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App State Goes for an 11-Win Season in New Orleans Bowl Versus Middle Tennessee State

Photo courtesy of Appalachian State Athletics

By Tim Gardner

The 2018 R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl will pit the Sun Belt Conference and Conference USA against each other when Appalachian State battles Middle Tennessee State this Saturday, Dec. 15 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Kickoff is set for 9:00 p.m.

Appalachian State is a 7-point favorite in the game, which will be nationally televised on ESPN. The game can also be heard live on the Appalachian State IMG Network via the following radio affiliates: 97.3 FM (North Wilkesboro) – FLAGSHIP; 96.5 FM/1450 AM (Boone); 1270 AM (Gastonia/Charlotte); 1150AM (Rock Hill, SC/Charlotte); 101.5 FM/600 AM (Greensboro/Winston-Salem/High Point); 107.7 FM/1450 AM (Hendersonville); 1350 AM (Asheville); and 99.3 FM/96.5 FM (Raleigh).

The Mountaineers and Blue Raiders have met three times previously. Appalachian State won 18-7 in Boone in 1974. Middle Tennessee won 24-21 in Murfreesboro, TN in 1989, in the first round of the Division I-AA playoffs. The Blue Raiders also claimed a 35-10 win in Murfreesboro in the first round of the 1992 I-AA playoffs.

After earning the first Top 25 ranking in program history on Oct. 21, winning the inaugural Sun Belt Championship Game (30-19 over Louisiana-Lafayette) and posting a share of its third straight league title, Appalachian State (10-2) will appear in a bowl for the fourth time in four bowl-eligible seasons at the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level. It’s the nation’s only FBS program with a bowl win in each of its first three eligible seasons after the full transition from the lower-level Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), formerly the Division I-AA.

Since the 2015 season began, Appalachian State is tied for seventh nationally and first among Group of Five teams with 40 wins. The only FBS programs with more wins in that span are Alabama (54), Clemson (53), Ohio State (47), Oklahoma (46), Georgia (42) and Wisconsin (41). The only teams with at least three straight league titles are Appalachian State, Clemson (ACC) and Oklahoma (Big 12).

A victory in this year’s bowl would give the Mountaineers eleven wins for the second time in the past four seasons.

Appalachian State alumnus and assistant head coach Mark Ivey was named the team’s interim head coach on Dec. 4 following the departure of Scott Satterfield, who had a 51-24 record as Appalachian’s head coach from 2013-18. Satterfield is the new coach at Louisville. Ivey, 45, was a defensive lineman and linebacker for the Mountaineers from 1991-95, and he’s completing his seventh season on the Appalachian State staff.

Ivey will only be Appalachian State’s head coach for the bowl game, as the school named NC State offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Eliah (Eli) Drinkwitz as its new head football coach Thursday morning.

Middle Tennessee State (8-5), runners-up in Conference USA, also is making a program-record fourth consecutive bowl appearance. The Blue Raiders lost 27-25 to Alabama-Birmingham in their conference championship game. They last played in the New Orleans Bowl in 2009, which ended with a 42-32 victory over Southern Mississippi.

Coach Rick Stockstill is in his 13th year as a head coach–all at Middle Tennessee State. He has an 87-77 record.  Stockstill has also served as an assistant at  Bethune-Cookman, Central Florida, Clemson, South Carolina and East Carolina.

This bowl game will take on added significance for Stockstill as his son, Brent, will play the final game of his collegiate career.

Brent Stockstill, quarterback for the Blue Raiders, was the Conference-USA’s 2018 Most Valuable Player. The senior southpaw ranks among the national leaders in passing yards (3,214), completion percentage (70.5) and touchdowns (28) this season. He has thrown only eight interceptions. Stockstill is an extremely accurate passer who seldom makes the kinds of mistakes that can get you beat. He only had one multi-interception game this season. For his career, Stockstill has thrown for 12,165 yards and 105 touchdowns with only 33 interceptions. That career touchdown passes mark is best among active FBS quarterbacks and second best for career passing yards.

Brent Stockstill powers an offense that scores 29.2 points per game. Eight different Middle Tennessee receivers have a catch of at least 43 yards this season. Leading receiver Ty Lee (5-foot-9, 178 pounds) has 67 catches for 828 yards and seven touchdowns, and the team’s top rusher is Chaton Mobley with 47.3 yards per game.

How well a stingy Appalachian State defense limits Brent Stockstill’s effectiveness will greatly determine if the Mountaineers avoid an upset.

