By Tim Gardner
Never has enthusiasm and anticipation for the Appalachian State University football program been higher than in 2019 as the Mountaineers are expected to have a solid chance to field, perhaps, the best team in their rich history.
And their season opener this Saturday, August 31 (3:30 p.m., Kidd Brewer Stadium in Boone) rekindles a series with former Southern Conference rival East Tennessee State University. It’s also the debut game for new Mountaineers head coach Eliah Drinkwitz. Hired last December after being an offensive coordinator at North Carolina State, Boise State, and Arkansas State, Drinkwitz also was a quality control assistant during Auburn’s 2010 national title run.
A capacity crowd or near such is expected for this game between the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) Mountaineers and lower-level Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) member East Tennessee State. The schools are located less than 75 miles apart.
It will mark Appalachian State’s first season opener at home since a 49-0 win against Howard in 2015, and the Mountaineers are 66-20-2 in home openers. With 10 straight victories at The Rock (Kidd Brewer Stadium), Appalachian State has the nation’s 10th-longest home winning streak (Alabama is No. 1 with 26).
Appalachian State holds a 31-14-1 lead in the series with the East Tennessee State Buccaneers, and the last meeting occurred in 2003 when the Mountaineers claimed a 21-7 victory in Boone. ETSU temporarily dropped football following the 2003 season, and the program began playing competitively again in 2015.
The Buccaneers are led by second-year head coach Randy Sanders. A former offensive coordinator at the University of Tennessee, Kentucky and most recently Florida State, Sanders led East Tennessee State to an 8-4 record in 2018, which included a share of the Southern Conference title and a first-round playoff appearance. While the Buccaneers can duplicate similar success this season, it should be noted that they have a very young and inexperienced team. Twenty-seven true or redshirt freshmen are on the depth chart released this week.
Former Coastal Carolina starter Chance Thrasher has impressed in preseason practices leading up to this weekend and has been named by Sanders as ETSU’s starting quarterback. Red-shirt freshmen Cameron Lewis and Trey Mitchell are listed as Thrasher’s backups.
Sophomore running back Quay Holmes will be the main threat to Appalachian State as he nearly reached the thousand-yard mark as a freshman for East Tennessee State.
Additionally, former Appalachian State linebacker Edward Davis is in his second season playing for the Buccaneers and is projected to become one of the team’s top defensive performers.
Ben Blackmon, who has played guard for the Buccaneers, has been moved to center. He is replacing All-American Matt Pyke and is expected to become one of the team’s leading contributors this fall.
But Appalachian State will be a huge favorite in this game. The Mountaineers return 10 of 11 offensive starters and six defensive starters from a 2018 team that went 11-2, won a third straight Sun Belt Conference Championship, improved to a nation’s-best 4-0 in bowl games and attained a Top 25 ranking for the first time in the program’s brief FBS history (since 2014). Appalachian State is the clear pick to win the Sun Belt again this year and also received votes in the Top 25 2019 preseason Associated Press and Coaches polls.
Since the start of the 2015 season, Appalachian State is No. 5 nationally in win percentage (78.8) behind only Clemson (93.2), Alabama (93.2), Ohio State (88.9) and Oklahoma (85.2). With a 41-11 record over the last four seasons, the Mountaineers win total trails only Clemson (55-4), Alabama (55-4), Ohio State (48-6), Oklahoma (46-8), Wisconsin (42-12) and Georgia (42-13).
By leading their conference in both scoring offense and scoring defense by more than five points over the second-place finisher in each statistical category last year, the Mountaineers joined unbeaten 2013 national champion Florida State and unbeaten 2010 team TCU (No. 2 in the final poll) as the only teams with that distinction in the last 10 FBS seasons.
In their 11 wins last year, the Mountaineers’ defense gave up only 10 offensive touchdowns, and no opponent scored more than 19 points in those 11 games. Appalachian State didn’t allow an offensive touchdown in wins over Charlotte, Arkansas State, and Coastal Carolina. And the Mountaineers recorded four straight second-half shutouts early in the season against Charlotte, Gardner-Webb, South Alabama, and Arkansas State.
Appalachian State is one of just seven FBS programs with a top-25 scoring defense in each of the last three seasons, highlighted by a fourth-place finish at 15.5 points allowed per game in 2018. That team set a Sun Belt Conference record with only 20 defensive touchdowns allowed, tied for first place nationally with only eight passing touchdowns allowed and led the nation by allowing only 10 plays of 30 or more yards.
The Mountaineers and San Diego State are tied for first place nationally with 73 interceptions since the start of the 2015 season. Returning safeties Desmond Franklin and Josh Thomas each accounted for four of the Mountaineers’ 17 interceptions in 2018.
After an overtime loss at Penn State, Appalachian State allowed only seven rushing touchdowns in its last 12 games in 2018. Again leading the Mountaineers defensively by senior Akeem Davis-Gaither, who made 105 tackles, including 10 for a loss and 1.5 sacks last year. He also broke up 7 passes and forced two fumbles.
However, with the losses of tackle Myquon Stout and star cornerback Clifton Duck, a big question will be will the Mountaineers tail off a bit on this side of the ball.
But they are absolutely loaded with offensive talent and will operate from a Spread offense similar to what Appalachian State used the past several seasons under Drinkwitz’s predecessor Scott Satterfield. Drinkwitz is serving as his own offensive coordinator and will call his team’s plays. His NC State offenses were efficiency-first units, but he tended to want to control the ball through the air.
Appalachian State and reigning national champion Clemson are the only two FBS programs that return a starting quarterback with a passer rating of at least 150, a running back who rushed for at least 1,100 yards and a wide receiver (Corey Sutton) with double-digit touchdown catches (10). But Sutton has been suspended for the East Tennessee State game, so expect Thomas Hennigan and Jalen Virgil to get a lot of passes thrown their way. This latter tandem also should make an even bigger impact for the Mountaineers the entire season.
Quarterback Zac Thomas returns on offense to lead this powerful regime. He was one of only five FBS quarterbacks with at least 20 passing and 10 rushing touchdowns last season, and he even had a touchdown reception in the team’s 2018 bowl win. He is joined by track-speed running back Darrynton Evans. who ranked ninth nationally by totaling 1,764 all-purpose yards in 2018. Many expect him to put up even more gaudy numbers this season.
Appalachian State’s offensive line returns five players back who started games in 2018 and has ranked in the top 25 nationally in both rushing yards per game and fewest sacks allowed in each of the last five years. It could be the Mountaineers top team strength this season and is anchored by Senior Bowl watch list tackle Victor Johnson.
The Mountaineers also look very solid on special teams. They scored four special teams touchdowns in the first three games a season ago. Freshman All-America punter Clayton Howell, junior kicker Chandler Staton and junior holder Xavier Subotsch return, but Appalachian State must replace graduated four-year long snapper, Elias McMurry.
No matter how prohibitive a favorite a team may be, it can play at its worst and its opponent may play at its best. Just ask the 2007 Michigan Wolverines about being a huge favorite, They fell at home to Appalachian State (34-32) in what is called the greatest college football upset ever. But as for their game versus East Tennessee State, the Mountaineers should have few problems winning as the Drinkwitz era is likely to get off to a rousing start with a rout. Prediction: Appalachian State 49, East Tennessee State 6