By Tim Gardner
The Dollar General Bowl between Appalachian State University and Toledo University figures to be one of the most exciting of the 2017 season. And in terms of over-all matchups between the teams, the game truly could be a classic.
It will be played in Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, AL this Saturday, December 23, beginning at 7:00 p.m. and will be televised nationally on ESPN.
This is Appalachian State’s third straight bowl appearance in as many years eligible after transitioning from the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) to Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level, becoming only the second program to accomplish that feat. Marshall earned six straight bowl bids from 1997-2002. Appalachian State is the only team in history to win bowl games in its first two years after the transition to FBS, having claimed Camellia Bowl victories over Ohio in 2015 (31-29) and Toledo in 2016 (31-28).
Appalachian State escaped with a victory in last season’s game after the Rockets missed a potential game-tying field goal with less than two minutes remaining. The Mountaineers never trailed, four times taking a seven-point lead, only to see Toledo tie the score each time. Michael Rubino kicked a 39-yard field goal with 5:14 left to break the final tie.
This season’s Rockets (11-2 over-all; 7-1 conference) are on a roll, having won eight of their last nine games. One of their two losses came against one of the nation’s top ranked teams in Orange Bowl-bound Miami, FL, 52-30. They recovered from their worst loss (38-10 at Ohio) with three straight wins by at least 17 points. Toledo nailed 66 points on Bowling Green and beat Western Michigan 37-10 before capturing the Mid-American Conference title with a 45-28 victory over Akron. Toledo is averaging 39.2 points per game this year and has reached the 45-point mark on six occasions.
The Mountaineers (8-4 over-all, 7-1 conference) are Co-Sun Belt Conference champions (with Troy). Two of their losses were to Southeastern Conference champion Georgia (31-10), one of four FBS playoff teams, and Wake Forest, which blocked a potential game-winning field goal in the game’s final seconds to preserve a 20-19 victory. Like Toledo, Appalachian State has won three in a row, beating Georgia Southern, Georgia State, and Louisiana-Lafayette. Appalachian State ripped Louisiana-Lafayette’s defense for 63 points, including one stretch of scoring 56 points between Louisiana-Lafayette touchdowns and extra points. And the Mountaineers rushed for 933 yards, allowed only 364 rushing yards and outscored their opponents 121-30 in those last three games.
There’s also similarities and familiarity among both Dollar General Bowl head coaches. They are former assistants at their respective school and each has achieved success leading their programs. Jason Candle is in his second season as Toledo’s head coach, compiling a 21-6 record. Scott Satterfield has recorded a 40-22 head coaching record in five seasons at Appalachian State, including a 27-5 mark in Sun Belt Conference games.
Both were assistants on the same coaching staff at Toledo. After playing quarterback for Appalachian State and then serving eleven years as an assistant coach for the Mountaineers, Satterfield spent one season (2009) as the passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Toledo, while Candle was the Rockets slot receivers and tight ends coach. Satterfield then spent two seasons as the offensive coordinator at Florida International (2010-11), before returning to Appalachian State as an assistant in 2012. He became the Mountaineers head coach, starting with the 2013 season.
This year’s Appalachian State-Toledo game will feature two of the nation’s most efficient quarterbacks. Appalachian State senior Taylor Lamb has thrown 27 touchdown passes and only six interceptions this year. His Toledo-counterpart, senior Logan Woodside, has thrown 28 touchdown passes and just five interceptions. The only other FBS quarterback with more than 25 touchdown passes and less than eight interceptions is the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner, Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma.
Lamb also has been consistently effective running the ball, something he did in last season’s bowl game when he compiled126 yards and made a touchdown run. He has 539 rushing yards with five touchdowns this season.
Appalachian State ranks nineteenth best nationally in passing efficiency (151.19) and thirteenth best in the FBS in fewest passes intercepted (6).
The Rockets are especially wide open offensively from their Spread Option attack. Woodside leads that Toledo offense that ranks 11th nationally in scoring (39.2 points per game) and eighth nationally with a whopping average of 509.9 yards per game, including 291.9 through the air.
Woodside hasn’t been as good this season as he was a season ago (2016), when he completed nearly 70 percent of his passes for more than 4,000 yards and 45 touchdowns. But Toledo’s running game has churned out 2,834 yards and 32 touchdowns to help make up the difference. Senior Terry Swanson and redshirt-freshman Shakif Seymour have more than made up for the loss of National Football league (NFL) Rookie of the Year candidate Kareem Hunt, by combining for 26 touchdowns while becoming one of eight sets of teammates nationally to score double-digit rushing touchdowns. In fact, Swanson has run for 3,557 career yards at Toledo.
