By Tim Gardner
Ranked No. 24 in this week’s National Coaches Poll, the Appalachian State Mountaineers (8-1 over-all, 4-1 conference play) will face Georgia State University on “Pete” Petit Field at Georgia State Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. This game, to be broadcast on ESPNU, could ultimately decide the Sun Belt Conference’s Eastern Division champion, which will play in the league championship game.
Appalachian State, under first-year head coach Eliah Drinkwitz, will also try to keep its perfect record against the Panthers intact. The Mountaineers are 5-0all-time versus Georgia State.
Georgia State head coach Shawn Elliott is a 1996 graduate of Appalachian State and is a former player and assistant coach for the Mountaineers. He was a four-year letterman as a defensive lineman from 1992-96. He then spent 13 seasons on the Appalachian State staff under head coach Jerry Moore. He worked two seasons as a defensive assistant (1997-98) and two seasons as tight ends coach (1999-00) before taking over the offensive line (2001-09).
Elliott helped lead the Mountaineers to three NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) titles (2005-07) plus two trips to the national semifinals and three appearances in the quarterfinals. Appalachian State reached the NCAA playoffs 10 times when he was an assistant there.
Appalachian State sits one game ahead of Georgia State and Georgia Southern in the East Division standings with three games to play. The Panthers are 6-3 over-all, 3-2 in the Sun Belt action. Both are already bowl-eligible.
Georgia Southern is 5-4 over-all and 3-2 in Sun Belt play.
The Mountaineers returned to the Amway Coaches Top 25 Rankings after a 20-15 Power 5 victory at South Carolina last weekend.
Both Appalachian State and Georgia State have knocked off Southeastern Conference foes this season as Georgia State opened 2019 with a 38-30 victory at Tennessee for its first ever win over a Power 5 opponent.
And both Appalachian State and Georgia State have explosive offenses that rank among major college football’s best. However, the Mountaineers have the better defense of the two.
At No. 19 in scoring offense (36.4) and No. 18 in scoring defense (19.1), Appalachian State is one of eight teams that rank in the top 20 nationally in both categories, a list that also includes Alabama, Clemson, Louisiana, Navy, Ohio State, Oregon and Penn State.
Appalachian State also ranks first or second nationally in five team categories: kickoff return average (No. 1,30.53), fourth-down conversion percentage (No. 1, 88.9), blocked kicks (Tied-No. 1, five), fewest fumbles lost (Tied-No. 2, one) and fewest turnovers committed (Tied-No. 2, five).
The Mountaineers have executed in clutch spots, ranking among the major college Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) leaders besides it fourth-down conversion percentage with: third-down percentage (No. 25, 45.8 percent), red zone TD percentage (No. 10, 77.5 percent) and red zone scoring percentage (No. 14, 92.5 percent). In 40 red zone trips this year, Appalachian State has 31 touchdowns, six made field goals and three missed field goals.
Appalachian State quarterback Zac Thomas is 148-for-237 passing for 1,671 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. He has tossed only four interceptions. His top target has been Thomas Hennigan who has 39 catches for 449 yards and four touchdowns.
In its last four wins, Appalachian State has allowed a combined 32 points against teams that were averaging 44.4 (Louisiana-Lafayette), 30.3 points (Louisiana-Monroe), 16.3 points (South Alabama) and 27.2 points (South Carolina).
Appalachian State has allowed only a combined 342 rushing yards in its last four wins, as it held Louisiana-Lafayette to 123 (compared to its 314.0 average going in), ULM to 111 (compared to its 217.5 average going in), South Alabama to 87 and South Carolina to just 21 (compared to its 184.6 average going in).
Mountaineer linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither has a team-high 74 tackles, including double-figure totals in road wins at North Carolina and Louisiana-Lafayette to go along with a career-high 16 in the Oct. 31 game against Georgia Southern. He intercepted a second-half pass and blocked a game-ending field goal in the 34-31 win at North Carolina. Davis-Gaither also had 2.5 tackles for loss among his 11 stops at Louisiana and had 2.5 tackles for loss with one sack, two passes broken up and a forced holding penalty on the game’s final play in the victory at South Carolina.
