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

The Buckeyes’ date with the Red Wolves is set for Sept. 10.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

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 notices. But what about the other two non-conference foes, Toledo and Arkansas State?

Well, we’re going to give them a way too early look. Anything to be excited about in these two games? Anything to worry about?

The Red Wolves

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

In his one year in Jonesboro (2012), Gus Malzahn went 10-3, using the year as a handy steppingstone to Auburn. Coach Blake Anderson had some nice seasons in 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 sorry 2-10 record. In their lone high-profile game, they lost to Washington, 52-3.

If you look at last year’s stats, it’s easy to identify the problems. The Wolves gave up a lot of yards (over 500 a game) and a lot of points. Meanwhile, Arkansas State had a decent passing attack, but couldn’t supplement it with any sort of ground game. The bottom line is that they really couldn’t handle the top Sun Belt teams – Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina and Louisiana-Lafayette.

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

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

Let’s face it. Butch Jones’s team had trouble rushing last year. In fact, they averaged only 83 rushing yards per game. Granted, there were frequent sacks and negative plays to affect the net total – but, really, 83 yards a game? Lincoln Pare, last season’s top runner, is gone. And it’s likely that Johnnie Lang will start at running back. He ran for 263 yards on his 65 carries last year (4.0-yard average). Clearly, the Wolves will have their hands full against the Buckeye defensive line.

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

The good news is that the Red Wolves’ 2020 recruiting class was rated tops in the Sun Belt by Rivals, and 247Sports gave it a composite ranking of 67th nationally. Not bad. The class is loaded with three-star recruits (no fours or fives), and I imagine that a lot of them will see plenty of snaps.

Both the College Football News and ESPN forecast that Arkansas State will finish ninth (of 14) in the Sun Belt this year. A 6-6 record seems the most likely finish. A sharp improvement from last year and good enough for a bowl bid – if they can do it. After hosting Grambling in their initial game, the Wolves face a nearly impossible task, however, against the Bucks.

The Ohio State perspective

As the power conferences continue to expand (especially the SEC, and the Big Ten to follow, I think), we’ll see fewer and fewer of these mismatch games early in the season. Schools from conferences like the Sun Belt need such matchups for the revenue, but they can be brutal — and I expect this one to be.

Looking at the Arkansas State defense, I can’t see them getting stops against C.J. Stroud and company. Look for OSU to march down the field and score touchdowns on their first four possessions (at least). ASU won’t have the skill or the speed to cover Jaxon Smith-Njigba or Marvin Harrison, Jr. I remember last year, after Ohio State’s lopsided win over Michigan State, one of the Spartan defensive backs said, “you know, you think that you’ve got your guy covered, and then you look up, and they’re throwing it over your head.” The Red Wolves will fare much, much worse. Look for passes going over the DBs’ heads as the Buckeye receivers blow by.

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

On defense, the Buckeyes will stop whatever running game that Arkansas State can manage. So, the Wolves will turn to the air. With one-on-one mismatches on the line and in the backfield, look for sacks and interceptions. Oh, Blackman might hit a couple of decent passes, but, overall, I doubt that his team will score more than 10 points, or so.

Regardless of what happens in week one, Ohio State won’t overlook the Red Wolves. The game will get lopsided quickly and will afford Ryan Day the opportunity to look at his depth. We’ll see not only second-stringers but also a number of true freshmen. Devin Brown (with his 57 senior year TD passes) might well see some action at quarterback in this one. Will he get his first collegiate TD pass?

Prediction: Ohio State 62, Arkansas State 10