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Appalachian State Begins Sun Belt Conference Action Saturday, Hosting Coastal Carolina

By Tim Gardner

Appalachian State follows a big non-league win against Power Five conference opponent North Carolina (34-31) this Saturday, September 28 (3:30 p.m.), with another important game: its Sun Belt Conference opener in Boone’s Kidd Brewer Stadium against Coastal Carolina, which also has a P5 victory this season thanks to its 12-7 win at Kansas.

Coach Eliah Drinkwitz’s Mountaineers are unbeaten at 3-0 and coach Jamey Chadwell’s Coastal Carolina’s Chanticleers are 3-1.

The Chanticleers are coming off a 62-28 rout of UMass.

The game is officially sold out, as was the road win at 50,500-seat Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, and Appalachian State’s 12 straight home wins are tied for the eighth-longest active streak in the nation. The Mountaineers are 27-5 in games at Kidd-Brewer as a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) program and 94-17 at home since 2003.

Appalachian State holds a 5-0 series lead and a 2-0 lead as Sun Belt counterparts against Coastal Carolina. The Mountaineers’ 37-29 win in 2017 is part of a 4-0 home record, and Appalachian won 23-7 at Coastal Carolina in 2018. That game marked the first start for quarterback Jacob Huesman, who filled in for an injured Zac Thomas. Appalachian State has won its last 14 games with Thomas as the primary quarterback.

This season, Thomas is 50-for-73 passing for 556 yards and five touchdowns. He has thrown one interception.

Besides his keen passing skills, Thomas also has running prowess. He had a 50-yard run against North Carolina, giving him three runs of at least 50 yards in 19 career games and seven runs of at least 20 yards.

In each of the last two games, an Appalachian State player has accomplished something that’s a first for any FBS player in this millennium. At UNC, Demetrius Taylor earned multiple national defensive player of the week honors by becoming the first player in the 2000s with 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble return for a touchdown and an interception in the same game. Against Charlotte, Darrynton Evans became the first player since 1999 to rush for at least 200 yards, score three rushing touchdowns and return a kickoff for a touchdown in the same game.

Appalachian State’s nine-game winning streak is the nation’s third-longest active streak behind Clemson (19) and Ohio State (10). And the Mountaineers received votes in the Associated Press (AP) poll (24 voting points, unofficially No. 32 in the rankings) and Coaches poll (unofficially No. 33 with 27 voting points). After a 5-1 start to 2018, Appalachian State became the second Sun Belt school to ever earn a No. 25 AP ranking, and it received the 26th-most votes in the final AP poll to break the league record.

Evans ranks in the top 10 nationally in points per game (No. 2, 16.0), all-purpose yards per game (No. 2, 171.7), rushing touchdowns (No. 3, seven), total touchdowns (No. 4, eight), rushing yards per game (No. 6, 137.0) and yards per carry (No. 9, 7.9). Since becoming the primary running back 12 games ago, Evans has rushed for 1,471 yards and 13 touchdowns. He has rushed for at least 99 yards in nine of the last 12 games.

Evans, who entered the UNC game as the nation’s second-leading rusher, posted his second consecutive effort of three rushing touchdowns, becoming the first Mountaineer to do so since 2014.

An Appalachian State starting receiver has set a career-high for catches or yards in each of its firs three games. Thomas Hennigan had a career-high seven catches for 79 yards against ETSU, and Malik Williams recorded career highs for single-game catches (six) and receiving yards (73) against Charlotte. Williams topped that with six catches for 78 yards at UNC, where Hennigan made six catches for 90 yards. The team leader in receptions was Corey Sutton with seven in Chapel Hill.

Hennigan, a junior, has started all 29 games since he enrolled at Appalachian State, passed 1,000 career receiving yards in Week 2 against Charlotte.

With five players back who started games in 2018, Appalachian State’s offensive line has ranked in the top 25 nationally in both rushing yards per game and fewest sacks allowed in each of the last five years. The Mountaineers currently rank 25th nationally at 238.0 rushing yards per game.

