By Tim Gardner
At 3:30 p.m. this Saturday, September 21st in the University of North Carolina’s Kenan Stadium, the Appalachian State Mountaineers will move forward from an off Saturday by facing the Tar Heels for just the second time.
North Carolina won 56-6 in a 1940 home game, and this year’s game opens a three-game series that concludes with Appalachian State playing host to UNC at Kidd Brewer Stadium in 2022 and returning to Chapel Hill in 2023.
This year, Appalachian State will attempt to knock off a school for many years their superior in classification and is still regarded as the primary state school. However, the Mountaineers have had much better football fortunes in recent years. Since the start of the 2015 season, Appalachian State is fifth nationally in win percentage (79.6) behind only Clemson (93.5), Alabama (93.5), Ohio State (89.5) and Oklahoma (86.0). North Carolina, on the other hand, has struggled to a combined 5-18 mark the last two seasons.
Appalachian State and North Carolina are a combined 4-1 this season with new head coaches: Eliah Drinkwitz and Brown, whose first stint in Chapel Hill ran from 1988-97. Brown was 6-5 as Appalachian State’s head coach in 1983, and Sparky Woods (Appalachian State head coach from 1984-88) is a senior advisor to Brown at UNC. While Drinkwitz is in his first season as a head coach, Brown is in his 31st, has a record of 246-123 and is enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame. He has a 71-47-1 record in his two stints leading the Tar Heels.
As NC State’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 2016-18, Drinkwitz helped the Wolfpack go 3-0 against UNC with wins by scores of 28-21 in 2016 (Chapel Hill), 33-21 in 2017 (Raleigh) and 34-28 in 2018 (overtime in Chapel Hill). And Appalachian State defensive coordinator Ted Roof was the Wolfpack’s co-defensive coordinator during its 2018 road victory in Kenan Stadium.
Appalachian State is 2-0 for the first time since 2010, and the 98 combined points in wins against East Tennessee State and Charlotte represent the program’s highest two-game total to open a season since 1936. Darrynton Evans led the country with 333 rushing yards through Week 2 and is second nationally at 166.5 per game.
Brown gave Appalachian State high praise. “Appalachian State is good enough that they can be in the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) with us,” he said. “They (the Mountaineers) are that good.”
Offensively, the Mountaineers are explosive, They have won their last 13 games with steady junior Zac Thomas as their primary quarterback. This season, Thomas has completed 30-of-44 passes for 332 yards and five touchdowns. He has not thrown an interception. With 234 rushing yards on 19 carries, three rushing touchdowns and a 45-yard return of an onside kick for a touchdown against Charlotte, Evans became the first player in this millenium to post a game with at least 200 rushing yards, three rushing touchdowns and a kick return for a touchdown.
With 276 rushing yards versus Charlotte, Appalachian State has rushed for at least 200 in eight straight games.
The Mountaineers have an offensive line corp that features four players who have been starting together since last season — left tackle Vic Johnson, left guard Ryan Neuzil, center Noah Hannon and right guard Baer Hunter —along with Cooper Hodges, a strong redshirt freshman who’s earned two starts at right tackle.
Junior receiver Thomas Hennigan, who has started all 28 games since he enrolled at Appalachian State, passed 1,000 career receiving yards in Week 2.
The Mountaineers also get back top-receiving threat Corey Sutton for this week’s game after a two-game suspension.
An Appalachian State starting receiver has set a career-high for catches in each of its first two games. 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.
North Carolina has a good and rapidly improving defense. Its top players on this side of the ball include: junior linebacker Chazz Surratt , who has 25 tackles (9 solos; 16 assists); sophomore linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel, who also has 25 tackles (13 solos; 12 assists); senior defensive back Myles Dorn, who has made 22 tackles (10 solos; 12 assists) and junior defensive back Myles Wolfolk, who has contributed 21 tackles (14 solos; 7 assists) and two interceptions.
