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App State to Play at Arkansas State Tuesday Night in Pivotal Sun Belt Conference Clash

Photo courtesy of Appalachian State Athletics

By Tim Gardner

The most important game for the Appalachian State Mountaineers thus far of the 2018 season will be played Tuesday night, October 9, versus Arkansas State. The game will kick off at 8:00 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time) in Centennial Bank Stadium in Jonesboro, AR and will be nationally broadcast on ESPN2.

And it will be broadcast on the Appalachian State IMG Radio Network at the following affiliates: 97.3 FM (North Wilkesboro) – FLAGSHIP; 96.5 FM/1450 AM (Boone); 1270 AM (Gastonia/Charlotte);1150 AM (Rock Hill, SC/Charlotte); and 101.5 FM/600 AM (Greensboro/Winston-Salem/High Point).

This matchup features a battle between the preseason division favorites in the Sun Belt Conference–Appalachian State in the East and the Arkansas State Red Wolves in the West Division.

Although Appalachian State and Arkansas State have been members of the Sun Belt Conference since 2014, the schools are set to meet for just the third time ever and first time since the 2015 season.  The Mountaineers claimed a narrow 37-32 road victory in the initial 2014 meeting, but the Red Wolves bounced back to win the following year in Boone by a 40-27 margin. 

Both schools have successful head coaches. Scott Satterfield is 44-23 in his sixth year leading Appalachian State, while Blake Anderson has a 34-22 record in his fifth season with the Red Wolves.

Appalachian State (3-1 Over-All; 1-0 Sun Belt) had several question marks entering the season, but has exceeded expectations. However, to put them in their proper element, the Mountaineers haven’t had a game that was a real challenge after losing to highly-favored Penn State 45-38 in overtime the season opener. Appalachian State has routed all three of its other opponents–Charlotte (45-9), Gardner-Webb (72-7) and then South Alabama (52-7) in its first Sun Belt game.

Arkansas State (3-2-Over-All; 0-1 Sun Belt) defeated Southeast Missouri State 48-21 in its season opener, before losing to top-ranked Alabama 57-7. The Red Wolves then beat Tulsa 29-20 and Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV) 27-20, before losing to Georgia Southern in the closing seconds on September 29 by a 28-21 margin.

Appalachian State ranks second nationally with 6.5 yards per rushing attempt, behind only Memphis’ 7.3. All four of the Mountaineers’ primary running backs average at least 6.6 yards per carry, and Jalin Moore’s average of 6.6 is No. 20 nationally in the official NCAA statistics. He has rushed for 242 yards on 27 attempts in his last four quarters of work — he had 119 yards in one quarter against Gardner-Webb and 123 yards in three quarters against South Alabama. Moore currently has 368 yards on 56 carries with five touchdowns so far this season.

With strong lines, Appalachian State and UCF are the only Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams averaging at least 250.0 rushing yards while also allowing less than 1.5 sacks with at least 25.0 pass attempts per game. Tied for 17th nationally at 1.25 sacks allowed per game, offensive line coach Shawn Clark’s unit has ranked in the Top 25 in both sacks allowed and rushing yards per game in each of the previous four seasons.

Appalachian State is the only FBS team with a passing play and rushing play of at least 80 yards. Corey Sutton scored on a 90-yard reception at Charlotte, and Moore had an 81-yard touchdown run against Gardner-Webb. Sutton ranks 14th nationally by averaging 21.8 yards per reception. He leads the Mountaineers in receiving with 15 catches for 327 yards and three touchdowns.

According to College Football Focus, sophomore quarterback Zac Thomas’ QBR (quarterback rating) of 90.0 ranks fourth nationally. Thomas is fifth nationally in yards per pass attempt (10.54), No. 8 in passing efficiency (180.8), No. 8 in point responsibility per game (19.5), tied for No. 8 in rushing TDs by a QB (five), No. 13 in yards per completion (15.45) and No. 17th in completion percentage (68.2).

He has completed 58-of-85 passes for 896 yards, with eight touchdowns and three interceptions. He has utilized multiple weapons within the Mountaineer passing game. Sutton, Thomas Hennigan, Malik Williams, and Dominique Heath have a combined 45 catches for 785 yards and eight touchdowns. But ten other players—including wide receivers, tight ends and running backs– have caught passes for the Mountaineers.

Thanks to its defensive depth, Appalachian State is tied for second place nationally with 22 players who have contributed in the tackles for loss category, behind just Utah State with 23 and even with Penn State’s 22. The team leaders with 3.5 tackles for loss apiece are outside linebackers Akeem Davis-Gaither and Noel Cook, who has had a hand in a sack in each of the last three games.

Davis-Gaither paces the Appalachian State defense with 25 tackles, 2 passes Broken-Up and one Quarterback Hurry.

