Coastal Carolina is about to experience the best the Sun Belt Conference has to offer in the next two weekends.
Already riding a four-game losing streak that includes an 0-2 conference start in its first season at the Football Bowl Subdivision level and in the Sun Belt, Coastal has consecutive away games at the reigning co-champions who have been the conference’s most consistent programs over the past four seasons.
On Saturday, CCU is at Arkansas State, which has won at least a share of the Sun Belt championship in five of the past six years, and next Saturday it travels to Appalachian State, which is 22-4 since moving up to FBS and joining the conference in 2014.
“We obviously know how good they are and know what type of environments we’re going into,” Coastal offensive coordinator and interim head coach Jamey Chadwell said. “The main thing for us is it’s more about things we can control, things we need to do. … We know we’re getting ready to play a great team coming up and any mistake is going to be deadly against them.”
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Arkansas State has at least shared the Sun Belt Conference championship in 2011, ’12, ’13, ’15 and ’16, and has played in bowl games for six consecutive years.
Coach Blake Anderson is in his fourth season and has led the Red Wolves to three consecutive winning seasons and the 2016 Cure Bowl, 2015 New Orleans Bowl and 2014 GoDaddy Bowl.
The Red Wolves (2-2) are 41-7 in their last 48 Sun Belt games, including 15-1 in the past two years and 1-0 this season after a 43-25 win at Georgia Southern last Wednesday that was aired nationally on ESPN2.
Arkansas State is relatively inexperienced this year but has restocked its talent. It has 13 players – six on offense and seven on defense – who have started their first career games at the school this season, but also have 13 players who were named to a 2017 All-Sun Belt Conference preseason team by at least one publication.
“Our biggest deficiency right now is experience,” Anderson said. “We have a lot of new bodies. We graduated a really big senior class. I think we had 28 seniors last year that had played a lot of ball. We’ve got basically half our offense and half our defense are guys that have not played before. Now athletically, we’re a really athletic team. We’re longer and bigger and maybe even faster in some areas than we’ve been. But we just haven’t played very much. Most of our mistakes in the first few games have come out of inexperience. We’re trying to battle that and get better quickly.”
Under Anderson, the Red Wolves have set school records for total offense (6,174 yards in 2014), average yards per game (476.5 yards per game in 2014), total plays (1,024 in 2014), points scored (520 in 2015), touchdowns scored (69 in 2015) and interceptions (26 in 2015).
The team’s average margin of victory in its past eight Sun Belt wins combining 2016-17 is nearly 20 points.
“Anytime you go to a place with that much tradition and history there is going to be some excitement,” Chadwell said. “We’re looking forward to going up and competing. We do think we have an opportunity to go up there and win the football game. We know it’s going to be a big challenge, but we’re looking forward to going up there and seeing where we stack up in this league.”
The Red Wolves had a stout non-conference schedule that included a 43-36 loss at Nebraska, home game against Miami (Fla.) that was canceled because of Hurricane Irma and 44-21 loss at Southern Methodist. They also defeated Arkansas-Pine Bluff 48-3.
Arkansas State has an explosive offense with balance, as quarterback Justice Hansen has thrown at least two touchdown passes in six consecutive games, running back Johnston White has 25 career rushing touchdowns and running back Warren Wand has 1,864 yards rushing.
“They’ll be the most talented team we’ve faced to this point,” Chadwell said. “They’ve got really good offensive skill players, and defensively their front seven specifically is really good. They really get after the passer and cause a lot of turnovers.”
Arkansas State has a pressure defense that has recorded at least five tackles for loss in 21 consecutive games, and senior defensive end Ja’Von Rolland Jones leads the way with 32.5 career sacks, which is one shy of entering the top 10 in FBS history and 11.5 shy of tying Terrell Suggs (Arizona State 2000-02) for the most ever. He had two sacks and a forced fumble last week.
Coastal is Arkansas State’s Homecoming opponent.
“We’re new [to the league], and they’re obviously watching video and thinking, ‘Hey, that team’s not very good.’ So at least we’ve got that going for us,” Chadwell said. “They’re going to probably think it’s Homecoming and maybe overlook us, and I think we’ll go play well.”
In searching for explanations for Coastal Carolina’s four-game losing streak, one statistic may stand out above the rest: the team’s woeful turnover mark.
CCU has lost the turnover battle 10-4 this year, and during the team’s four-game losing streak it has turned the ball over 10 times while forcing just two – a fumble against Alabama-Birmingham and the team’s first interception of the season by junior safety Fitz Wattley on Saturday against Georgia State on a Hail Mary pass on the final play of the first half.
The Chants threw eight interceptions and lost two fumbles in the first three games of the losing streak before not committing a turnover Saturday.
In their season-opening win over Massachusetts, the Chants won the turnover battle 2-0.
“The disappointment is the turnovers early,” Chadwell said. “That’s one thing we knew we couldn’t do no matter how good we were going to be or how bad we were going to be. We improved that last week. If we can continue to do that we have to try to find more ways to be better on third down.”
A lot of Coastal Carolina’s success during last year’s 10-2 season can be attributed to forced turnovers in defensive coordinator Mickey Matthews’ first season, when the Chants forced at least one turnover in all 12 games. They forced turnovers in 15 consecutive games through the first two games of this season, totaling 33 turnovers in that span.
CCU had 21 interceptions last season to rank fourth in NCAA Division I and scored nine defensive touchdowns to rank second in Division I nationally to Alabama. The Chants’ only points on defense this year is a returned blocked extra point for two points against UAB.
“I think what happens with anything that you’re making an emphasis on, sometimes kids try so hard to do it instead of letting it sort of come to you,” Chadwell said. “I think we’re pressing a little bit on defense trying to create a turnover because that’s in everybody’s head, instead of just making the plays that are there and letting it happen.”
The Chants continue to target forcing turnovers in practice, but the results haven’t carried over to this season thus far.
“Coach Matthews, he tries to get a lot of drills in. We work our strip drills and defensive backs are always after the whistle trying to fight the running backs and receivers to get the ball out,” senior linebacker Shane Johnson said. “As a team we were comfortable enough that we could get the ball out whenever we needed to, but it hasn’t happened that way. We’ll go back to the drawing board and work on those skills and perfect that.”
After having three starters miss two consecutive games with injuries through the fourth game of the season, and having two other starters miss last week’s game against Georgia State, Coastal Carolina is getting healthy.
The Chants got the services back on Saturday of senior linebacker Shane Johnson, sophomore linebacker Laqavious Paul and senior wide receiver Chris Jones after each missed two-plus games, though Jones and Paul were limited in their minutes.
“They’re looking better and better,” Chadwell said of the trio.
Johnson had a game- and career-high 12 tackles including one for a loss Saturday, and Jones caught two passes for 67 yards including a 45-yarder.
Quarterback Chance Thrasher, who earned the starting job at Louisiana-Monroe on Sept. 30 before suffering a right knee injury on the team’s first offensive play, is expected to miss at least another four weeks but won’t require surgery.
Senior safety Nicholas Clark missed Saturday’s loss to Georgia State with what Chadwell termed a minor hip injury. “It looks like he should be good to go,” Chadwell said. “I think for the most part we are relatively healthy.”