Arkansas State opens up Sun Belt Conference play tonight as it welcomes Southern Miss to Centennial Bank Stadium in Jonesboro.
The Red Wolves notched their first victory over the season last week in a 31-7 triumph over FCS opponent Stony Brook. The competition will be much stiffer this week as the Golden Eagles are also looking for their second win of the season.
"This is a Southern Miss football team that we have to play our best," Coach Butch Jones said. "We must improve in order to do so, to play our best football against them. When you look at them, it starts on the lines of scrimmage. As we know, it's a line of scrimmage game and Southern Miss kind of defines that."
The Arkansas State offensive line has been one of the team's most consistent units all season, but its defensive line is in flux due to a number of injuries that have plagued that unit.
Ethan Hassler and Terion Sugick (season) are both out against Southern Miss, while Tim Hardiman and Micah Bland are both questionable after suffering injuries against Stony Brook.
"Work in progress," Jones said of his defensive front. "It's an opportunity for individuals to step up and play. Kind of adds to the dynamics of our youthfulness."
The front seven of the Red Wolves will be tasked with slowing down Frank Gore Jr., who returned to the Golden Eagles after rushing for 1,382 yards and being named first-team All-Sun Belt in 2022. Gore has started slow this season, totaling 76 yards on 30 carries and 1 touchdown.
"When you think of Southern Miss, you think of Frank Gore and all the different things that he does for their football program," Jones said. "He is one of the elite players in our conference. They're big, they're athletic in the offensive line."
While the outcome of the game may come down to the play in the trenches, the quarterback situation is once again an unsolved issue for Arkansas State heading its matchup with Southern Miss.
Jaylen Raynor emerged in the second half against Stony Brook, bringing an immediate spark to the offense once he entered the game. He went 4 of 6 for 78 yards and a touchdown passing and added 57 yards on 9 carries.
Jaxon Dailey started the game against Stony Brook and had some good moments, but finished just 7 of 17 with 62 yards. J.T. Shrout started the first two games of the season before suffering an injury against Memphis. He appears to be close to returning to action as well.
With three potential starting quarterbacks heading into the game tonight, Jones is keeping his plans close to the vest.
"All three of those individuals compete everyday," Jones said. "They have great competitive character and are really good people. They're each other's biggest fans. So they're really kind of elevating the game of all of them in that room because they are competing everyday. J.T. practiced. He's fine, so we'll see how that goes."
Whoever gets the nod at quarterback will have their hands full against a fast and unpredictable Golden Eagles defense that is led by All-American candidate Jay Stanley, a senior safety. He spearheads a secondary that is 16th out of all FBS teams against the pass this season, giving up just 159 passing yards per game.
"Now it's the evolution of being able to flip the switch from our preparation to our performance," Jones said. "The preparation only gives you an opportunity to perform at a high level and play winning football on Saturday. It's the ability to flip that switch and understand that."
AT ARKANSAS STATE
WHEN 6 p.m. Central
WHERE Centennial Bank Stadium, Jonesboro
RECORDS Arkansas State 1-2; Southern Miss 1-2
COACHES Arkansas State: Butch Jones (6-21 in third season at ASU and 90-75 in 14th season overall); Southern Miss: Will Hall (11-17 in third season at Southern Miss and overall)
RADIO KFIN-FM 107.9 - Jonesboro; KBZU-FM 106.7 - Little Rock
NOTEWORTHY Arkansas State is 14-8 all-time in Sun Belt Conference openers … The Red Wolves have used 31 different starters this season, 16 on offense and 15 on defense … With 33 career rushing touchdowns including his time at UT-Martin, Zak Wallace ranks fifth among active players at the FBS level in touchdowns scored … This is the 13th meeting all-time between the two programs. Southern Miss leads the series 10-2 and has held the Red Wolves below 25 points in each of the previous 12 meetings