“They (Middle Tennessee State) use a lot of unique formations, ideas, and do a lot of stuff that will make you prepare all week long,” Ivey said. “They use a lot of schemes that are putting people in different positions where it’s not your normal defensive alignment that you can use. It creates a lot of preparation, creates a lot of things the players have to think about, memorize and get comfortable with.”

But quarterback Stockstill will have a daunting task trying to put up big numbers against Appalachian State’s defense, one of college football’s best.

Appalachian State has allowed fewer passing yards per game than all but two FBS teams this season and only seven passing touchdowns, tied for the second-best mark in the nation.

The Mountaineers surrender an average of only 15.7 points per game (sixth-best in FBS). They have yielded more than 19 points just twice this season and have held all but three opponents to fewer than 200 passing yards.

Appalachian State’s defense has allowed less than 20 points in all 10 of its wins this year, and discarding a non-offensive touchdown by Coastal Carolina, has given up just 10.2 points per game in those wins.

The Mountaineers rank in the Top Ten nationally in total defense (No. 6, 279.3 yards per game), passing defense (No. 3, 148.1 yards), passing efficiency defense (No. 2, 98.01), yards allowed per pass attempt (No. 2, 5.3), defensive three-and-out percentage (No. 3, 42.4), third-down conversion percentage (No. 5, 30.0) and first downs allowed (No. 4, 184).

All those numbers and statistics are the byproduct of strong play at every defensive level, from a rotation of linemen who apply pressure and handle their responsibilities, to linebackers who fit correctly and make stops and all the way back to the secondary that has provided blanket coverage.

The Mountaineers have given up only 44 second-half points in their 10 wins and outscored opponents 115-38 in the fourth quarter this year. They had second-half shutouts of Charlotte, Gardner-Webb, South Alabama, Arkansas State and Coastal Carolina.

Ivey rotates nine players along the three-man defensive front, led by All-Sun Belt first-team choice MyQuon Stout at nose tackle. Ivey’s work and instruction also have helped walk-ons Caleb Spurlin, E.J. Scott and George Blackstock become productive members of the rotation.

Among Sun Belt players from bowl-bound teams, Appalachian State has three of the league’s top four tacklers in outside linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither (No. 1, 7.9 per game), inside linebacker Anthony Flory (No. 2, 7.6) and inside linebacker Jordan Fehr (No. 4, 7.1). Outside linebacker Noel Cook is 10th at 6.3.

Davis-Gaither leads the Mountaineers in tackles with 95 tackles, including 8.5 for loss and one sack. He also has broken up 7 passes and forced two fumbles.

Fehr leads Appalachian State in sacks with 5.5 this season. He also has 85 tackles, with 7.5 for loss. Additionally, he has a fumble recovery and a pair of pass break-ups.

Appalachian State is No. 2 nationally with 71 interceptions since the 2015 season began, behind only San Diego State’s 72. Mountaineer cornerbacks had an FBS-high 30 picks from 2015-17, and junior Clifton Duck is tied for No. 1 with 12 interceptions during the last three years. Tae Hayes recorded his eighth career pick on in the conference championship win over Louisiana-Lafayette on Dec. 1.

Free safety Desmond Franklin’s four interceptions are tied for the Sun Belt lead, strong safety Josh Thomas has made Pro Football Focus (PFF) College’s National Defensive Team of the Week twice and senior safety Austin Exford is tied with Duck for fifth on the team with 48 tackles apiece. Franklin and Exford were All-Sun Belt first team by the PFF College site, which also had Thomas on the second team.

Franklin has 133 interception return yards, and has made 45 tackles. He also has broken up four passes.

Dale Jones, who has coached the inside linebackers and served as the co-defensive coordinator during his 23rd season with the program, will act as the defensive coordinator for Ivey during the bowl game. Jones filled that role as defensive coordinator at Appalachian State from 2010-12.

Offensively, the Mountaineers have paralleled the success of their defense.

Averaging 36.7 points and 429.6 yards of offense per game, the Mountaineers will have co-offensive coordinator Shawn Clark calling the plays against a Middle Tennessee defense that gives up averages of 25.3 points and 372.9 yards per game, including 213.1 through the air. The Blue Raiders allowed 21.1 points per game aside from losses to Southeastern Conference opponents Vanderbilt (35-7), Georgia (49-7) and Kentucky (34-23).

“You definitely get some looks that are out of the ordinary (by Middle Tennessee State),” offensive tackle Victor Johnson said. “They blitz a lot, go zero coverage (with no deep safety), so if we can pick it up, that can be a big play.”

