By Tim Gardner
Appalachian State’s Mountaineers will travel 2,561 miles to Moscow, Idaho to play their next game, a pivotal Sun Belt Conference tilt against the University of Idaho Vandals this Saturday, at the Kibbie Dome. Kickoff is slated for 2:00 p.m. Pacific Time (5:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time). The game will be available on ESPN3.
Idaho (2-3, 1-1 Sun Belt) is looking for its first win in the all-time series with the Mountaineers (3-2, 2-0 Sun Belt). Appalachian State leads the series 3-0, winning each of the last three seasons in conference play. The only previous meeting in Moscow was in 2015.
This season, the Vandals have wins over Sacramento State (28-6) and South Alabama (29-23) in two overtimes. They lost to UNLV (44-16), Western Michigan (37-28) and Louisiana-Lafayette (21-16).
Appalachian State heads into the game as a clear favorite to win, but the game could develop into a slugfest as both teams have varied strengths.
The Mountaineers have wins over Savannah State (54-7), Texas State (20-13) and New Mexico State (45-31). They lost to Georgia (31-10) and Wake Forest (20-19).
Offensively, Coach Scott Satterfield’s Appalachian State team has been effective through the air and via the running game. Quarterback Taylor Lamb has completed 83 of 141 pass attempts this season for a 58.9 completion percentage, 1,042 yards and eight touchdowns. Thirteen players have caught passes for the Mountaineers, led by freshman Thomas Hennigan’s 23 receptions for 242 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Appalachian State has run the ball 181 times for 998 yards, which translates into a solid production average of 5.5 yards per carry. The Mountaineers features the Sun Belt’s reigning offensive player of the week in junior running back Jalin Moore. He rushed for 241 yards and two touchdowns to help Appalachian State beat New Mexico State last Saturday, and move to 2-0 in conference play.
Also, Appalachian State’s kicking game has been steady. Michael Rubino has nailed 7 of 10 field goal attempts and freshman Xavier Subotsch is averaging 40 yards per punt.
Defensively, Appalachian State has risen to the occasion for the most part this season, often making various stops when it needed them most. A prime example came in a conference game at Texas State when senior safety A.J. Howard make a tackle at the 1-yard line on the final play to help preserve the victory. Another is the Mountaineers picking off six New Mexico State passes to key that win.
Appalachian State’s rush defense has allowed only 767 yards this year and rank 31st in the nation in points allowed with 102. Opposing offenses have only completed 80 of 150 passes for 976 yards, giving Appalachian State a 25th-best national ranking in pass defense.
And the Mountaineers also return the SEC defensive player of the week, sophomore defensive back Clifton Duck, who picked off three passes against New Mexico State.
A pair of inside linebackers lead the Mountaineers in tackles. Senior Eric Boggs has 43 tackles (19 solos; 24 assists), while junior Anthony Flory has added 34 (24 solos; 10 assists). Senior outside linebacker Devan Stringer has added 29 (15 solos; 14 assists) tackles.
Despite its over-all losing record, Coach Paul Petrino’s Idaho squad has won 9 of its last 13 games and has not suffered back-to-back conference losses since 2015, then losing three straight including a home game against Appalachian State. Idaho has not lost consecutive home games since 2014, then suffering league losses to South Alabama and Texas State
Idaho’s offense is directed by quarterback Matt Linehan, who has passed for 1,075 yards this year. He’s completed 88 throws while attempting 145 passes for a completion percentage of 60.7.
The Vandals also have a good running game. Aaron Duckworth (87.8 yards per game) and Isaiah Saunders (58.6 ypg) are combining for 146.4 yards per game this season, the most by any duo in the Sun Belt this season. Duckworth ranks third in the league, while Saunders is 10th. Idaho and Georgia Southern are the only two schools with multiple players in the top 10 of the league for rushing yards per game.
Also, Idaho’s primary kickoff returner and a capable receiver out of the backfield, Duckworth is averaging 150.2 all-purpose yards per game. His per-game average leads the Sun Belt and is good for Number 12 in the country. And his 87.8 rushing yards per contest ranks third-best in the Sun Belt.
The Mountaineers will be sternly tested when they attempt to pass as Idaho’s pass defense ranks among the nation’s best. The Vandals are allowing only 163.8 yards per game through the air, the top mark in the Sun Belt and 14th best in the country. Idaho has held three of its five opponents to fewer than 200 passing yards, and has allowed just three touchdown passes this season. And as equally impressive is that the Vandals have given up just three “explosive plays” (30+ yards) in the passing game this season.
The Vandals lead the Sun Belt and rank 15th nationally with three sacks per game. Idaho recorded seven sacks against Louisiana (Oct. 7), the Vandals’ most in a single game since 1999. The seven sacks are tied for seventh most in a game in the country this season.
And Idaho is second in the Sun Belt and 32nd nationally, averaging seven tackles for loss per game.
Idaho boasts a solid kicking game, led by freshman Cade Coffey, who has won Sun Belt Special Teams Player of the Week honors twice in the past three weeks. Coffey is establishing himself as one of the top kickers and punters in the conference. He is 7-for-8 on field goal attempts this season, making his last six. He ranks among the Sun Belt leaders in field goal percentage (1st; .875), field goals made per game (2nd; 1.4) and punt average (1st; 46.4 yards). Coffey’s punt average ranks seventh nationally.
Prediction: This could be a close game until the fourth quarter. Although Appalachian State is the better team, the best team does not always win. Still, barring several Appalachian State turnovers that Idaho turns into scores, the Mountaineers should prevail and remain undefeated in the Sun Belt. Appalachian State 31, Idaho 17.