LOOKING AHEAD FOR ISU FOOTBALL: Week three, the Arkansas State Red Wolves

Arkansas State Red Wolves quarterback Jaylen Raynor (1) is stopped by Northern Illinois Huskies safety Nate Valcarcel (9) and Northern Illinois Huskies defensive back Javaughn Byrd (2) in second-half action in the Camellia Bowl at Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Ala., on Saturday, December 23, 2023.

Editor’s note: Third in a 12-part series previewing each of Iowa State’s 2024 regular-season opponents.

 AMES — Arkansas State’s been in rebuilding mode under head coach Butch Jones, but attained bowl eligibility in 2023 after suffering through four consecutive losing seasons.

 Jones — the head coach at Tennessee from 2013-17 — has been stockpiling talent in Jonesboro and returns 10 starters on offense, including dual-threat quarterback Jaylen Raynor. 

 The 6-0, 204-pound sophomore compiled 2,923 yards of total offense last season while accounting for 22 touchdowns (17 passing, five rushing), so making him uncomfortable will be critically important for Iowa State’s seasoned and often-stingy defense.

 Raynor’s top targets return, as well, including wide receivers Courtney Jackson and Corey Rucker, who combined for nearly 1,400 receiving yards and nine touchdowns in 2023.

 Arkansas State’s also deep up front and in the backfield, where top returners Ja’Quez Cross and Zak Wallace combined for 13 rushing touchdowns last season.

 Defensively, the Red Wolves are much greener, with just five returning starters, including defensive tackle Nate Martey, who compiled nine tackles for loss and six sacks last season. 

 Arkansas State scored four defensive touchdowns last season, which ranked eighth nationally among FBS programs, so it’s an aggressive unit breaking in six new starters.

 The Red Wolves are accustomed to facing Big 12 foes in recent seasons, having faced both (former Big 12 school) Oklahoma and Kansas State since 2020. Arkansas State shocked the Wildcats, 35-31, in 2020 in Manhattan, then was thumped, 73-0, by the Sooners last season in Norman. 

 Iowa State vs. Arkansas State: 3 things to watch

 **Can the Cyclones lock down the Red Wolves punt and kick returners? ISU was solid in punt coverage (51st nationally) and kick coverage (54th) last season, and needs to be at its best against Arkansas State. Both Cross and Jackson ranked among the top 20 returners nationally in 2023 and allowing a special teams score or big return could set the stage for a tenser-than-expected game. Cross returned a kickoff for a touchdown last season. Jackson did the same on a punt return. 

 **Can ISU’s offensive line hold up against the Red Wolves’ strong pass rush? Martey, a 6-1, 288-pound senior, shines in the interior, and recorded a multi-sack game in 2023. Senior linebacker Charles Willekes — a former Michigan State transfer — totaled 8.5 tackles for loss last season and can be used in blitz packages. That duo will be tough to contain, which could force Cyclone quarterback Rocco Becht into difficult situations. Becht excelled when under pressure most of last season, though, and enjoys an array of weapons that could make Arkansas State pay if it becomes overly aggressive. 

 **Will the Cyclones’ offense be able to strike quickly? Getting off to a fast start on the scoreboard is key when facing athletic and somewhat undersized teams from smaller conferences — and the Red Wolves are a prime example of such a team. ISU’s offense needs to produce several big plays early, establish a two-score lead, and force Arkansas State into desperation mode. 

2024 prognosis

  Unless the Cyclones turn the ball over multiple times, this should be a reasonably comfortable win after a close first half.