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PREVIEW: App State vs. Troy

Photo by Palmer Noyes

Special Report from App State Sports.

BOONE, N.C. — Missteps, figurative or literal, can serve as a painful reminder within App State’s football program.

The hallway floors in Kidd Brewer Stadium’s north end zone facility have contained small, wooden mousetraps this week. The Mountaineers have been riding high after a win at No. 6 Texas A&M, with that result triggering a trip to the High Country from ESPN’s College GameDay show, but App State’s pursuit of a Sun Belt Conference title hinges on quickly turning its attention to the upcoming league opener against Troy.

College GameDay wrapped up on Sanford Mall at noon, and kickoff for the ESPN+ game between the Mountaineers and Trojans is scheduled for 3:30 p.m.

The message from head coach Shawn Clark has been clear since App State returned home — many hours later than expected due to a flat tire on the airplane — from its attention-grabbing outcome.

“When you do well, it’s human nature to think you’ve arrived, but don’t take the cheese,” Clark said. “Be careful out there when people want to tell you how good you are. This is a friendly reminder to be locked in.”

App State (1-1) has won four straight games against Troy (1-1) and seven straight Sun Belt openers. In the last 100 games overall, dating back to their 2014 FBS debut, the Mountaineers are 80-20.

It’s a no-brainer that ESPN guest picker and country music star Luke Combs picked his alma mater to win. When ESPN’s Lee Corso puts on the headgear of a Sun Belt mascot to close Saturday’s pregame festivities, it will be the 66th different school headgear he has worn since the show’s inception in 1993.

Across campus, the Mountaineers will be in game mode.

Troy has a new head coach in former Kentucky co-defensive coordinator Jon Sumrall, who has joined familiar names such as Carlton Martial, Kimani Vidal and Gunnar Watson. The Trojans opened the season with a 28-10 loss at Ole Miss and a 38-17 win against Alabama A&M.

A sixth-year senior linebacker, Martial has 457 career tackles and needs just three more to become the Sun Belt’s all-time leader. He’s made 52 stops against App State in his career.

Martial leads a defense that limited the Rebels to 167 passing yards, and Troy has intercepted multiple passes in a game 28 times since the start of the 2016 season. That total ranks second nationally to App State’s 29 instances.

“They’re very aggressive on defense,” Clark said. “They’re a 3-4 defense that’s very similar with what we do, and there’s some connections there with coach Eric McDaniel, who I coached at Purdue and brought to App State (in 2016) and is their defensive line coach. Shiel Woods, who was at Wofford with Nate Woody, he’s there as their defensive coordinator.”

The Mountaineers are still seeking their first interception of 2022, but cornerback Dexter Lawson Jr. came up with a huge play by forcing a fumble that teammate Nick Hampton recovered during the win at Texas A&M. Strong safety Nick Ross delivered a key stop behind the line of scrimmage on a third-down screen pass en route to making a team-best seven tackles, and the Mountaineers scored touchdowns after both of their forced turnovers.

App State’s defense will face a Troy offense with Watson in his third year as a starting quarterback and Vidal in his third year as a feature back. Vidal has rushed for 1,303 yards in 22 career games, and Watson has thrown for 626 yards through two games in 2022, including 351 with four touchdowns in the win against Alabama A&M.

“The quarterback is outstanding,” Clark said. “He has a 70-percent completion rate, and their receivers do not drop footballs. They have a very good offensive line, and they’re very aggressive on special teams.”

A key to App State’s success in College Station was complementary football. After scoring 40 fourth-quarter points in a 63-61 loss to North Carolina, the Mountaineers used a methodical, clock-consuming offense and stingy defense to shut down the Aggies, who managed one offensive touchdown.

With the likes of Cooper Hodges, Anderson Hardy, Isaiah Helms, Bucky Williams, Damion Daley and Troy Everett up front, App State’s offensive line has an average height of 6-foot-4 and weight of 292 pounds, and the Mountaineers have run well while also protecting quarterback Chase Brice against bigger defensive lines with highly recruited prospects.

Grinding out tough yards at Texas A&M, App State went 9-for-20 on third down and 3-for-5 on fourth down while finishing with big advantages in plays run (82 to 38) and possession time (41:29 to 18:31).

That kind of mistake-free ball control could be important against a Troy defense that has recorded four sacks and forced five turnovers through two games.

“You watch the tape, they get better and better as you watch them,” Clark said. “As the season goes on, they’re going to be a very good football team, so we have our work cut out for us. We have to be very sound and execute on Saturday to have a chance to win.”