Besides having a 1,000-yard rusher in Swanson, the Rockets also feature a 1,000-yard receiver in Diontae Johnson. The sophomore wide receiver, who sat out last season due to injury after catching 14 balls as a freshman, has 1,257 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns this season. Junior wide receiver Jon’Vea Johnson, who has taken over as the Rockets number two receiver after a mid-season injury to senior wide receiver Cody Thompson, has 10 catches for 199 yards and one touchdown in the last two games.
Defensively, the Rockets are based out of a 4-2-5 set with four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs. They are led by senior linebacker Jack Linch, who has a team-high 67 tackles (26 solos; 41 assists), junior defensive end Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, with 63 tackles (33 solos; 30 assists) and senior defensive end Zach Quinn, with 61 tackles (28 solos; 33 assists). Sophomore defensive back Kahill Robinson has added 59 tackles (34 solos; 25 assists) and has made four interceptions.
If the game is decided by field goals or extra points, both teams have exceptional kickers who could make the difference in a win. Junior Jameson Vest has made 25 of 30 field goals for the Rockets, with his longest being 49 yards. He also has made 56 of 58 PAT’s. Appalachian State’s redshirt freshman Chandler Staton has been perfect in field goals (6 of 6) and extra point kicks (27 for 27), after earning the starter’s job at mid-season. His longest field goal is 53 yards.
Appalachian State, which operates from a multiple spread offense, is very balanced. The Mountaineers average 222.3 passing yards and 215 rushing yards per game—both among the Sun Belt’s best. Their running game is led by junior Jalen Moore, who has rushed for 912 yards and nine touchdowns.
Additionally, Appalachian State’s offensive line also has been a team strength. The Mountaineers’ pass protection is outstanding and they rank second nationally in fewest sacks allowed (only 8 for 55 yards). Their rock-solid, interior front five is anchored by three All-Sun Belt first team players in seniors Beau Nunn and Colby Gossett and sophomore Victor Johnson.
This magnificent offensive line should open holes for Moore and his fellow running backs and give Lamb ample time to find open receivers such as senior wide receiver Ike Lewis (47 catches, 666 yards, 8 touchdowns) and freshman wide receiver Thomas Hennigan (44 catches, 556 yards, 7 touchdowns) against what has been a mediocre pass rush by Toledo’s defense most of the season.
Based from a 3-4 set, the Mountaineers’ defense has struggled at times, including giving up 82 points in back-to-back losses to Massachusetts and Louisiana Monroe. But that unit regained its form over the final three games. It’s led by senior linebacker Eric Boggs, who boasts a team-leading 97 tackles (50 solos; 47 assists), senior defensive end Antonious (Tee) Sims (13.5 tackles for loss, including 9.5 sacks) and sophomore defensive back Clifton Duck (10 career interceptions).
Appalachian State is giving up 211.8 yards per game passing and 147.2 rushing yards per game.
But Appalachian State’s defense ranks 18th nationally in interceptions made with 15 and 19th nationally in sacks made with 34 (for 211 yards).
The Mountaineers also rank 18th nationally in turnover margin, committing only 14 turnovers (six interceptions and eight fumbles), while collecting 22 opponents turnovers (fifteen interceptions and seven fumble recoveries).
“(We’re) very excited to be in this bowl game,” Satterfield proclaimed. “I know our players are very excited and our fans as well. The last two years we’ve been to Alabama, but not at this bowl game, so we’re excited to come down and play in the Dollar General Bowl against a great football team.
“The last month, our preparation has been the best it’s been all year. The last three games we played, it’s the best football we’ve played and the most complete games. Hopefully, that trend will continue in our game against Toledo.”
Prediction: This game has all the makings of an offensive scoring explosion that might rival the Gunfight at The OK Corral or a fireworks display on any Fourth of July celebration. And it could certainly come down to the team with the ball last scores and wins. There’s been some national speculation giving Appalachian State little chance of winning if Woodside and the rest of Toledo’s offense gets, and stays, red-hot. However, Appalachian State’s defense should have more success stopping Toledo’s offense than Toledo’s defense will have stopping the Mountaineers offense. Look for the Co-Sun Belt Conference champions to win their third consecutive bowl and finish with nine wins in 2017. Appalachian State 45, Toledo 41.