By Tim Gardner
The Appalachian State Mountaineers will play for bowl eligibility, to end a two-game losing skid and remain in the hunt for Sun Belt Conference championship when they square off against long-time rival Georgia Southern on Thursday, Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m. in Boone’s Kidd Brewer Stadium.
This game will be Heroes Day at Appalachian State, at which military personnel and first responders will be recognized and honored for their service.
Despite being located in separate states, the two universities have similar academic profiles, both having developed from teachers’ colleges, and having enrollments of approximately 20,000 students. Additionally, both Appalachian State and Georgia Southern held a very strong presence in the Division I FCS, having combined to win nine national championships.
Adversaries while competing for conference and national titles as Southern Conference counterparts, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern both made the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) to Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) transition in 2014. Short weeks dictated by television appeal are the norm in this rivalry. This will be the fourth consecutive season the Mountaineers and Eagles will be playing a Thursday night game and one broadcast on ESPNU.
Appalachian State is 18-13-1 against its former Southern Conference/current Sun Belt Conference rival, including 3-1 in FBS matchups. The schools have played every year going back to 1993. The Mountaineers won 31-13 at home in 2015 and erased a 10-0 deficit in a 34-10 road victory last season.
Another note of regional interest for the series is that current Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson, a native of nearby Newland, NC (only 30 miles from Appalachian State), was Georgia Southern’s head coach from 1997-2001 and went 4-2 against the Mountaineers.
While winless Georgia Southern (0-8 over-all; 0-4 conference) will be trying to save any positive remnants of this season with an upset over the heavily-favored Mountaineers, the game has serious ramifications for Appalachian State.
The Mountaineers (5-4 over-all; 4-1 conference) need just one more win to go 3-for-3 in being bowl-eligible at the FBS level. They were 7-5 in 2014, but wasn’t postseason eligible in its first year of the FCS-to-FBS switch. With Camellia Bowl victories in 2015 and 2016, Appalachian State became the first school to win bowl games in each of its first two eligible seasons. And a loss to the Eagles may kill any chance Appalachian State has of winning the Sun Belt championship.
Appalachian State is currently tied with Troy and Georgia State for second place in the Sun Belt standings, behind Arkansas State.
Georgia Southern’s head coach is Chad Lunsford, who was promoted from his assistant’s post with the Eagles recently following the in-season dismissal of Tyson Summers. Ironically, Lunsford and Appalachian State head coach Scott Satterfield were assistants on the Mountaineers staff in 2002.
Georgia Southern battled hard, but came up short (21-17) last week against Georgia State. The Eagles led late, but fumbled the ball away at their own 31-yard line to set up Georgia State’s game-winning touchdown. The Eagles then moved to the Georgia State 17, but could not score a touchdown as time expired.
Almost every season since legendary coach Erk Russell reinstated Georgia Southern’s program in 1981 after a 40-plus year hiatus, the Eagles have had a run-oriented offense. They use a Spread Option offense and rely almost solely on their running game, passing rarely. Currently, the Eagles are 33rd nationally among FBS teams in rushing with 201.9 yards per game. But they are only 127th in the FBS in passing offense with just 106.4 yards per contest. Georgia Southern is a dismal 122nd in the nation in scoring offense, averaging only 17.6 points per game.
Freshman quarterback Shai Werts leads the Georgia Southern offense. He has completed 61 of 104 passes for 650 yards and four touchdowns. He also has thrown four interceptions. But he has added 453 rushing yards and one touchdown. Junior running back Wesley Fields leads the Eagles’ ground game with 117 carries for 494 yards and three touchdowns. Redshirt senior running back L.A. Ramsby has added 90 carries for 377 yards and two touchdowns.
When Georgia Southern throws the ball, redshirt-sophomore wide receiver Obe Fortune has a team-high 15 catches for 189 yards and one touchdown. Redshirt senior slotback Myles Campbell (13 catches, 94 yards, one touchdown) and junior wide receiver Malik Henry (12 grabs, 151 yards) are the team’s other top receivers. Redshirt sophomore kicker Tyler Bass has made 14 of 15 extra points and nine of 12 on field goal attempts with his longest being 48yards.
Defensively, Georgia Southern operates from a 4-3 alignment. The Eagles rank 124th in scoring defense, allowing 38.4 points a contest. Redshirt-junior safety R.J. Murray leads Georgia Southern defensively. He has 43 tackles (31 solos; 12 assists) with 3.5 tackles for loss.