Fellow-linebacker Jordan Fehr had a career-high 16 tackles in the win at UNC and 12 more tackles (with one sack) in the win at South Carolina. He is second on the team with 69 stops.
The Apps’ average of 30.53 yards per kickoff return leads the nation. Appalachian State’s career leader with three kickoff return touchdowns, Darrynton Evans has averaged 31.6 yards on his nine returns, and Jalen Virgil’s 57-yard return at South Carolina contributed to his 36.5 average on four returns this season.
The Mountaineers also have one of the nation’s finest kickers in Mister Consistency Chandler Staton, who is 135-for-135 on PATs in his career (both the school and Sun Belt record PAT streak) and 14-for-17 on field goals in road games during his career.
Georgia State’s offense rank nationally includes: No. 6 Rushing (274.7 yards per game); No. 14 Total Offense (485.0 ypg); No. 23 Scoring (36.0 points per game); No. 5 3rd Down Conversions (51.8 percent); and No. 9 in First Downs (234).
The Panthers have rushed for 1,641 yards over the last five games (328.2 ypg), including 340 yards versus Arkansas State, 350 versus Coastal Carolina, 390 yards against Troy and a school-record 414 yards against Louisiana-Monroe.
Not only did Georgia State have its four-game winning streak broken last week with a 45-31 defeat at ULM, the Panthers lost standout quarterback Dan Ellington for an undetermined length of time.
Ellington suffered a sprained right knee in a non-contact injury in the final minute of the first half and is out for this week’s game against Appalachian State.
Georgia State and Louisiana-Monroe combined for more than 1,100 yards of total offense. Georgia State’s 536 yards came on 414 rushing and 122 passing.
Tra Barnett carried 32 times for 190 yards for Georgia State and Destin Coates had nine carries for 119 yards. Barnett has 432 rushing yards in the past two games and poses a stern challenge for Appalachian State’s defense.
The loss ended Georgia State’s four-game winning streak.
“It’s still too early to tell (how much time Ellington will miss). He won’t be back this week,” Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott said. “We’ll see how his recovery goes. We’ll proceed this week with Quad Brown and let him run our offense. He’s got great talent. He’s getting thrown in the fire a little early, but let’s go cut your teeth on a good football team like Appalachian State.”
Ellington’s loss comes at a most inopportune time, with Appalachian State and Georgia Southern remaining on the Panthers schedule.
Among Sun Belt Conference quarterbacks, Ellington ranks third in passing yards per game (201.4), third in efficiency (147.9) and third in total offense (268.4 yards). He has twice been selected Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Week and engineered the biggest win in school history—the upset at Tennessee.
Ellington has completed 163 –of-248 passes for 1,813 yards, 18 touchdowns against only four interceptions. He also has rushed 116 times for 603 yards and five touchdowns.
Brown replaced Ellington in the second half against Louisiana Monroe and completed 8-of-18 passes for 80 yards in his first significant appearance. Brown (6-foot-5, 180) is a pro-style quarterback.
The Panthers’ top receivers are sophomore Cornelius McCoy (48 receptions, 515 yards, 4 touchdowns; No. 4 Sun Belt in receptions and yards per game) and redshirt freshman Sam Pinckney (36 receptions, 460 yards, 5 touchdowns).
Tight end Aubry Payne has caught six touchdowns in eight games.
Inside linebacker Trajan Stevens-McQueen leads Georgia State’s defense with 85 tackles (43 solos; 42 assists. He also has four tackles for loss and two interceptions. Outside linebacker Victor Heyward has added 56 tackles (30 solos; 26 assists) and safety Remy Lazarus has 53 (33 solos; 20 assists).
Prediction: Appalachian State 42, Georgia State 31.