By Tim Gardner
After getting an unexpected week off, the Appalachian State Mountaineers return to gridiron action this Saturday, September 22, at home in Kidd Brewer Stadium against the in-state Gardner-Webb University Runnin’ Bulldogs. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. The game will be available on ESPN-Plus.
Playing in Boone for the first time in 2018 after last weekend’s scheduled game with Southern Miss was canceled because of Hurricane Florence; the Mountaineers are 65-20-2 in home openers. This will be the eighth time Appalachian State has played Gardner-Webb and the first time since claiming a 45-7 home win in 2007. Appalachian is a perfect 7-0 in the series with a 6-0 record in Boone.
Appalachian State has competed in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and the Sun Belt Conference since 2014. Gardner-Webb competes in the lower level Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) and is a Big South Conference member.
The Mountaineers currently are 1-1 and the Runnin’ Bulldogs have a 1-2 record.
Appalachian State lost 45-38 in overtime at Penn State and beat the University of North Carolina-Charlotte 45-9.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs routed Division II Limestone (52-17) is their first game. They then lost 45-6 to unbeaten and fifth-ranked FCS North Carolina A&T and 28-10 last week to FCS Western Carolina.
Gardner-Webb head coach Carroll McCray made his coaching debut at Appalachian State in 1984,working with tight ends and tackles as a graduate assistant under Coach Sparky Woods. After earning his master’s degree in 1985, McCray coached the outside linebackers for three seasons from 1986-88 and helped the Mountaineers win Southern Conference titles in 1986 and 1987. He has a 38-77 over-all record and is 22-38 in his sixth season with the Runnin’ Bulldogs.
Appalachian State senior running back Jalin Moore grew up less than a mile from Gardner-Webb’s home stadium and, like teammate Chris Willis, attended Crest High School in Boiling Springs, NC where Gardner-Webb is located.
The Mountaineers are a heavy favorite against Gardner-Webb, and in their last game at Charlotte on September 8, they managed to put up 434 yards despite running just 50 plays.
Through 65 games with Scott Satterfield (42-23) as its head coach, the only time Appalachian State has run fewer than 50 offensive plays was a 31-13 home victory against Wyoming in 2015.
Appalachian scored in all three phases at Charlotte, as wide receiver Thomas Hennigan returned a punt for a touchdown and defensive back Austin Exford recovered a fumble in the end zone. Those plays, coupled with quick strikes like quarterback Zac Thomas’ 90-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Corey Sutton, prevented the offense from taking a lot of snaps or using much clock.
Sutton ranks third nationally at 26.89 yards per catch thanks to five catches of at least 27 yards in his last five quarters. He is eighth nationally at 121.0 receiving yards a game and fourth with four catches of at least 30 yards.
With Charlotte’s defense focused on slowing down the Mountaineers’ running game, Thomas took advantage of what was available by going 14-for-14 through the air for 295 yards. He accounted for four touchdowns, including three through the air at Charlotte. The redshirt sophomore from Trussville, AL, became the first Mountaineer or Sun Belt quarterback to finish a game with at least 10 completions and no incompletions.
Thomas is fifth nationally in completion percentage (75.0), sixth in yards per attempt (10.9) and seventh in passer rating (194.15). In his last five quarters (fourth quarter at Penn State, plus the Charlotte win), Thomas has completed 23-of-29 passes for 448 yards and totaled seven touchdowns (five passing, two rushing). With Peyton Derrick and Jacob Huesman both 1-for-1, Appalachian State ranks second nationally (after Georgia) with a team completion percentage of 75.9.
The Mountaineers averaged 4.0 yards per carry versus Charlotte, and Moore’s 19-yard run was part of a five-carry, 27-yard contribution on the opening drive, but Moore had only two rushing attempts after Appalachian State’s first possession of the second quarter.
Like any team, the Mountaineers want to capitalize on what’s open based on the opponent’s defensive scheme, but they need to experience much more success in the running game behind a good and improving offensive front, led by left tackle Victor Johnson.
Gardner-Webb is giving up 243.3 rushing yards per game and 6.3 yards per rushing attempt. Therefore, Appalachian State’s offense should have a golden opportunity to put up some impressive numbers on the ground against the generous Gardner-Webb defense.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs have played better against this pass this season, and Satterfield has praised several Gardner-Webb defenders, notably senior cornerback Triston Dozier and senior linebacker Corey Horne. Dozier has broken up five passes while allowing only a handful of completions, and 28 of Horne’s 36 tackles have occurred in the last two games.
Linebacker Shai Thomas also has been one of Gardner-Webb’s top defenders this season. Against Limestone he scored the first two touchdowns of his career. Thomas pounced on a fumble to put Gardner-Webb up 27-10 in the second quarter and one series later took an interception back 41 yards to the house for a 34-10 advantage. For his efforts, Thomas was an honorable mention choice for FCS National Defensive Player of the Week. He has 22 total tackles with 2.5 for loss in 2018.
Offensively, receiver Kyle Horton has hauled in a team-high 11 balls for 168 yards (15.3 yards per catch) to lead Gardner-Webb and has remained a dynamic punt returner. Horton ranks second nationally on the FCS Level with an average of 21.5 yards per return so far in 2018, bringing four punts back for 86 yards. He caught six passes for 96 yards at North Carolina A&T and hauled in three balls for 61 yards against Western Carolina.
Jayln Cagle has rushed for 227 yards and three touchdowns for the Runnin’ Bulldogs. Quarterback Jordan Smith has completed 41-of-83 passes for 491 yards. But he has thrown four interceptions and no touchdown passes.
Defensively, Appalachian State has been led by inside linebacker Anthony Flory, who has a team-best 16 tackles, one quarterback hurry and one pass break-up. Linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither has 14 tackles and linebacker Jordan Fehr and cornerback Clifton Duck have added ten each for the Mountaineers.
Tackle Myquon Stout anchors Appalachian State’s deep defensive line.
In the kicking game, Chandler Staton has made 2-of-3 field goals this season and 11-of-11 PAT kicks for the Mountaineers, while redshirt freshman punter Clayton Howell is averaging 42.8 yards per punt.
First-year starter Tre’ Jackson has proven to be a reliable kicker through three games for the Runnin’ Bulldogs. The Newland native has connected on all three of his field goal attempts this season. He has been perfect on PAT kicks as well. Jackson’s most impressive performance has come on kickoffs, where he has boomed 10-of-14 attempts into – or out of – the end zone for touchbacks.
Forecasting the winner of this game does not require much deliberation. Gardner-Webb may stay close for a quarter-and-a-half or maybe even a half, but Appalachian State will eventually wear down the Runnin’ Bulldogs and roll to victory. Prediction: Appalachian State 54, Gardner-Webb 6.