The Chanticleers will combat the explosive offense of the Mountaineers with a good defense led by linebacker Teddy Gallagher, who has at team-best 26 tackles (16 solos; 10 assists) and cornerback Mallory Claybourne, who has made 22 tackles (16 solos; 6 assists).

Thomas must remain aware of where Coastal Carolina cornerback Chandler Kryst is at all times, as Kryst has made three interceptions this seaso n.

Taylor, a defensive end, ranks in the top 10 nationally in forced fumbles per game (No. 1, 1.0), tackles for loss per game (No. 4, 2.0) and sacks per game (No. 8, 1.17). During the Mountaineers 3-0 start, he has compiled three forced fumbles, six tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, one fumble recovery (with a 20-yard return for a touchdown), one interception (with a 19-yard return), one pass breakup and two quarterback hurries.

The last time a player had 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble return for a touchdown —without intercepting a pass like Demetrius Taylor did against UNC — was Georgia’s Marcus Howard in the Sugar Bowl against Hawaii at the end of the 2007 season. According to Sports Reference, there isn’t another player with those four statistical accomplishments for the 2019 season to date, and only one FBS player in 2018 reached those four statistical totals for the entire season.

Senior linebacker Jordan Fehr matched his career-high of 15 tackles in the win at UNC. He also had 15 stops last season at Arkansas State to earn Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Week honors. He won that award again with eight tackles, three sacks and a safety in last year’s game against Coastal Carolina.

Outside linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither, who tied for eighth nationally among non-defensive backs with the seven pass breakups in 2018, added two more PBUs in the 2019 opener. He also blocked UNC’s attempt at a game-tying field goal as time expired in Appalachian State’s win in Chapel Hill.

Moving forward without 2018 senior MyQuon Stout, an all-conference defensive tackle, E.J. Scott’s two tackles against ETSU were both stops behind the line of scrimmage for a total of 7 lost yards, and he graded out high enough to make the Pro Football Focus (PFF) College Site’s All-Sun Belt team for Week 2. George Blackstock, another defensive tackle, recorded a career-high five tackles against East Tennessee State.

Redshirt freshman outside linebacker Nick Hampton contributed half a sack in the 2019 opener (ETSU) and had 1.5 sacks against Charlotte.

The Chanticleers have a potent offense and should test Appalachian State’s stop force. Running back C.J. Marable has gained 406 yards on 76 carries and has scored four touchdowns in 2019.   Like the Mountaineers, Coastal Carolina also has a very effective quarterback in sophomore Fred Payton, who has passed for 670 yards and four touchdowns this season, while completing 58-of-89 attempts. But Payton has tossed five touchdowns.

Appalachian State has had awesome special teams play during the past few seasons and this year is no exception. The Mountaineers lead the nation with six special teams touchdowns since the start of the 2018 season. New coordinator Erik Link’s special teams unit returned a blocked punt and had a kickoff return for touchdowns versus Charlotte, and the Mountaineers had four special teams touchdowns in the first three games of 2018.

Appalachian State’s average of 32.0 yards per kickoff return is ranked ninth nationally, and Evans is the school’s career leader with three kickoff returns for touchdowns. Jalen Virgil, a junior, gained 45 yards on the first kickoff return of his career against Charlotte.

Junior punter Xavier Subotsch ranks No. 15 nationally with a net punting average of 43.5 yards. He averaged 49.6 yards on five punts at North Carolina with a long of 58 and one punt inside the 20.

And Chandler Staton has been Mister Consistency for the Mountaineers during his playing career. He hit both of his field goal attempts at North Carolina and has a perfect 110-for-110 on PATs in his collegiate career.

Coastal Carolina also has a good field goal kicker in Massimo Biscardi, who has nailed 5-of-8 attempts this year, including one of 53 yards.

This Appalachian State-Coastal Carolina clash has the makings of a close game–at least for awhile– and even a possible upset by the Chanticleers. Nevertheless, expect Appalachian State’s superiority on both sides of the ball and in special teams to produce a victory. An Appalachian State team that beat UNC last week isn’t about to lose to Coastal Carolina this week. Prediction: Appalachian State 43, Coastal Carolina 26.