By Tim Gardner
This Saturday’s “White Out” game will be only the second-ever meeting between Appalachian State and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte football programs and the first showdown in Boone. Kickoff is set for 4:30 p.m. in Kidd Brewer Stadium.
During Appalachian State’s 45-9 victory at Charlotte in 2018, quarterback Zac Thomas was on fire, completing all 14 of his pass attempts for a career-high 295 yards. Wide Receiver Thomas Hennigan also scored on a 59-yard punt return and the Mountaineers limited the 49ers to a trio of field goals.
This year’s in-state matchup will pit the nation’s sixth-youngest Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) head coach in Appalachian State’s Eliah Drinkwitz (36 years, 4 months) against the third-youngest FBS head coach in Charlotte’s Will Healy (34 years, 7 months). They both won their debuts at their new schools in Week 1. The Mountaineers rolled past East Tennessee State 42-7 and Charlotte beat Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) Gardner-Webb 49-28.
Appalachian State is opening a season with back-to-back home games for the first time since 1981 when the Mountaineers won 48-9 against Lenoir-Rhyne and 45-0 against James Madison. The Mountaineers have won seven consecutive games over the past two seasons, tied for third in the nation with Ohio State, trailing only Clemson (16) and Army (10).
Appalachian State has held its opponents to less than 20 points in each of its last nine home games. That run includes the last two home games of 2017, all six home games in 2018 and the 2019 opener.
The Mountaineers had eleven true freshmen make their college debuts last weekend: receiver Christian Wells, receiver Dashaun Davis, receiver Raykwon Anderson, running back Ben Williams, safety Nicholas Ross, linebacker KeSean Brown, linebacker Brendan Harrington, linebacker Jourdan Heilig, long snapper Christian Johnstone, offensive lineman Lyle Hiers and offensive lineman Craig McFarland. Johnstone was the starting long snapper, Harrington and Ross covered the opening kickoff and Wells had a fourth-quarter touchdown catch.
Defensively, senior defensive tackle E.J. Scott, junior cornerback Shemar Jean-Charles, junior defensive end Demetrius Taylor, sophomore cornerback Shaun Jolly and sophomore inside linebacker Trey Cobb also made their first career starts for Appalachian State a week ago.
Moving forward without 2018 senior MyQuon Stout, an all-conference defensive tackle, Scott’s two tackles were both stops behind the line of scrimmage for a total of seven lost yards. George Blackstock, another defensive tackle, recorded a career-high five tackles.
Senior outside linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither, who is listed on preseason watch lists for the Bednarik Award, Butkus Award and Reese’s Senior Bowl made two pass breakups against East Tennessee State after tying for No. 8 nationally among non-defensive backs with seven pass breakups in 2018. He also tied defensive back Desmond Franklin with a team-high seven tackles in the Eats Tennessee game. Davis-Gaither had six assisted stops and one solo stop. Franklin made four assisted stops and three solos.
Versus East Tennessee State, the Mountaineers rushed for at least 200 yards for the seventh straight game. They pounded out 277 yards on 41 attempts against the Buccaneers. Running back Darrynton Evans led the way with 99 yards on fourteen carries and one touchdown.
Hennigan, who has started all 27 games of his career, posted a career-high seven catches for 79 yards against East Tennessee State. His previous high was six catches on two occasions as a true freshman in 2017.
Thomas completed 16-of-24 passes last Saturday for 150 yards and two touchdowns. He had no interceptions.
Appalachian State has four of five starters back on the offensive line from last season in left tackle Victor Johnson, left guard Ryan Neuzil, center Noah Hannon and right guard Baer Hunter. Cole Garrison started games at two positions last season, and Cooper Hodges started the 2019 opener as right tackle. All four returning starters received preseason All-Sun Belt Conference honors from various publications. Johnson is on watch lists for the Outland Trophy and Senior Bowl, while Hannon made the Rimington Trophy watch list.
Junior punter Xavier Subotsch had a punt of 54 yards and put two of his three punts inside the 20 against East Tennessee State. Chandler Staton had three touchbacks on kickoffs.
Healy is playing it close to the vest when talking about who his starting quarterback will be this week, declaring that sophomore Chris Reynolds and senior Brett Kean will both play. But Healy wouldn’t say who will start against the Mountaineers.
Although Kean started against Gardner-Webb, Reynolds was more effective. Entering the game midway through a scoreless first quarter, Reynolds guided Charlotte to touchdowns on four consecutive possessions on the way to its victory.
Reynolds completed 14-of-20 passes for 136 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. He also ran for 72 yards and two touchdowns. Kean was 4-of-8 passing for 50 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions.
Healy said defensive end Tyriq Harris, who missed the Gardner-Webb game because of lower-back tightness, is questionable for the Mountaineers game.
Six 49ers caught passes against Gardner-Webb, including five apiece from sophomore Cam Dollar and true freshman Noah Henderson. Sophomore Victor Tucker, the team’s top receiver last season, caught just one pass. Healy has said he plans to get Tucker more reception chances and expects more production from him.
The 49ers sacked opposing quarterbacks only 19 times in 2018, so that is a point of emphasis this season. Playing a 4-2-5 defensive system, Charlotte sacked Gardner-Webb quarterback Jordan Smith five times, with defensive ends Alex Highsmith and Markees Watts both having two.
Mountaineers receiver Corey Sutton is suspended for the game for violating team rules. Sutton, who was charged with marijuana possession this past summer, was also suspended for the season opener. Sutton caught three passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns in the Mountaineers’ 45-9 victory against Charlotte last season.
Drinkwitz said redshirt freshman running back Camerun Peoples, who left the East Tennessee game with what appeared to be an injured leg, will miss the Charlotte game. Drinkwitz also said offensive tackle Vic Johnson and safety Desmond Franklin are both day-to-day for the game.
There’s no doubt the Mountaineers are clearly superior in talent and most other ways of evaluations and comparisons. The best team doesn’t always win. But it often does. It will again Saturday. And handily. Prediction: Appalachian State 53, Charlotte 13.