During the 33-30, 2017 loss to Georgia State, Markeveon Coleman, number 22, and Josh Newman, number 21, sit and stand, quietly watching the unfolding plays with somber posture.

The State of Sun Belt Conference Football As Bobcats Prepare for Stretch Run

By Alexander Haynes
Sports Reporter

The Texas State Bobcats despondent 25-21 loss to the UTSA Road Runners on Saturday did not simply drop the team to 1-3 – their only win coming against the FCS Texas Southern Tigers – but ushered in a bevy of questions which could only be answered with more gridiron action; a paradox, considering the best resolution for the Bobcats might be time off the field. If the emphasis is an extra week of refocusing, resetting composure, and getting healthy in the weight room, then this week’s bye could not be timelier. Quarterback Willie Jones’ shoulder (no official injury status) needs time to heal, now with an extra week to rehabilitate; the defense stopping their hemorrhaging on crucial third down, now with an extra week in the film room; the coaching staff planning more utilization of running backs Robert Brown and Anthony D. Taylor, now with an extra week of scheming. The underlying premise is a week to patiently curate a plan moving forward, scheme, health, or otherwise. The rising heat of the remaining schedule is coming straight from the heart of the Sun Belt, emphasizing each moment of practice during the bye-week must be thoughtfully executed.

Texas State Bobcat Headlines

Although the injury list is currently unofficial, the main headline falls there because the quarterback is currently on it. After Jones left Saturday’s matchup holding his shoulder early in the first quarter, questions have circled regarding his status moving forward. Since that time, there has been no official word; anything official may have to wait until Head Coach Everett Withers holds his Monday press conference.

After freshman quarterback Jaylen Gipson completed only one of four pass attempts, fellow freshman Tyler Vitt completed the remnant of the first quarter and the game. Vitt was not impeccable, throwing two interceptions amidst his 15 completions on 22 attempts for 192 yards and two touchdowns, but he showed composure and the professionalism to handle a potential starting job in the case of a lingering injury to Jones. If Jones is injured, Vitt can be the expected starting quarterback against the Louisiana Ragin Cajuns, although his start may see a slight change in the offensive plan.

The connecting point is indeed the running backs and offensive line. Brown carried the ball only three times for 17 yards of movement while Taylor had five opportunities for 11 yards. After coach Withers discussed the importance of the running backs in the week leading into the game, the lack of carries was puzzling. Hence, why another game needs to be observed to see if the lack of runs is a permanent tempo change, or merely conducive to the UTSA defense.

Although the defense gave up a crucial fourth and one first down and has yet to pin opposing quarterbacks for more than three sacks, their clean aggressiveness was apparent. The lack of penalties and tenacity for forcing turnovers is a continuing mantra, with another forced fumble against UTSA. Bryan London commands the team with 37 tackles and two forced fumbles. Frankie Griffin has quietly but emphatically found his way into the backfield, enforcing 24 tackles, five for losses, and one sack. In short, the defense has been improving, and another game will tell exactly how that improvement manifests in the areas lacking.

The team headline moving forward is schedule centric, truly notating why the bye-week ought to be cherished. The Bobcats return to the cheers of a home crowd against Sun Belt opponent Louisiana on October 6. The turnaround thereafter is punctual, as Georgia Southern comes into San Marcos for a Thursday night October 11 matchup. After traveling to the University of Louisiana-Monroe on the 20th, the Bobcats get their last break from Sun Belt play as New Mexico State visits Bobcat Stadium on October 27th. The final month of the season begins on November 3rd at Georgia State, a home-defense against Appalachian State on November 10, a fight in Troy on November 17, then a last stand for the 2018 season in the comfort of San Marcos as Arkansas State visits.

Quick Preview: Louisiana Ragin Cajuns

Louisiana currently sits at 1-2, their sole victory coming against non-conference opponent Grambling. Granted, Louisiana has also been tested by 16th ranked Mississippi State, a 56-10 loss, and will be playing first ranked Alabama this weekend. Their other loss was a notable 30-28 matchup against Coastal Carolina, a tale of being too late to the scoring party.

In that tune, running backs Trey Ragas and Raymond Calais will be competing to ensure heartbreak is avoided once more. Together the duo has averaged 160 yards of rushing per game, pressing those yards for four touchdowns. Commanded by senior quarterback Andre Nunez, the offense is a machine with the defining mechanism of flow, tempo, and dynamism. The defense has also pressed matters with eight sacks. In the end, Louisiana is a confrontational team with the guts to fight until the final whistle blows. Twice.

Quick Preview: Georgia Southern Eagles

Georgia Southern has flown to victory and a 2-1 record, losing only to second ranked Clemson. Opening their first two games at home, the Eagles squashed South Carolina State 37-6, then the University of Massachusetts 34-13. In both games, quarterback Shai Werts has haunted teams with the vaunted triple-option, rushing for 163 yards and three touchdowns with another 83 and a touchdown, respectively, in the victories.

