By David Coulson
BOONE, N.C. — Confidence can be an intriguing concept.
Since the middle of the 2014 season, Appalachian State has gone 13-1 in Sun Belt Conference play and in the past two years, there hasn’t been a league team the Mountaineers have dominated so throughly as Georgia State.
Two years ago, ASU played inhospitable hosts, beating the Panthers 44-0 during a snowstorm at Kidd Brewer Stadium. And last season, the Mountaineers turned the Georgia Dome into a de facto home game on the way to a 37-3 victory.
Coming off its most challenging non-conference campaign ever — a four-week, four-game journey through Tennessee, Old Dominion, Miami and Akron — Appalachian could feel secure in the fact that it has survived the toughest part of its schedule.
But as the 2-2 Mountaineers entertain Georgia State on Saturday for a noon-time contest at the Rock, coach Scott Satterfield and his team needs to make sure that confidence doesn’t drift into overconfidence as App State begins its Sun Belt slate.
“A new year is a new year,” said Satterfield, pointing out that after the low point of last season’s 34-point defeat to Appalachian that Georgia State had turned its season around and made its first-ever bowl appearance. “They played pretty well after we beat team.”
The Panthers indeed won their final four Sun Belt games — including a stunning 34-7 victory at Georgia Southern — to finish off a 6-6 regular season. GSU then dropped a 27-16 decision to San Jose State in the Cure Bowl.
That late turnaround likely saved the job of coach Trent Miles, who is just 7-33 overall in his fourth season in Atlanta.
But despite being picked to finish in the upper half of the Sun Belt standings again, the Panthers find themselves with a familiar 0-3 record at the start of this new season, though Miles can point to progress in GSU’s 23-17 loss in its last game, two weeks ago, to then-No. 9-ranked Wisconsin.
Wisconsin, which — like Appalachian — is known for its physical rushing attack, was held to just 187 yards on the ground against what was the worst-ranked run defense in the first two weeks of the season. The Badgers rallied from a 17-13 deficit in the fourth quarter.
“In a situation where you’ve got a chance to shock the world and come that close and have it slip out of your hands when you have a lead in the fourth quarter … that adds a little bit more pain to it,” GSU receiver Robert Davis said in the post-game press conference at Wisconsin.
Miles was pleased with his team’s effort, but wasn’t taking any comfort in the fact the Panthers have opened the season with losses to Ball State, Air Force and Wisconsin.
“Our kids fought every down,” said Miles. “There are no moral victories for Georgia State. I’m very disappointed.”
While the Panthers may have improved their rushing defense against Wisconsin, they will face a Mountaineer attack that can and has hit them both through the air and on the ground in the previous two meetings between Georgia State and App State.
Even with star tailback Marcus Cox likely to sit out again on Saturday with the quad injury he suffered two weeks ago in the first half against Miami, the Mountaineers can still turn to his backup, sophomore Jalin Moore.
Like he did when her subbed for Cox last year in a 27-carry, 244-yard rushing performance at Idaho, Moore was brilliant in the 45-38 comeback win at Akron, running 39 times for 257 yards and two important touchdowns.
“We’re not going to put (Cox) out there if he is not ready,” Satterfield said of his valuable senior, who did return to practice this week.
With an off-week after the Georgia State game, ASU can potentially rest Cox until it plays again at Louisiana-Lafayette on Oct. 12.
The Mountaineers also rediscovered their passing game at Akron, with junior quarterback Taylor Lamb hitting nine different receivers for 280 yards and three TDs on 22-of-30 aerial attempts.
With its offensive balance restored, ASU finished with a season-high 587 yards.
Lamb said he called a meeting with his young, inexperienced receiving corps in the middle of last week to air some concerns and motivate them to a higher standard of play.
“They responded well to what I wanted them to do,” Lamb said.
That turnaround cannot be considered a positive development for Georgia State.
Lamb was an efficient 8-of-13 for 90 yards passing in that snow game, two years ago, and went 18-of-24 for 291 yards and three TDs against the Panthers last season.
But Lamb said he expects yardage to be more difficult to come by on Saturday.
“I think they’re a whole different team,” Lamb explained. “They play a lot harder than they did last year.”
Satterfield agreed with his veteran quarterback.
“I think (Georgia State’s) defense is pretty good,” Satterfield said.
Of course, statistics do not necessarily back up that premise. The 3-4-base Panthers still rank 128th nationally in rushing (325 yards allowed per game), 107th in total defense (462 yards) and 103rd in scoring (34.0 points each contest), though they are sixth in passing defense (136 yards).
Offensively, Georgia State is trying to replace the void left by graduated-All-Sun-Belt-
Conference quarterback David Arbuckle, who is now playing with the CFL Calgary Stampeders.
Conner Manning threw for a career-high 269 yards on 20-of-29 passing against Wisconsin, but the Panthers rank 122nd in scoring (17.3 points per game), 128th in rushing (45.7 yards) and total offense (247.7 yards) and 94th in passing (202 yards).
Maybe more than the matchup with Georgia State, Appalachian’s players and coaches are happy to turn the corner to the conference race.
“The (non-conference) season is gone,” said Lamb. “The new season starts Saturday. Our goal is to win the Sun Belt championship and go to a bowl game.”