Even though he didn’t become Appalachian State’s primary back until the fifth game, after Jalin Moore suffered a season-ending injury, running back Darrynton Evans has rushed for 1,079 yards to give the Mountaineers a 1,000-yard back for the seventh straight year. The Sun Belt Championship Game Most Valuable Player with 218 all-purpose yards, averaged 112.6 rushing yards and 158.4 all-purpose yards a game against Sun Belt foes this year. He has scored seven touchdowns this season.

Appalachian State ranks No. 11 nationally at 5.72 yards per rush, No. 15 in rushing yards per game (241.0) and No. 25 in fewest sacks allowed (18) thanks to assistant coach Shawn Clark’s line, which had three All-Sun Belt picks: Left tackle Johnson (37 career starts, first team), center Noah Hannon (25 straight starts, second team) and right tackle Chandler Greer (second team). Left guard Ryan Neuzil (17 straight starts), guard Baer Hunter and guard Cole Garrison also make up that stellar unit.

Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year Zac Thomas led the league in Quarterback Rating (No. 12 FBS, 79.3), yards per pass attempt (No. 30 FBS, 8.1) and yards per completion (No. 37 FBS, 12.93). With touchdown runs of 25 and 35 yards in the conference championship game pushing his season total to 10 rushing touchdowns, it ranks as the 11th-best mark among FBS quarterbacks.

Thomas is 63-of-97 passing for 717 yards with 11 total touchdowns (seven passing) and no interceptions since returning to the lineup four games ago. He missed all but three plays of Appalachian State’s only league loss at Georgia Southern.

For the 2018 regular season, Thomas was 144-for-230 passing for 1,862 yards with 18 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions.

Mountaineer wide receiver Corey Sutton, who has eight TD receptions, is No. 15 nationally and a Sun Belt -best 19.3 yards per catch. For the season, the sophomore has 36 catches for 695 yards and eight touchdowns.

Special teams also have been a big team strength for the Mountaineers.

Appalachian State is among five teams with an FBS-leading four special teams touchdowns. Directed by assistant coach Stu Holt, Mountaineer special teams have scored on Evans’ 100-yard kick return at Penn State, Thomas Hennigan’s 59-yard punt return versus Charlotte, Steven Jones’ end-zone recovery of his own blocked punt against Gardner-Webb and Clifton Duck’s 62-yard punt return versus Gardner-Webb. Evans nearly got another touchdown with a 97-yard kickoff return to the 1-yard line in the Sun Belt championship game.

Additionally, Appalachian State is No. 2 nationally with six blocked kicks thanks to Jones (two punt blocks), Tae Hayes (two blocked field goals), Demetrius Taylor (one punt block) and Caleb Spurlin (one punt block).

Mountaineer Clayton Howell was named a Freshman All-American by The Athletic publication with a net punting average of 41.5 that ranks No. 9 nationally and No. 1 among FBS freshmen. He averages 43.2 yards over-all per punt.

Middle Tennessee has been a mediocre defensive team, but has played better in the latter part of the season, holding four of its last seven opponents to 17 or fewer points.

The Blue Raiders are opportunistic with four defensive touchdowns (sixth-best nationally) and a plus-six turnover margin in the past seven games. Middle Tennessee scored 60 points off turnovers and allowed only 11 during its eight-game conference schedule. The Blue Raiders forced 13 turnovers in their last five league games.

Their top playmaker on that side of the ball is senior safety Wesley Bush, who ranks third nationally with six interceptions, including touchdown returns of 75 yards against Texas-El Paso (UTEP) and 37 yards against Old Dominion. Strong safety Reed Blankenship leads the team with 101 tackles, while linebacker D.Q. Thomas has accounted for eight of his team’s 36 sacks and 14.5 of its 89 tackles for loss.  Tommy West, who worked at Appalachian State as a receivers and tight ends coach from 1980-81, is in charge of the Blue Raiders’ defensive line. Ironically, Rick Stockstill was an assistant to West when he was head coach at Clemson.

Appalachian State has a slight advantage over the Blue Raiders in field goal kicking. Chandler Staton has booted 11-of-15 for the Mountaineers this year. He is a perfect 4-for-4 from 40 to 43 yards. Crews Holt is 16-of-21 kicking field goals for Middle Tennessee State. He is most accurate from 39 yards in. He is only 1-for 6 this season from 40 yards or beyond.

The Mountaineers are on a five-game winning streak and this game could develop into one of the 2018 bowl season’s best. Unlike last year’s bowl (Dollar General) where Appalachian State completely dominated Toledo in a 34-0 shutout win, this tilt may not be decided until the fourth quarter. But the Mountaineers are better over-all than Middle Tennessee State and should claim their 577th win in history, their 11th this season and Ivey’s first in what may eventually be a long head coaching career. Prediction: Appalachian State 35, Middle Tennessee State 24.