With only 25 passes attempted on the season, Georgia Southern is a team fit for dueling with athleticism. The triple option can be infamously operated out of several varying formations, making the game matchup as cerebral as it is athletic. This will be a game testing the endurance of the Texas State defensive line and linebacker corps as they chase about an east and west team for four quarters.

Quick Preview: ULM Warhawks

Sitting at a frustrating 2-2, the ULM Warhawks are a team still undefined. They barely escaped the first two games of the season, beating Southeastern 34-31 and Southern Miss 21-20, but then fell flat against Texas A&M 48-10 and Troy 35-27. Despite the two losses, ULM is a team with a knack for keeping matters close. Quarterback Caleb Evans personifies the explosive nature of Sun Belt play, already with 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns to four interceptions. 5’8” and a proverbial cannon, Marcus Green has been the main touchdown target with four receiving touchdowns.

The Warhawks love to stretch the field on offense but allow the field to be stretched against them. The secondary has allowed 62 passing first-downs with an average of 330.25 yards per game. By the time Texas State and ULM meet, this could turn into a game of which quarterback employs the most daring passes into the secondary.

Quick Preview: New Mexico State Aggies

Having been outscored 199-82, New Mexico State’s 1-5 record is no surprise. Their sole win came in taking home the pride of the ‘I-10 Showdown’, beating UTEP 27-20. The theme for the season might as well be searching. Three quarterbacks have guided them, combining for nine interceptions and five touchdowns; Jonathan Boone is the only senior wide receiver (49.4 yards per game); the running game has efforted a mere touchdown under a shaky 2.7 yards per carry.

While the offense is searching, the defense has been searching for opposing quarterbacks, Cedric Wilcots leading the team with 4.5 sacks. With six players totaling 14 sacks, the veterans of New Mexico State are embedded at the line of scrimmage. Although an out of conference game, this will be a test for offensive line grit.

Quick Preview: Georgia State Panthers

Beating Kennesaw State 24-20 in the season opener at home was the high note for Georgia State, dropping four straight games since. The important note is a lack of Sun Belt opponents, a team waiting to define themselves against heated rivals. The offense has put together a mere eight touchdowns while opponents have scored 19 offensive touchdowns.

Quarterback Dan Ellington will be the offensive commander, operating a creatively athletic offense with a plethora of option plays. Freshman running back Destin Coates has been the surprise dynamic player for Georgia State, receiving 24 carries, but turning those carries into 125 yards. As the team heads into the thick of Sun Belt play, starting this weekend against ULM, a lot of questions will be answered; Georgia State may be the biggest unknown on the schedule.

Quick Preview: Appalachian State Mountaineers

September 1: opening day of college football and the ‘almost’ headline was once again Appalachian State finding a way to make a Power Five school trip over themselves. Although Penn State eventually took the overtime matchup by a score of 45-38, Appalachian State proved they can operate with those perceptually more powerful. Since that game, they poured on Charlotte 45-9, had a game against Southern Mississippi cancelled, then dropped 72 basketball-like points to beat Gardner-Webb 72-7.

With video-game like numbers – seven passing touchdowns, one interception, 10.46 yards per pass, 781 rushing yards, 6.1 yards per carry – Appalachian State is riding into their Sun Belt opener on a very, very high horse. Senior running back Jalin Moore and redshirt-freshman D’Andre Hicks bring a power, finesse punch to the offensive tempo which might just allow sophomore quarterback Zac Thomas to keep the offensive high horse galloping through the Sun Belt. Reaction to adversity will dictate how a team of mixed veterans and youth will continue pushing their now high expectations.

Quick Preview: Troy Trojans

Sitting cheerfully at 3-1, and a Sun Belt victory over ULM notched in their own belt, Troy is definably explosive; a term synonymous with them over the past several seasons. With 138 points on their own board, Troy has a knack for bringing a unique game plan to puncture defense. Quarterback Kaleb Barker has put up a 70 percent completion rating, proving his running is not the only reason he is a quarterback for an explosive team. Running back B.J. Smith also brings fire on the ground with five yards per carry, the focus of any finesse, option play.

Although Troy has netted nine sacks in their four games, their own offensive line has allowed 13. Hence, the battle against Troy will be a test of two teams grunting out their will on a tired season. In late November, the game will be a defining moment for the Texas State pass rushers to create their own opportunity at the line of scrimmage.

Quick Preview: Arkansas State Red Wolves

The season is young, and a lot is left to change between the end of September and November. However, Arkansas State is shaping up to be a surprise team, currently at 3-1 with two impressive wins coming against Tulsa 29-20 and UNLV 27-20. Redshirt Senior quarterback Justice Hansen has a commanding 10 touchdowns, while the ground game has put up only three. The pass centric attack is assisted by a bevy of receivers, already with eight at five or more receptions.

Under the theme of 13 sacks, four interceptions, and four fumble recoveries, Arkansas State employs their efficiency and ferocity at the defensive line of scrimmage. Schematically, what occurs up front is the determinant for what occurs down field. As the final meeting of the year, the need to be holistically thorough is a perfect matchup for Texas State to evaluate their progression from game one to the end.

Featured image by Madison Tyson.

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