By Tim Gardner
Like last year, the Appalachian State Mountaineers will play one of major college football’s all-time winningest programs and perennial powerhouses to open the 2018 season.
The Mountaineers lost 31-10 at then 15th-ranked Georgia in the 2017 season opener and travels to tenth-ranked Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) for a showdown this Saturday. It will mark the first time Appalachian State and Penn State have met on the gridiron.
College football enthusiasts may point out the Appalachian State all-timer upset over Michigan to open up the 2007 season as a reason why another major upset could happen to start out the 2018 campaign. But the Mountaineers are no longer a high-end Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) program. They now make up one of the more recent successful major level Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) programs.
The Mountaineers have won 30 games over the last three seasons. Penn State has won 28. Appalachian State won three bowls, the Nittany Lions have won two. Those postseason victories have allowed Appalachian State to become the first program in FBS history to win bowl games in each of its first three eligible seasons.
The 2018 season will be Scott Satterfield’s sixth as Appalachian State’s head coach and 23rd as a player or coach with the Mountaineers. Satterfield guided the Mountaineers into FBS, winning their final six games to close out their first FBS season in 2014, and then led Appalachian State as it posted a Sun Belt Conference-record 11 overall wins during the program’s first bowl-eligible season in 2015, captured their first Sun Belt championship during a 10-win season in 2016 and won another Sun Belt in which a 34-0 shutout of Toledo capped a nine-win (9-4) campaign.
Penn State had an even better 2017 season. The Nittany Lions are coming off their second-straight 11-win season (11-2), which concluded with a Fiesta Bowl victory over Washington (35-28), and seek to extend a 14-game home winning streak. Two close loses on the road by a combined total of four points were the only blemishes last season and kept the Nittany Lions out of the playoffs.
Penn State’s James Franklin, who welcomes back 41 lettermen from a season ago, enters his seventh year as a collegiate head coach, leading his first six squads to a bowl game with victories in three. Franklin owns a 49-30 career record, with five consecutive winning seasons. He has led his teams to one Top 10 finish (Penn State) and three Top 25 finishes (2 at Vanderbilt; 1 at Penn State).
The Mountaineers finished strong in 2017 with four straight dominant wins. They return a whopping 58 lettermen, but have only 12 seniors on a roster that is made up of 75.2 percent underclassmen. The returning cast includes six offensive and five defensive starters. Appalachian State is picked by many forecasters to win the Sun Belt title, or at least get to the new conference championship game.
However, it obviously still would be a big surprise if Appalachian State prevails over Penn State, but not a total shocker.
Preseason All-American and Heisman hopeful Trace McSorley returns for his third season as the starting quarterback for the Nittany Lions and joins seven other returning starters on offense. McSorley had a very productive 2017 campaign with a 66.5 completion percentage. He’s had a stunning ratio of 57 touchdowns to 18 interceptions over his two seasons as a full-time starter.
An experienced offensive line is poised to also be a huge strength for Penn State, although it must provide better pass protection than last season. Still, the Penn State offense has been among the nation’s most prolific the past two seasons. The Nittany Lions only lost four offensive starters, but it was a rock-solid unit with all four currently playing in the National Football League (NFL). Penn State may miss star running back Saquon Barkley most. However, running back Miles Sanders, wide receivers Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins and others are eager and have the necessary talents to fill the production voids.
Defensively, the Nittany Lions had to replace eight starters, and will rely on a slew of key underclassmen. But Penn State led the Big Ten Conference in sacks last season and has a phenomenal group of defensive ends returning. Its defense will look different up the middle with last season’s starters at the defensive tackle, mike linebacker and safety positions all having departed. The edges boast the most experience with the return of All-Big Ten corner Amani Oruwariye and redshirt junior John Reid, who missed the 2017 season due to injury. Defensive end Shareef Miller will anchor the defensive line.
The Appalachian State offensive line was amazing in pass protection last season, but will have quite a test trying to keep the Penn State defenders out of its backfield.
The Nittany Lion defensive front will focus on stopping Appalachian State running back Jalin Moore, who has 3,170 yards rushing on 519 attempts with 27 touchdowns over his three-year career. He saved his best performance for last, getting a hat trick in the end zone with 125 yards on 22 carries in last year’s bowl win. The Mountaineers blew their opposition off the field in their final four games, outscoring them 155-30.
Moore is joined on the preseason All-Sun Belt first team offense by junior offensive lineman Victor Johnson and junior tight end Collin Reed.
Appalachian State will need to have a big game passing the ball against Penn State to pull the upset. And that will be a mighty task. The Mountaineers are breaking in a new starting quarterback and they won’t have the poise and steadiness of four-year starter Taylor Lamb to count on– at least not for awhile. Lamb holds many of the schools passing records and was an efficient runner and a tremendous field general and decision-maker. Simply put, Lamb didn’t make mistakes that would get you beat. The Mountaineers need a quarterback who possesses the same or similar abilities.
But what goes one way, comes back another in that the Nittany Lions may have a problem keeping the Appalachian State defenders out of their backfield. The Mountaineers have an extremely aggressive defense and were 17th in the nation last season in sacks and 30th in tackles for loss. They might have struggled at getting into the backfield against the better teams, but in games they won, they were able to generate two sacks or more. Against McSorley, they have to get the pressure going and consistently maintain it.
The Penn State passing game has to go against Appalachian State’s awesome secondary stars Clifton Duck and Tae Hayes – the best cornerback tandem in the Sun Belt. A huge key for the Mountaineer defenders is if they can make McSorley hurry his throws. If so, Duck and Hayes may come up with some interceptions which could change the whole course of the game. Duck, a junior, is tabbed as the Sun Belt Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, and senior linebacker Anthony Flory is also an All-Sun Belt First Team pre-season selection. Second-team picks include senior Hayes and senior Mountaineer defensive lineman Myquon Stout.
Appalachian State also will feature sophomore kicker Chandler Staton, who made 8-of-9 field goals and was a perfect 31-of-31 PATs last season. Staton’s longest made field goal is 53 yards. His fellow-sophomore teammate, Xavier Subotsch, booted 16 punts inside the 20-yard line in 2017 and he forced four fair catches on 22 of his 55 punts.
Junior punter Blake Gillikin is tied for second on the Nittany Lions career punting average charts (43.0 yards per punt). He has 25 career punts downed inside the opponent’s 10-yard line (seven in 2016, 18 in 2017). True freshman Jake Pinegar will Penn State’s starting kicker.
If the Mountaineers are good enough to beat Penn State and at Penn State, they should have a solid chance to win all their games during the 2018 regular season. They have to play at Arkansas State and finish off the year against Troy. Both should provide their stiffest Sun Belt competition. Look for the Mountaineers to be good in 2018, but perhaps not as good as in 2017 or maybe the past three seasons. And don’t expect a win over the Nittany Lions. Regardless how you analyze this game, Penn State still has better players than Appalachian State and more of them. The Mountaineers should hang tough for a half and maybe a little longer before the Nittany Lions pull away.
Prediction – Penn State 39, Appalachian State 13
Date: Saturday, September 1
Game Time: 3:30 pm EST
Venue: Beaver Stadium, State College, PA