By Tim Gardner
Appalachian State’s Number 21 nationally-ranked Mountaineers face South Alabama this Saturday, Oct. 26 at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, AL in a game that has a noon kickoff and will be broadcast on ESPNU.
The Mountaineers last played in Mobile in 2017 for the Dollar General Bowl, which resulted in a 34-0 victory.
The last edition of the Appalachian State-South Alabama series came last year in Boone as the Mountaineers won in a rout, 52-7.
The Mountaineers are not just the only team in the Sun Belt Conference with an unbeaten league record (3-0), but are also its only team that is unbeaten in all of its games (6-0). And they will be a prohibitive favorite to remain that way as they face a Jaguars team that has only won one out of seven games this season and is winless (0-3) in conference play.
Appalachian State is coming off a dominant 52-7 win over Louisiana-Monroe on Oct. 19. The Mountaineers roared to 31-7 halftime lead, and outgained the Warhawks 572-213 in total yards and pounded out 302 rushing yards.
That win made Appalachian State bowl eligible for the fifth-consecutive season. Since moving up from Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) to Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), the Mountaineers have not missed out on making an appearance in a bowl game.
Appalachian State has won the Camellia Bowl (2015 and 2016) and the New Orleans Bowl (2018), besides the 2017 Dollar General since joining the Sun Belt.
Appalachian State head coach Eliah Drinkwitz, who also serves as the Mountaineers’ offensive coordinator, was happy with the overall yardage and points production against ULM. But he was concerned with the three turnovers — two interceptions and a fumble —his squad surrendered.
“Offensively, we played well at times, but I was extremely disappointed in the turnovers,” Drinkwitz said. “We didn’t give up any sacks, but that’s because Zac (Thomas) made some unbelievable plays in the pocket (from his quarterback position). We had three times when we had three opponent rushers on the quarterback on third downs, that is inexcusable.”
But the Mountaineers has an offense that plays at usually a potent and highly-explosive level. And they feature one of college football’s most productive running backs, who is excelling in his first full year as a starter.
Junior Darrynton Evans, is third in the nation in all-purpose yards (158.5 yards per game), and he’s finding ways to slash defenses with his versatile running ability. He can run straight ahead, dash, dart, twist and turn what may look like a short gain into a big-time gain every time he gets the ball.
He has 10 rushing touchdowns at the halfway point of the season and is averaging 112.7 rushing yards per game. The last time any Appalachian State player scored 15 or more rushing touchdowns in a season was in 2014 by Marcus Cox.
Drinkwitz noted that the Mountaineers are playing at a high confidence level that provides expectations of winning every game they play.
“Your confidence comes from your preparation,” Drinkwitz said. “Whenever you prepare well, you’re confident in your performance. You set the expectation and what our expectations of our performance are and you go meet that expectation. That’s how you build that confidence.”
South Alabama has played well at times this season despite its record. The Jaguars dropped a 20-17 overtime game to Georgia Southern on Oct. 3, and fell 30-17 at Louisiana-Monroe Sept. 28.
Running back Tra Minter is a big-time problem for any of South Alabama’s opposition. He has 563 yards and two touchdowns this season.
Jaguars quarterback Cephus Johnson has rushed for 188 yards and scored four touchdowns. And he has thrown for 891 yards and five touchdown passes.
Another team strength for the Jaguars is the size of their defensive line.
They have two of college football’s most massive tackles— Sean Brown, a 6-foot-2, 325-pound senior, and Jordon Beaton, who stands 6-1 and weighs in at 310 pounds.
Add Jeffrey Whatley (6-2, 310) at one defensive end spot and Rocel McWilliams (6-3, 255), and you’ll understand why South Alabama can cause problems for Appalachian State’s offense.
South Alabama cornerback Travis Reed also is a stalwart at his post. He had two interceptions Oct. 16 against Troy in a 37-13 loss, and has at least one pass breakup in his last three games for a pass defense that’s allowing slightly more than 200 yards per game.
The Mountaineers have a Sun Belt-best turnover margin of plus 6. They have forced 10 turnovers while only surrendering four.
South Alabama, on the other side, is tied for last in the league with Arkansas State at minus-4. And that’s coming with Reed’s two-interception performance last Saturday.
This matchup parallels Appalachian State’s defense catching its stride. In the last two games, the Mountaineers have surrendered only 14 points combined. They have a solid defense—one of the best all-around in the nation.
Against ULM, Appalachian State forced three turnovers — two interceptions, one each from cornerback Shaun Jolly and linebacker Jordan Fehr, and a forced fumble by George Blackstock.
“We’ve got our hands full this week (playing South Alabama),” Drinkwitz said. “Any time you go on the road in this league and have to play an early (kickoff), you’re going to have to do a good job of being focused and ready to play. If not, you can get beat.”
Any coach should be like Drinkwitz and be concerned about every opponent as you never know for certain when your team will play poorly and your opponent will play at a level that exceeds their talent or expected production. Still, the Mountaineers should have little trouble rolling by the Jaguars as they put them away by halftime and score another rout. Prediction-Appalachian State 59, South Alabama 7.