The Mountaineers surrendered many more points against Charlotte (41) than perhaps, what most would have thought. But they still have liberal talent on that side of the ball. Senior defensive tackle E.J. Scott, junior cornerback Shemar Jean-Charles, junior defensive end Demetrius Taylor, sophomore cornerback Shaun Jolly and sophomore inside linebacker Trey Cobb are first-year starters. Against Charlotte, Taylor recorded a career-high 2.5 tackles for loss, Cobb had a career-high six tackles and Jolly recorded his first career interception.
Three of the four Mountaineers starters at linebacker— outside linebackers Akeem Davis-Gaither and Noel Cook plus inside linebacker Jordan Fehr — are seniors.
Davis-Gaither leads the Apps in tackles this season with sixteen and has two pass breakups. Redshirt freshman outside linebacker Nick Hampton contributed half a sack in the 2019 opener and had 1.5 sacks against Charlotte.
Still, running the ball may be where North Carolina will have its best success against Appalachian State. The Mountaineers give up 180 rushing yards per game, which is 90th in the country out of 130 major college teams. Appalachian State’s defense gave up several big plays against Charlotte on Sept. 7, most notably two runs of 50 yards or more.
But after gaining 238 yards on the ground against South Carolina in their opening game, the Tar Heels haven’t had the same success running the football on early downs. A cause of that is their offensive line, which has struggled since losing senior center Nick Polino to a lower-body injury against Miami. Then starting right tackle Jordan Tucker was hurt in the Wake Forest game last week and didn’t return. Sophomore Brian Anderson started in place of Polino, and Joshua Ezeudu (redshirt freshman) entered in place of Tucker. That meant the Tar Heels’ offensive line had only one player with more than eight games of playing experience ( left tackle Charlie Heck).
North Carolina rushed for 97 yards against the Hurricanes, and 144 yards last week at Wake Forest, with most coming in the fourth quarter of both games. The Tar Heels have been forced to pass it often on third and long situations. They were held to their lowest yardage total of the season (333) at Wake Forest. Sam Howell, a true freshman quarterback faced a consistent pass rush assault as Wake Forest’s secondary kept him in check. But Howell has tremendous potential and has tremendous big-play capability as he directs UNC’s offense.
Michael Carter, a multi-purpose threat, has at least 500 rushing yards and 100 receiving yards for the Tar Heels the last two seasons. Wide receiver Dyami Brown also made a 55-yard reception that set up an eventual score from Carter on an 11-yard screen pass against Wake Forest. Carter, sophomore Javonte Williams and senior Antonio Williams all rushed for 50 yards or more against South Carolina, and possess good speed and quickness.
Appalachian State leads 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 against Charlotte.
Appalachian State’s average of 36.3 yards per kickoff return is third-best nationally, and Evans is the school’s career leader with three kickoff returns for touchdowns.
Junior punter Xavier Subotsch ranks seventh nationally with a net punting average of 45.3 yards. His first four punts against Charlotte covered 44, 48, 46 and 48 yards, and they included two fair catches along with returns of minus-1 and minus-13 yards. His fifth punt was downed inside the 20.
UNC’s freshman punter Ben Kiernan averages 40.9 yards per punts with a longest of 57 yards this year. The Tar Heels also has a good kicker in sophomore Noah Ruggles, who has made 6-of-8 field goals with his longest being 49 yards in 2019.
There’s also another Appalachian State-North Carolina connection with graduate transfer Michael Rubino. He was the Mountaineers kickoff specialist in 2018 after being their primary kicker for all of 2016 and part of 2017.
Before this season, I would have predicted Appalachian State to beat the Tar Heels. But the Mountaineers have not been as impressive in their first two games as perhaps some may have expected. Also, North Carolina has been better than anticipated so far and has played much tougher opponents–South Carolina, Miami and Wake Forest–compared to East Tennessee State and Charlotte for Appalachian State. That will be a huge advantage for UNC and I believe the determining one for who wins. Prediction: North Carolina 38, Appalachian State 28.