FOUR DOWNS: Guerry Smith breaks down the C-USA/Sun Belt showdown in the Superdome
1. Strength vs. strength Arkansas State is the nation’s 14th-most prolific rushing team, averaging 235.8 yards. Louisiana Tech ranks ninth in rushing defense, yielding 114.5 yards and 3.4 yards per carry. Something has to give, because the Red Wolves, who rushed at least 46 times in every conference game, are going to keep pounding it and see what happens. If 1,000-yard rusher Michael Gordon (6.5-yard average per carry) finds holes, Louisiana Tech will be in trouble. If the Bulldogs shut him down, which Toledo and Southern California did early in the year, it’s advantage La Tech.
2. Driskel vs. the ball hawks Arkansas State leads the nation with 26 interceptions, three more than any other team, but Louisiana Tech quarterback Jeff Driskel threw only five picks through 11 games before tossing three against Southern Miss. He should have a chance for some big plays to slot receiver Trent Taylor (89 catches, 1,133 yards) and split end Carlos Henderson (35 catches, 721 yards), a McDonogh 35 product, against the Red Wolves’ press coverage. The trick will be getting the ball into their hands rather than the hands of the defensive backs. ASU has half a dozen pick-sixes.
3. C-USA vs. Sun Belt Conference USA is 4-6 against the Sun Belt in the New Orleans Bowl. Louisiana-Lafayette of the Sun Belt beat former C-USA teams East Carolina and Tulane during its four-year run of victories from 2012 to 2015. Still, Louisiana Tech is favored by two points, largely because C-USA is considered the stronger league. The Bulldogs lost 41-38 to C-USA champion Western Kentucky and 58-24 to West Division champion Southern Miss. Arkansas State cruised through the Sun Belt with an 8-0 record. Here’s another chance for the Sun Belt to prove its worth.
4. Fourth-quarter factor Arkansas State is one of only two teams to go undefeated in its conference AND win all of those games by double figures, joining Western Kentucky of Conference USA. The Red Wolves trailed twice in the fourth quarter but scored 29 points in six minutes to beat South Alabama 49-31 and scored the final 21 points to beat Georgia State 48-34. Louisiana Tech outscored opponents 277-136 in the first half but was outscored 185-164 in the second half. If those trends continue, the Bulldogs will need to put the game away early to win, holding Red Wolves quarterback Fredi Knighten at bay.
The matchups favor Louisiana Tech. Arkansas State’s secondary is vulnerable to big plays, which Jeff Driskel can deliver, and the Bulldogs’ stout defensive line can slow the Red Wolves’ running game. But Arkansas State is resourceful. Look for the Red Wolves to fall behind early before wearing down the Bulldogs in the second half.
Arkansas State 34, Louisiana Tech 27
Sun Belt pride is on the line for Arkansas State. Not only do the Red Wolves want to keep the streak of six straight victories by SBC teams going, but Louisiana Tech has repeatedly rejected offers to join the conference. A-State’s defense makes a late stop to prevail.
Arkansas State 21, Louisiana Tech 17