Before each Ohio State game, Eleven Warriors catches up with a media member who covers the opposing team to get their perspective on the Buckeyes' upcoming opponent.
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NOON – SATURDAY, SEPT. 11
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Our guest this week is Mitchell Gladstone, who covers Arkansas State for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. As the Red Wolves prepare to play Ohio State for the first time ever, Gladstone fills us in on what to expect from the Buckeyes’ second opponent of the year, who won only one game against an FBS opponent in 2021 but started its 2022 season with a blowout victory, albeit against an FCS opponent in Grambling State.
After going just 2-10 last season, Arkansas State opened this season with a 58-3 win over Grambling State. Do you take that as a sign of better things to come for the Red Wolves this year, or did they simply beat up on a weak opponent?
Gladstone: I don't think the two things necessarily have to be mutually exclusive. Grambling was downright bad – the Tigers committed 14 penalties for 128 yards and only broke the 100-yard mark on their final offensive snap of the night – but this Arkansas State team should be better than last year’s version. Some of that is simply because the bar was set so low, but there’s definitely the pieces there for this team to punch above its weight as the year progresses.
Former Florida State quarterback James Blackman is in his second season with the Red Wolves and it's the first time he's had the same coach and offensive coordinator in consecutive seasons since high school. Defensive end Kivon Bennett is an All-Sun Belt caliber player who started his career at Tennessee. Safety Eddie Smith – previously with Alabama and Illinois – has already brought immediate stability on the back end of a defense that was downright bad last season. There's a whole lot of youth around them, though, so it's going to take time if things are going to end up clicking.
Brian Snead started his college career at Ohio State, but Johnnie Lang led the way as Arkansas State rushed for 339 yards in the season opener. What made the rushing attack so effective against Grambling State, and what should Ohio State fans expect to see from the Red Wolves’ ground game this week?
Gladstone: Because Arkansas State's defense was so bad last season, its weak running game somewhat flew under the radar. The Red Wolves were third-worst in rushing yards per game at 83.3, so it was notable that they committed to the ground game early against Grambling State. Lang and Snead are going to be a one-two punch, so I almost don't think it matters who starts. If you take out Lang's one long carry of 47 yards, both guys had 12 carries – Lang with 81 and Snead with 57. They are different types of runners, each with power-conference pedigree (Lang transferred in from Iowa State prior to last season).
A-State is still going to be a pass-first offense. Blackman looked far more comfortable Saturday than he did at any point last season, but No. 1 wideout Te'Vailance Hunt missed the opener with a nagging injury and Butch Jones has been non-committal on his status going forward. Expect the running backs – which might be the Red Wolves' most talented position group – to be heavily involved, either running or catching the ball out of the backfield.
Arkansas State gave up more than 500 yards per game in 2021. What were the Red Wolves’ biggest issues on defense last season, and do you expect them to be better in those areas this year?
Gladstone: I think a lot of the issues early were a product of new defensive coordinator Rob Harley. Yes, his great uncle is Chic Harley, but Rob has mostly been a defensive guy since he was a safety for the Buckeyes in the early 2000s. Last year was his first season running a defense after spending multiple years under Pat Narduzzi at Pitt and it did not go well. But the numbers started to improve over the back half of the season as the younger Red Wolves on that side of the ball grew comfortable with his scheme.
Combine that with the fact Arkansas State has better depth on its defensive front and there's reason to think they can take a pretty significant step forward, even if the offense remains the better unit. Bennett and the now-graduated Joe Ozougwu played more than 90 percent of A-State's defensive snaps at defensive end, which clearly hampered the pass rush and ultimately, the defense as a whole.
For people who will watch Arkansas State for the first time this week, who are a few players that you think will catch their eye?
Gladstone: Ohio State fans will be familiar with Snead, obviously, and likely Blackman as well. So I'll highlight another name that might not be on folks' radars.
Kivon Bennett is the big name on defense. His dad, Cornelius, was a three-time All-American at Alabama, then the No. 2 pick in the 1987 NFL Draft before picking up three first-team All-Pro honors as an outside linebacker for the Buffalo Bills. Kivon was intending to move to OLB and follow in his dad's footsteps with eyes on the NFL, but at least for now, he's playing as a traditional hand-in-the-dirt defensive end again this season. His best skill is getting to the quarterback, although dealing with Ohio State's offensive line will be a much tougher task than he's used to.
This is the first time Arkansas State has ever played Ohio State. What's the level of excitement among players and fans for the opportunity to play the Buckeyes?
Gladstone: There's always an excitement in Jonesboro when the Red Wolves get a chance to face a big-name opponent. They did it last season, trekking to Washington, and have played at Georgia, Alabama, Nebraska and Auburn in recent years. Just in talking to Jones and players after Saturday's win, they know the challenge ahead of them in facing the nation's No. 3 team and a perennial national title contender, so I don't think they'll be caught off-guard by what they're up against when they step onto the field at Ohio Stadium. As for the fans, I don't know how many will make the trip — it was a small crowd in Seattle, though that's a longer trip — but Jonesboro is a small community and the excitement will certainly ramp up around town as the week goes on.
Considering Ohio State is a 44-point favorite for this game, what do you think would realistically constitute a good day for Arkansas State on Saturday?
Gladstone: I know you didn't ask me to put a prediction on the record, but I'll say 49-10 Ohio State. So, I think Arkansas State does cover — even if the Red Wolves have to go through the back door. What's a good day, then? Let's say holding the Buckeyes to under 40 points and/or keeping the margin to 30 or fewer. I don't know that I'd bet on either happening, but Ohio State's offense is so dangerous (even if Jaxon Smith-Njigba is out) and that in and of itself will be a massive test for the Red Wolves' defense. If Ohio State doesn't get into the 40s, that would be a sign that A-State's defense is coming together even faster than I anticipated.
On the other side of the ball, Grambling State couldn't slow down James Blackman and the Red Wolf offense. Trying to score against Ohio State will be much, much harder. How the A-State offensive line holds up will dictate much of how this season goes. That's where I'm going to have my eyes Saturday. Even when A-State's defense struggled last season, the offense showed an ability to at least give the Red Wolves a chance in multiple games.