By Tim Gardner
After losing their first game of the 2019 season and the first in their last 13 games, the Appalachian State Mountaineers will look to get back to the normal winning ways when they visit South Carolina in a non-conference game this Saturday night, Nov. 9. Kickoff is set for 7:00 p.m. at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, SC. The game will be nationally broadcast on ESPN2.
For the second straight year, No. 20 Appalachian State took a national ranking into its game with Georgia Southern last Thursday night. And for as many years, Georgia Southern upset Appalachian State and knocked the Mountaineers from the national rankings. This year, the Eagles survived a fourth-quarter comeback attempt and claimed a 24-21 win over host Appalachian State at Kidd Brewer Stadium.
As a result of the loss, not only did Appalachian State drop completely out of the Top 25 National Ratings, Coach Eliah Drinkwitz’s Mountaineers (7-1 over-all, 4-1 conference) fell into a tie for first place in the Sun Belt Conference’s East Division with Georgia Southern (5-3, 3-1) and Georgia State (6-2, 3-1). Appalachian State has four games left on its regular-season schedule starting with South Carolina.
The Gamecocks earned a 24-7 SEC home win against Vanderbilt last Saturday to move to 4-5 over-all and 3-4 in the SEC.
While Appalachian State has secured bowl eligibility, South Carolina dominated the Commodores to pull within a couple of wins of bowl eligibility. The Gamecocks must go at least 2-1 in their last three games to get to six victories and get to a bowl for the fourth time in Head Coach Will Muschamp’s four seasons as head coach.
Despite its setback against Georgia Southern, Appalachian State is among the top 25 of Football Bowl Subdivisions (FBS) programs in both scoring offense (38.5 points per game) and scoring defense (19.6).
They’ve had a few problems on third downs over the last few weeks, but the Mountaineers are generally is productive and occasionally dominant when it comes to controlling the game clock. Appalachian State has converted 49 percent of its third-down chances. On the other side, South Carolina has only converted 35 percent of third downs.
South Carolina doesn’t have a good downfield passing game. It’s only averaging ten yards per completion and has one of the nation’s least-efficient passing attacks. The Gamecocks primarily depend on short passes to get into manageable third-down situations, and Appalachian State is eighth in the nation in pass defense. So expect the Gamecocks to try to establish, and stick to, running the ball to try to win. Georgia Southern pounded out more than 300 yards on the ground against the Apps. South Carolina will shoot, or better said, run for similar results.
South Carolina’s running game has had 200 yards in three of the last five games – including against Florida. But Appalachian State has only surrendered more than 200 yards twice.
The Gamecocks are not near full strength heading into this game. Injuries at running back, receiver, tight end and along the offensive line limit the depth around freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski, who’s had health issues this season. A reliable veteran who will be in the spotlight again against Appalachian State is receiver Bryan Edwards, who enters this game needing only 88 yards to pass Alshon Jeffrey and become South Carolina’s career leader in receiving yards.
South Carolina’s defensive front has the power to take over the game. While its offense is not explosive, and it might not be able to put up yards and points in chunks, the Gamecocks are quite stingy against the run. They have only allowed four touchdowns so far all season.
The Appalachian State offensive line is good, but it hasn’t faced a defensive front as good as South Carolina’s.
The Mountaineers and South Carolina share one common opponent — North Carolina. And Appalachian State beat North Carolina, while North Carolina beat the Gamecocks. The Mountaineers win over North Carolina featured defensive end Demetrius Taylor becoming the first FBS player in the 2000s to record 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble return for a touchdown and an interception in the same game. Taylor is second in the Sun Belt in sacks and tackles for loss.
The Georgia Southern game ended a 17-game winning streak for Appalachian State with junior Zac Thomas at quarterback. Thomas has thrown for 14 touchdowns against only three interceptions this season. He’s also third on the team in rushing with 303 yards and four touchdowns.
Among the nine South Carolina natives on its roster, Appalachian State receiver Malik Williams, is second on the team with 37 catches for 438 yards and two touchdowns.
I sense this will be a game that won’t be decided until late in the fourth quarter. After such a devastating defeat by Georgia Southern, the Mountaineers may have a difficult time bouncing back in what will be a very hostile environment at South Carolina and before the largest crowd they’ll play before all season. And it’s still hard for me to pick what is the Sun Belt Conference’s most talented team to beat even a mediocre team like South Carolina since the latter hails from the nation’s toughest conference–by far–the SEC. Plus, the Gamecocks have played a much tougher schedule than the Mountaineers. Prediction – South Carolina 30, Appalachian State 21.