The Mountaineers, who operate from a Multiple Spread offense, lost a 52-45 shootout to Louisiana-Monroe on the road last Saturday and 30-27 in double-overtime at UMass the week before.
The Mountaineers rank 57th in the FBS with 240.1 passing yards per game and tied for 47th in rushing with 182.7 yards per game. They are tied for 45th in scoring offense with 31.3 points per game. Senior quarterback Taylor Lamb is 159 of 263 passing for 2,096 yards with 19 touchdowns and only four picks. He has added 366 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
Junior running back Jalin Moore leads the Apps running game with 112 carries for 563 yards and three touchdowns. He rushed for 114 yards on 21 carries with two touchdowns and scored his first career receiving touchdown on a 75-yard catch last week against Louisiana-Monroe. Senior running back Terrence Upshaw has 68 carries for 314 yards and four touchdowns.
Senior right tackle Beau Nunn (37 career starts) and senior right guard Colby Gossett (42 straight starts) have been mainstays for the Mountaineers on one of the nation’s most consistent offensive lines. Appalachian State has ranked in the top 20 in rushing offense and sacks allowed for three straight years. The Mountaineers lead the Sun Belt and are tied for eighth place nationally with only eight sacks allowed this year.
Another strength of the Mountaineers’ explosive offense is a deep and talented receiving corp. Freshman Thomas Hennigan has a team-leading 38 receptions for 406 yards and three touchdowns. Freshman Malik Williams (16 receptions, 146 yards), senior Ike Lewis (35 grabs, a team-high 494 yards and six touchdowns) and freshman Jalen Virgil (17 receptions, 339 yards, three touchdowns) highlight this cast. All are wide receivers.
The kicking game has been good for Appalachian State. Sophomore Michael Rubino has booted 21 of 23 extra points and nine of 15 field goal attempts with a long of 46 yards. Redshirt –freshman Chandler Staton has saw considerable action in recent games, and is 11-for-11 on extra points and three-of- three in field goals with his longest being 40 yards.
Playing an option team like Georgia Southern requires defenders to trust teammates while filling the correct gaps or taking on blockers at the proper angles, regardless of where the ball is seemingly headed. It puts a premium on making one-on-one tackles in open spaces.
But Appalachian State’s defense should be more than up to the task of shutting down the Eagles running attack. The Mountaineers, whose base defense is a 3-4, rank 64th nationally in scoring defense with 25.9 points surrendered per game.
With 48 three-and-outs in 118 possessions, Appalachian State’s defense is ninth nationally at 40.7 percent. It is tenth nationally by forcing 5.33 three-and-outs a game. And the Mountaineers are tied for 13th nationally in interceptions per game (1.33) as well as tied for 17th nationally in sacks per game (2.89). Only six teams are in the top 17 in both categories.
The Mountaineers are led by senior linebacker Eric Boggs, who has a team-best 74 tackles (34 solos and 34 assists). He also has six tackles for loss. Boggs is one of three active FBS players with 300 career tackles, 10 sacks and seven interceptions.
Appalachian State’s sack leader is senior end Tee Sims with 8.5, while cornerbacks Clifton Duck and Tae Hayes are tied for seventh nationally (first in the Sun Belt) with four interceptions each. Hayes leads the Sun Belt and is tied for sixth nationally with 14 passes defended.
Junior inside linebacker Anthony Flory had added 60 stops (38 solos; 22 assists) for the Mountaineers, while senior defensive back A.J. Howard has chipped in 47 (29 solos; 18 assists) tackles.
Appalachian State has three players who have made at least 40 consecutive starts: Lamb (45), Gossett (42) and Boggs (41).
The Mountaineers are clearly the superior team in this game. The option is one of the toughest offenses to stop and Georgia Southern could have success at times picking up yards. Still, if the Mountaineers don’t commit several turnovers and Georgia Southern converts them into points, they should have little trouble securing a win and remaining on track to seriously challenging for another Sun Belt championship. And can you say– How ‘Bout Those Bowl-Eligible Mountaineers? Prediction: Appalachian State 42, Georgia Southern 7.
Sun Belt Conference Stadings
Conference Records, All
Appalachian State Mountaineers