By Tim Gardner
Anticipation and emotion about an Appalachian State football game is at fever pitch for Saturday’s clash with Wake Forest, schools only 86 miles apart.
It will mark Wake Forest’s first time playing the Mountaineers in Boone. Billed as “Black Saturday” for Appalachian State, the game will kick off at 3:30 p.m. in Kidd Brewer Stadium. It will be televised on ESPN3.
It will be the second time Appalachian State has hosted an Atlantic Coast Conference team. Miami beat the Mountaineers 45-10 in Boone a season ago.
The matchup between the Mountaineers (2-1) and the undefeated Demon Deacons (3-0) will be the 23rd in series history. Appalachian State won seven of the 22 games played in Winston-Salem from 1975-2001.
Wake Forest capped a 7-6 season in 2016 with a 34-26 bowl victory against Temple, which allowed 31 first-half points to the Demon Deacons. Wake Forest has looked impressive in dispatching its first three opponents of 2017 by a combined score of 131-27. Behind their much-improved offense and stingy defense, the Demon Deacons routed Presbyterian (51-7) and Boston College (34-10) and Utah State (46-10).
Wake Forest is similar to Appalachian State in that both teams have a four-year starting quarterback who has thrown six touchdown passes and no interceptions this season.
John Wolford has started 38 career games, tied for third among active Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) quarterbacks behind Appalachian State’s Taylor Lamb (41) and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett (39). After winning the starting job following a third straight preseason competition with Kendall Hinton, Wolford has thrown four touchdown passes to receiver Greg Dortch, while completing 36 of 56 throws for 500 yards.
Preseason All-ACC tight end Cam Serigne has three receiving touchdowns for the Demon Deacons, who have eight touchdown passes thanks to Hinton’s two in a backup role.
Wake Forest has three running backs with between 26 and 29 carries, led by redshirt freshman Arkeem Byrd’s 199 yards on 29 attempts. Wolford has scored three rushing touchdowns and averaged 5.6 yards on his 34 attempts. Starting running back Cade Carney (99 yards) and 2016 leading rusher Matt Colburn II (113 yards) also have contributed regularly.
The return of nine starters has helped Wake Forest’s offense take another step forward in head coach Dave Clawson’s fourth season.
“Coach Clawson has done a great job revitalizing the program and getting it turned back in the right direction,” Appalachian State coach Scott Satterfield said. “You’ve seen it over the last two years, defensively his team has been really, really good. This year, it looks like its offense has caught up with the defense. They’re really hitting on all cylinders.”
Wake Forest’s defense ranks ninth nationally by allowing only 9 points per game, 17th nationally by giving up 143 passing yards a game and 21stnationally by allowing 273.3 total yards per game.
Free safety Cameron Glenn leads the Demon Deacons with 18 tackles and two of the team’s five interceptions. Senior defensive end Duke Ejiofor has two sacks among his six tackles for loss. Defensive tackle Zeek Rodney (6-1, 305 pounds) has also posted three tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries in his first year back with the program.
Appalachian State is led by senior dual-threat Lamb, who has thrown for 622 yards and also rushed for 117 yards and a touchdown.
“Appalachian State is a really good football team. Just doing my research, in their last 35 games, they are 29-6,” Clawson said. “All of their (App State’s) losses have been to really good Power 5 teams or teams at the top of its conference.”
The Mountaineers have been prolific offensively with a solid pass-run threat. They like to spread it around on offense with Lamb, Terrence Upshaw (31 carries, 163 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Jalin Moore as the main ball carriers. Thomas Hennigan (12 catches, 102 yards, 1 touchdown), Malik Williams and Collin Reed lead Appalachian State’s wide receivers cast.
Senior right tackle Beau Nunn (31 career starts) and senior right guard Colby Gossett (36 straight starts) have been mainstays on one of the nation’s most consistent offensive lines. The Mountaineers ranked in the nation’s Top 20 in rushing offense and sacks allowed for three straight years.
Senior Linebacker Eric Boggs spearheads their defense, which has limited opponents to 20 second-half points this season. Boggs has 23 tackles (11 solo; 12 assists) in the three games.
Appalachian State currently leads Sun Belt Conference teams by giving up only 17.0 points per game (32nd nationally) and 148 passing yards per game (20th nationally).
The Mountaineers, who joined the FBS in 2014 after winning three Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) national championships, are a sterling 82-16 in their last 98 home games. A win over Wake Forest would give them their first victory against a Power Five team since the mighty 34-32 upset at Michigan to open the 2007 season.
Appalachian State will likely win the Sun Belt for a second straight season, earn a bowl bid and still finish with a much better record than Wake Forest at season’s end. But in this game, I’m going with my percentage thinking. Wake Forest has played somewhat better than Appalachian State so far this season. In what should be a back-n-forth battle, the Demon Deacons have a slight edge. Prediction: Wake Forest 32, Appalachian State 28.