By Tim Gardner
Saturday is Senior Day at The Rock, officially known as Kidd Brewer Stadium in Boone, where seventeen Appalachian State University Mountaineer football players will be honored before the 2:30 p.m. kickoff against Texas State.
Fifth-year seniors Josh Thomas, Victor Johnson, Akeem Davis-Gaither, Collin Reed and Desmond Franklin, who joined the program in 2015, already have been part of four straight bowl wins and three straight Sun Belt Conference titles. Jordan Fehr, Noel Cook and E.J. Scott are the other starters being honored on Senior Day. The 16-player group also includes Jake Appling, Joey Cave, Willie Edwards, Will Hardin, Cameron Pack, Ivan Reyes, Keishawn Watson, Matt Williams and Logan Wright.
The game will feature perhaps the Sun Belt Conference’s top team in Appalachian State versus one of its lower-echelon teams. The Mountaineers (9-1 over-all; 5-1 Sun Belt) are atop the league’s East Division, while Texas State (3-7 over-all; 2-4 conference) is in next-to-last place in its West Division. Appalachian State will be a prohibitive favorite against the Bobcats, who have never defeated Appalachian State in four previous games.
Both the Mountaineers and Bobcats have first-year head coaches in Eliah Drinkwitz and Jake Spavital, respectively.
Appalachian State is ranked in all three major polls: No. 23 in the AP Top 25, No. 22 in the Amway Coaches Poll and No. 24 in the most recent College Football Playoff rankings. The Mountaineers re-entered the AP Top 25 after being ranked in October games versus Louisiana-Monroe, South Alabama and Georgia Southern.
At No. 11 in scoring offense (38.4) and No. 21 in scoring defense (19.9), Appalachian State is one of eight teams that rank in the top 25 nationally in both categories, a list that also includes Alabama, Clemson, Louisiana, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oregon and Penn State.
The Mountaineers also rank first or second nationally in several team categories: fourth-down conversion percentage (No. 1, 90.0 by going 9-for-10), blocked kicks (T-No. 1, five), fewest fumbles lost (T-No. 1, one), kickoff return average (No. 2, 28.94) and fewest turnovers committed (No. 2, six).
Appalachian State has been especially potent offensively and has executed very effectively in clutch spots, ranking among the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) leaders in fourth-down conversion percentage (No. 1 at 90.0, going 9-for-10), third-down percentage (No. 28, 44.5 percent), red zone touchdown percentage (No. 7, 80.0 percent) and red zone scoring percentage (No. 9, 93.3 percent). In 45 red zone trips this year, the Mountaineers have 36 touchdowns, six made and three missed field goals.
Junior quarterback Zac Thomas has 3,999 career passing yards, and junior Darrynton Evans has 3,984 career all-purpose yards. Evans secured his second straight 1,000-yard rushing season last weekend, making it eight straight years that the Mountaineers had a 1,000-yard back. Only Boise State’s streak of 10 is longer. And the Mountaineers are 19-3 in 22 career starts from Thomas, who threw a career-high four touchdown passes at Georgia State last weekend.
Corey Sutton set or matched career highs in receiving yards (173), receiving touchdowns (three) and catches (eight) in the Nov. 16 win at Georgia State. He’s No. 6 on Appalachian State’s career list with 16 touchdown catches in just 21 games. Dexter Jackson is No. 5 with 17, and DaVon Fowlkes is No. 4 with 22.
Defensively, the Mountaineers have also played consistently well throughout the 2019 season.
They are No. 3 nationally with a three-and-out percentage of 44.4 (56 in 126 chances) and No. 4 at 5.60 three-and-outs per game. The only teams with higher percentages are Clemson (49.3) and Ohio State (48.0). Clemson averages 6.3 per game, followed by Ohio State (6.1), TCU (5.7) and Appalachian State.
In the win at Georgia State, Appalachian State allowed only 33 rushing yards and 140 total yards in the last three quarters. During a 49-0 run that turned a 21-7 deficit into a 56-21 lead, the Mountaineers forced three-and-outs on seven of nine possessions and intercepted a pass on one of the other two series.
Shaun Jolly’s five interceptions this year rank fourth nationally (tied for first in the Sun Belt). With interception returns for touchdowns against Coastal Carolina and Georgia State, Jolly is tied with five other players for the FBS lead in pick-6s.
Senior linebacker Fehr had a career-high 16 tackles in the win at North Carolina and 12 more tackles, including one sack in the win at South Carolina. He has a team-best 79 tackles and, with a 3.77 Grade Point Average (GPA), was a semifinalist for the Campbell Trophy (the nation’s top scholar-athlete).
The Mountaineers have scored two special teams’ touchdowns this season. D’Marco Jackson returned a blocked punt and Evans returned an onside kick against Charlotte for scores.
With five blocked kicks (three field goals, two punts) the Mountaineers are tied with Baylor and Houston for the FBS lead. Demetrius Taylor is tied for the FBS lead with two total blocks, and the other blocks have come from Jolly (blocked punt), Davis-Gaither and George Blackstock (both blocked field goals).
Appalachian State’s average of 28.9 yards per kickoff return is No. 2 nationally behind just Virginia’s 30.5, and Chandler Staton is 143 of 143 on PATs in his career (both school and Sun Belt record PAT streaks).
Texas State is led offensively by quarterback Gretsch Jensen (129-of-206, 1,291 yards, five touchdowns and six interceptions), running back Caleb Twyford, who has 468 yards on 102 attempts and has ran for two touchdowns, and wide receiver Hutch White (58 receptions, 544 yards, two touchdowns).
But Jensen has missed the previous four games with concussion-like symptoms, and it is unclear if he will play Saturday. If he does not, it will further lessen the Bobcats’ already thin chance of upsetting the Mountaineers.
The Bobcats are trying to bounce back after a 63-27 loss to Troy last week where the defense allowed the Trojans to pass for 368 yards and six touchdowns while rushing for 103 yards and two scores. Jabir Daughtry-Frye had 35 rushing yards and a score on nine attempts, along with 46 yards on two catches. On the offensive side, Tyler Vitt completed 29-of-44 passes for 263 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions. Anthony D. Taylor (47 rushing yards on 13 attempts) led the Bobcats running attack in the loss. White (seven receptions, 80 yards, one touchdown) and Javen Banks (five catches, 66 yards, one touchdown) aptly handled the receiving duties.
Texas State has run the ball on 43.3 percent of its offensive possessions. The Bobcats have produced 83 rush yards/game (including 108 per game against Sun Belt opponents) and have eight running touchdowns this year.
On the defensive side of the ball, Texas State has allowed 210 rush yards and 205 pass yards per game.
Defensive End Ishmael Davis leads Texas State with 41 tackles, including three sacks and eight for a loss. Defensive back Jarron Morris has two interceptions.
Texas State has won only ten games combined over the past four seasons. However, the Bobcats are improved and will have a chance to be much more competitive and perhaps even contend for the Sun Belt’s West Division crown in the next few years. But for now, the Bobcats are clearly outmatched in talent and shouldn’t have the firepower offensively nor be near good enough defensively to hang long with the Mountaineers. Expect the Apps to roll. Prediction-Appalachian State 59, Texas State 6.