Led by its “Legion of Boone” secondary, Appalachian State is third nationally with 60 interceptions since the 2015 season began. Still coached by new defensive coordinator Bryan Brown, the Mountaineers’ cornerbacks entered 2018 with an FBS-leading 30 picks from 2015-17, and junior cornerback Clifton Duck is tied for first nationally with 11 interceptions since the start of 2016.

The Mountaineers also have had successful special teams plays this year. Led by Stu Holt, the special teams have scored via Darrynton Evans’ 100-yard kickoff return at Penn State, Thomas Hennigan’s 59-yard punt return at Charlotte, Steven Jones’ end-zone recovery of his own blocked punt versus Gardner-Webb and Clifton Duck’s 62-yard punt return against Gardner-Webb. Duck ranks third nationally by averaging 21.3 yards per punt return, and Appalachian State is Number 2 with 52.0 punt return yards per game (behind only Western Michigan’s 63.4).

Chandler Staton has hit 4-of-5 field goals and all 25 of his PATs. And redshirt freshman Clayton Howell ranks number 21 nationally with a net punting average of 41.1. He has punted 11 times for 481 yards, an over-all 43.7 yards per game average. Only three of his punts have been returned for 29 total yards.

As for Arkansas State’s offense, senior quarterback Justice Hansen is a candidate for the 2018 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, which is based on performance on-and-off the field. Candidates for the honor must be a college senior or fourth-year junior on schedule to graduate with their class.

Hansen also was named the Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Week on September 3, recognizing his record-setting performance against Southeast Missouri State. He set a school record with six touchdown passes and finished the game 26-of-36 passing for 423 yards. All six touchdowns went to different receivers, and Hansen became the first Sun Belt quarterback to toss six or more touchdown passes since Giovanni Vizza of North Texas had eight against Navy in 2007.

Hansen has plenty of targets in a deep receiving corps. Junior receiver Kirk Merritt has either led the Red Wolves or tied for the team high in receptions four of the first five games, hauling in a combined 29 receptions over that span.   He most recently finished the Georgia Southern game with a career-high 11 catches that rank tied for the seventh most in school history for a single game.  He has caught at least five passes four of the Red Wolves’ five games and is currently ranked second in the Sun Belt Conference with 5.8 receptions per game.

Sophomore wideout Jonathan Adams Jr. made his first career start against Georgia Southern and responded with career-best numbers for both receptions (4) and receiving yards (74).  He joined juniors Kirk Merritt (92) and Omar Bayless (84) as Arkansas State players to post a career-high receiving total in the contest.

Running back Warren Wand has pushed his career rushing total to 2,500 yards, making him one of 10 players in Arkansas State history to post 2,500 in a career.  He is currently ranked 16th in the nation among active players in career rushing yards, while his 18 career rushing touchdowns are the 40th most.

Arkansas State’s running attack has been led by true freshman running back Marcel Murray (261 yards, 5.9 per carry) and Wand (469 all-purpose yards, 204 rushing yards). But Hansen has made many of its clutch runs.

Defensively, linebackers Tajhe Chambers and Caleb Bonner have combined for nearly 10 tackles per game and nickel back Justin Clifton also been a key player for the Red Wolves with 39 tackles (23 solos; 16 assists).

Strong safety Darreon Jackson leads the team in tackles with 42 (21 solos; 21 assists). And junior-college transfer Jerry Jacobs leads the team with two interceptions and two pass break-ups from his cornerback position.

Arkansas State’s punt and kickoff coverage units both rank among the Top 23 in the nation.  In fact, the Red Wolves are ranked first in the nation in punt coverage by allowing -3.25 yards per return by its opponents.  Their kickoff coverage team is allowing just 16.6 yards per return.

Blake Grupe is 4-of-5 kicking field goals this season, with his longest being 45 yards. He (5-for-6) has split time with Sawye Williams (7-for-8) on conversion kicks

Tuesday’s game will set the course of the rest of the Mountaineers’ season. With a victory against the Red Wolves, Appalachian State could aptly be declared the best team in the Sun Belt Conference. And even with a loss to the Mountaineers, Arkansas State will remain the favorite in the West and it’s a strong possibility the two teams will meet again in the league championship game. While Appalachian State is a slight favorite over Arkansas State, don’t expect a runaway win. This one may not be decided until late in the game and is a definite trap for the Mountaineers.

One intangible statistic between the teams is negative-yardage plays. Arkansas State’s defense is among national leaders in creating them (19th) and the Mountaineers’ offense is among national leaders in preventing them (7th). Which team does better—Arkansas State at creating them or Appalachian State at preventing them—along with its quarterback having the more efficient game while making the fewest mistakes will likely prevail. Prediction: Appalachian State 28, Arkansas State 22.