is a solid QB as well, but Voytik has the experience, especially in larger stadiums like Auburn’s, and seems to have the edge in regards to who will receive the most playing time.”
A strong running game out of the spread is always something I think of when I think Arkansas State football. How will that look Saturday without former running back Michael Gordon and quarterback Fredi Knighten?
“Arkansas State has three running backs who have done well this year. Warren Wand played as a true freshman last year and was a playmaker. Johnston White returns as well and is a solid back who can pick up the hard yards. Armond Weh-Weh has been added to the group this year, and he is a big, bruising back who can get it done on third-and-short and in the red zone.
They each have their own style of running, so A-State will use them each as change-of-pace backs compared to the others.”
How do you see Arkansas State attacking an Auburn offense that was in disarray against Clemson?
“Arkansas State prides themselves on disrupting offenses and creating turnovers. They created two turnovers against Toledo and forced a couple of more fumbles that Toledo was able to recover.
The defense led the nation in takeaways and points off of takeaways in 2015, and hope to have similar success this year. Last year’s numbers were off the charts, so it would honestly be surprising to see it happen again, but it is a goal they have.
One thing A-State has is depth on the defensive line, so they rotate guys a lot and that helps keep them fresh as a whole. You will see more linemen being subbed in and out than anyone else due to this. They used a similar approach last year, and that is why I believe we saw A-State win a lot of key games in the second half. I know it played a factor in the Appalachian State game last year.”
Arkansas State has two Auburn natives on its roster in Cameron Echols-Luper and Blaise Taylor. What kind of impact do you see those two making in their return to the Plains?
“Both Echols-Luper and Taylor will be used in the punt and kick return games. Luper boomed a 67-yard punt against Toledo — yes, he is one of the punters — and is one of the fastest players on the team.
Taylor is a small guy that a lot of offenses try to pick on in the passing game, but he has always been able to hold his own. He is a threat in the kick return game as well. He nearly broke one for six against Toledo last week.
Both will be playing in front of their hometown crowd, so I’m sure they are pumped to play in front of friends and family who will be in attendance.”
Four years after his departure and three years after that last meeting in Auburn, how do your Arkansas State readers view Gus Malzahn and having to face him again?
“It really depends on who you talk to. There are some fans who are fans of Malzahn, and they follow what he does at Auburn. I covered high school ball before I covered college ball, so I remember Gus when he was coaching at Shiloh Christian and Springdale High School here in Arkansas.
On the other hand, there are some Red Wolf fans who don’t care for him due to him saying he wouldn’t be one and done at Arkansas State. I think the ones who are not bothered by Gus saying that are the ones who realize any of us would take a job that offered us a considerable raise over the money we are currently making , just like when Auburn offered Gus the job.”
Finally, give us your prediction for this game.
“I think both teams have several questions that they are looking to get answers for. Any time a Sun Belt school goes against an SEC school, you have to give the edge to the SEC school. The talent level and depth is always better at that level. But at the same time, there are upsets as well. We nearly saw Tennessee fall last week to Appalachian State, and we did see Mississippi State fall to a Sun Belt team in South Alabama.
Arkansas State is capable of winning the game if things go perfect for them and if Auburn makes a lot of mistakes, but if Auburn plays to its abilities, the Tigers will win this one.”