By Tim Gardner
Appalachian State’s Mountaineers continue their rise in the two major college football polls.
The Mountaineers (7-0), coming off a 30-3 rout of South Alabama last Saturday in Mobile, AL, are ranked No. 20 in both the Associated Press and the Amway Coaches polls this week. Appalachian State climbed one spot from being ranked No. 21 last week.
Appalachian State broke into the poll this year ranked 24th in both polls. It was the second time in two years that the Mountaineers reached the Top 25. In 2018, the Mountaineers were ranked No. 25, but were beaten by Georgia Southern and dropped out of the poll the following week.
Eli Drinkwitz picked up the Appalachian State Mountaineers right where former coach Scott Satterfield left them. The first-year head coach has guided the Mountaineers to a 7-0 record, including a 4-0 mark in the Sun Belt Conference. Appalachian State has won 13 straight games. Its last loss was 34-14 to the Georgia Southern Eagles in October 2018.
Thursday night, it will be the undefeated Appalachian State Mountaineers hosting surging Georgia Southern for a Sun Belt divisional matchup in Boone in Kidd Brewer Stadium. Kickoff is set for 8:00 p.m. and the game will be nationally broadcast on ESPNU.
The Appalachian State–Georgia Southern football rivalry is a fierce one. Despite being located in separate states, the two universities have similar academic profiles, both having developed from teachers’ colleges, and having enrollments of approximately 20,000. In addition, both Appalachian State and Georgia Southern historically held a very strong presence in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision, having combined to win nine national championships. On March 27, 2013, both schools were invited to join the Sun Belt Conference of the Major College Football Bowl Subdivision, beginning in 2014.
The makings of the rivalry truly began when the Mountaineers beat the Eagles in the quarterfinals of the 1987 I-AA Playoffs. Since Georgia Southern joined Appalachian State in the Southern Conference in 1993, the schools have played each other annually in football. Appalachian State leads the series 19–14–1 and has a 3-2 lead since the schools joined the Sun Belt.
Georgia Southern started this year slowly but has won three in a row following last week’s 41-7 victory over New Mexico State. Currently, 4-3 overall and 2-1 in conference play, Coach Chad Lunsford’s Eagles have an opportunity to take control of the East Division with another upset victory over the Apps.
Reasons for the Eagles’ 1-3 start can be attributed to injuries, especially the one that cost quarterback Shai Werts most of the first three games of the season. Since his return, Werts has run for 303 yards on 68 carries.
Running backs J.D. King, Wesley Kennedy III, Logan Wright, and Matt LaRoche have all gained 267 rushing yards or more this season. And only King — who leads the team with 457 yards on 107 carries and has scored four touchdowns — has appeared in every game. Kennedy, who missed the first four games due to an academic-related suspension, has a team-leading five rushing touchdowns (and a punt return touchdown as well) in only three appearances. His 312 rushing yards ranks second-best for the Eagles, and his 8.12 yards per carry is best. Last week, Kennedy gained 143 rushing yards and scored twice on only six carries. Wright has missed the last two games with a neck injury and is unlikely to face Appalachian State, so LaRoche (267 yards, 1 touchdown) may be the third back in the rotation.
Georgia Southern ranks No. 7 nationally in rushing offense (259.9 yards per game), and last in passing (48.7), so the Mountaineers know they must stop the Eagles vaunted running game.
Appalachian State’s defense has held opponents to 140.1 rushing yards per game and 3.89 yards per carry this year, both of which rank third in the Sun Belt. In conference play, those numbers drop to 118.5 yards allowed per contest and 3.51 yards per attempt. So how consistently well the Mountaineers stop Georgia Southern’s running game will likely be the telling factor of who prevails in this game.
In the last three games, Appalachian State allowed a combined 17 points against teams that were averaging 44.4 points (Louisiana), 30.3 points (ULM) and 16.3 points (South Alabama). The Mountaineers surrendered only a combined 606 yards in its last three games, holding Louisiana to 254 (compared to its 540.0 average going in), ULM to 213 (462.8 going in) and South Alabama to 139 (312.6 going in).
Of Appalachian State’s top six defensive linemen, four began their collegiate careers or are currently walk-ons. E.J. Scott (starting tackle), George Blackstock (second-string tackle) and Tommy Dawkins (second-string end) received scholarships earlier this year. Caleb Spurlin (second-string end) is a walk-on.
Outside Linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither has a team-high 51 tackles, including double-figure totals in road wins at North Carolina and Louisiana. He intercepted a second-half pass and blocked a game-ending field goal in the 34-31 win in Chapel Hill, then had 2.5 tackles for loss among his 11 stops at Louisiana.
Demetrius Taylor is the only FBS player with at least one sack, interception, forced fumble and fumble recovery this season — he has 5.0 sacks, 9.0 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, three quarterback hurries, three pass broken ups, one blocked punt, one blocked field goal one interception and one fumble return for a touchdown. He ranks among the FBS per-game leaders in forced fumbles (No. 8), tackles for loss (No. 32) and sacks (No. 37).
Like Georgia Southern, the Mountaineers also rely heavily on the running game. Appalachian State ranks No. 14 nationally in rushing offense (244.1), and No. 9 in yards per carry (5.6). Running back Darrynton Evans has carried the bulk of the load. He has gained 722 rushing yards and scored 10 touchdowns this season, and is one of only three Sun Belt players to average more than 100 rushing yards per game.
Quarterback Zac Thomas is also a capable runner and ranks third behind Evans and backup running back Marcus Williams Jr. (301 yards, 4 touchdowns) with 266 rushing yards and four touchdowns of his own on the ground. But Thomas’ keen passing ability gives the Mountaineers a much more balanced attack than the Eagles. He has completed 66.7 percent of his passes for 1,295 yards (7.6 yards per pass attempt) with 11 touchdowns and only three interceptions.
Thomas Hennigan leads the Mountaineers in every major receiving category, with 33 receptions for 374 yards and four touchdowns. Malik Williams (29 receptions, 349 yards, 1 touchdown) and Corey Sutton (22 receptions, 278 yards, 1 touchdown) have also been reliable receivers for the Apps.
Mister Consistency, Appalachian State kicker Chandler Staton, is a perfect 130-for-130 on point-after-touchdowns in his career and owns both the school and Sun Belt record for PAT streak.
Georgia Southern has played outstanding run defense and currently leads the Sun Belt with only 133.0 yards per game allowed on the ground and 3.46 yards per attempt. The Eagles pass defense looked like a major problem early in the season, as LSU, Maine, and Minnesota averaged 315.3 passing yards. However, no opponent has surpassed 200 yards through the air since. Over the last four games, Georgia Southern’s opponents have thrown for a total of 519 yards — or only 129.8 yards average during those outings.
The Eagles are led defensively by a pair of inside linebackers in Rashad Byrd and Reynard Ellis. Byrd has a team-best 51 tackles (23 solos; 28 assists), while Ellis has 48 tackles (29 solos; 19 assists). Kenderick Duncan, Jr. has added 38 tackles (23 solos; 15 assists) and two interceptions at his safety slot.
Appalachian State has the better and more balanced team and has its sights on an undefeated season and a New Year’s Six bowl. While the Mountaineers might be tempted to look past the Eagles to next week’s game at Southeastern Conference member South Carolina, they realize there is absolutely zero margin for error. A loss to Georgia Southern drops them out of the Top 25, likely kills their chance at a New Year’s Six Bowl and could even cost them the Sun Belt Conference Championship. Expect a close game, with the Apps beating the Eagles. Prediction: Appalachian State 31, Georgia Southern 26.