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High Stakes for No. 25-Ranked App State in Thursday Night’s Sun Belt Conference Game at Georgia Southern

Photo courtesy of Appalachian State Athletics.

By Tim Gardner

Remaining unbeaten in the Sun Belt Conference and retaining their Top 25 national ranking is on the line for the Appalachian State Mountaineers when they play at Georgia Southern Thursday night.   The game will kick-off at 7:30 p.m. from Allen E. Paulson Stadium.

The game will be televised on ESPNU and will be broadcast via radio airways on the following affiliates: 97.3 FM (North Wilkesboro) – FLAGSHIP; 96.5 FM/1450 AM (Boone), 1270 AM (Gastonia/Charlotte); 1150 AM (Rock Hill, SC/Charlotte); 101.5 FM/600 AM; (Greensboro/Winston-Salem/High Point); and 107.7 FM/1450 AM (Hendersonville).

Appalachian State and Georgia Southern both have 3-0 conference records, behind only Troy, which is 4-0 in Sun Belt action. All three schools compete in the league’s East Division. The winner of the East Division will play the winner of the Sun Belt’s West Division for the over-all conference championship on December 1. Louisiana-Monroe currently leads the West with a 2-2 mark.

Coastal Carolina and Georgia State both have 1-2 league marks and trail Troy, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern in the East Division. Behind Louisiana-Monroe in the West are: Arkansas State and Louisiana (Lafayette) with 1-2 league records, followed by South Alabama (1-3) and Texas State (0-4)

Appalachian State and Georgia Southern have been fierce rivals since the early 1990s. The Mountaineers lead the series with a record of 19-13-1, including 3-1 in Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) games. They beat the Eagles 27-6 last season in Boone.

Appalachian State has played Georgia Southern annually since 1993, when the Eagles joined the Mountaineers in the Southern Conference, and Thursday will be the first time since 2000 that they meet with both teams possessing at least a 3-0 conference record. Prior to 2014, when they both joined the Sun Belt, they had three showdowns as top-five Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) teams (2011, 2000,1998) and nine total matchups as top-15 FCS teams (also 2012, 2004, 2002, 2001, 1999, 1995).

And there’s plenty of familiarity between the two head coaches. Appalachian State’s Scott Satterfield and Georgia Southern’s Chad Lunsford were assistants together at Appalachian State in 2001-02. And while he coached for the Mountaineers, Lunsford and his wife, Tippy, even lived in the basement belonging to Satterfield and his wife, Beth.

Additionally Georgia Southern’s defensive coordinator, Scot Sloan, is a former Appalachian State assistant.

Both Appalachian State and Georgia Southern enter this season’s game on a roll.

Appalachian State is 5-1 and 3-0 in league play with only a season-opening 45-38 overtime loss at Penn State. And the Mountaineers earned their first Top 25 ranking as a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) member when the newly released Associated Press (AP) Poll on Sunday listed them at No. 25.

That is yet another history-making part of Appalachian State’s record-setting start in major college football.

The Mountaineers are tied for the highest ranking ever for a Sun Belt team, as Troy’s one-week appearance at No. 25 in the AP Poll during the 2016 season is the only other case of a Sun Belt team being ranked in either poll. With a school-record 78 voting points in this week’s USA Today’s Coaches Poll, the Mountaineers also are only one spot outside the 25th spot, 17 voting points behind Miami.

Appalachian State is currently in its fifth season of FBS competition, and it’s the only program with a bowl win in each of its first three eligible seasons following the complete transition from lower-level FCS Football. The Mountaineers are 40-10 in their last 50 games and 30-3 in their last 33 conference games.

“To be recognized in the FBS level football and for our program to be a team that just went through transition four years ago and now to be ranked is pretty remarkable,” Satterfield said. “We have a lot of pride (and) a lot of tradition in our program.”

Appalachian State led in the final minute at Penn State, and it has won its last five games by a combined score of 231-49. That includes a 35-9 road victory against Arkansas State, the preseason West Division favorite in the Sun Belt, and a 27-17 home victory against Louisiana (Lafayette) last Saturday. Appalachian State’s offense had scored at least 35 points and its defense that had limited four straight opponents to single digits prior to playing Louisiana (Lafayette). A touchdown by the Ragin’ Cajuns with 1:03 remaining last weekend accounts for the only second-half points given up by the Mountaineers’’ defense since the Penn State game.

Georgia Southern also has won five consecutive games and sports a 3-0 Sun Belt record. The Eagles are bowl eligible at 6-1 over-all.

A loss to Georgia Southern likely drops the Mountaineers from the Top 25, while possibly propelling the Eagles into the Top 25.

Since Georgia Southern brought football back in 1981 after a 40-plus year hiatus, it has usually run an option offense. Ironically, the Eagles won their first two national championships (1985 and ’86) when North Carolina High Country native Paul Johnson (Newland) was their offensive coordinator and another two (1999 and 2000) while he was their head coach. They’ve strayed from the offense at times, operating from other formations. But they’ve returned to their roots. At least of sorts.

Georgia Southern is still an 87/13 run-to-pass offense, but regardless of the imbalance the Eagles are doing running and passing much more effectively than in recent seasons. They are averaging 31 points per game.

Georgia Southern also is averaging 352.4 yards of total offense per game–including 276.6 yards on the ground (fifth-best in the FBS). In their 48-31 win at New Mexico State last week, the Eagles rushed for 386 yards and six touchdowns on 61 carries.

Quarterback Shai Werts is the catalyst of the Eagles’ offense. He leads the team in rushing attempts, rushing yards, and leads the Sun Belt in rushing touchdowns. He’s tough enough to take a lot of hits during any given game and maintain enough focus to manage the offense. Werts’ first instinct is to handle the ball himself as a runner. Werts has more runs over 10 yards than anyone, running backs included, in the conference. But Werts has been sacked 10 times this season.

The Eagles have had success throwing deep against defenses stacked to stop their running threat. Werts has completed just 30 passes this season, but averages 16.4 yards per completion and nearly 20 percent of those connections have gone for 30-plus yards.

A primary concern for Georgia Southern is the injury status of starting running back Wesley Fields, who missed the New Mexico State game. Fields should start against the Mountaineers, and while he isn’t depended on to rip off long runs–he has just five carries for more than 20 yards this season—he’s quite effective at grinding out tough short-yardage conversions.

Logan Wright led the way for the Eagles against New Mexico State with 136 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries. Monteo Garrett and Wesley Kennedy are the Eagles’ top two pitch men. Garrett will also work from the two-back set between the tackles, but is especially effective on the outside runs. Kennedy is also very good (8.8 yards per carry) from a receiver alignment out of the backfield. He also leads the team in receptions and averages 21.7 yards per catch.

Defensively, the Eagles are led by Monquavious Brinson, who has 46 tackles, eight pass break-ups, and an interception on the season. Kindle Vildor leads Georgia Southern in interceptions, while safeties Joshua Moon, Sean Freeman (who also missed the last game with an injury), and Kenderick Duncan, Jr. have combined for more than 90 tackles this season.

However, Appalachian State has much more balance than Georgia Southern in the game’s various phases. The Mountaineers are currently No. 5 nationally in scoring offense (44.8 points per game), No. 11 in scoring defense (15.7 points per game), No. 8 in yards allowed per game (294.8), No. 17 in offensive yards per game (476.0) and tied with Utah State for No. 1 in special teams touchdowns (four).

In conference games, Darrynton Evans leads the Sun Belt in rushing yards per game (119.7) and all-purpose yards per game (142.0). He became Appalachian State’s primary running back during the Mountaineers’ second conference game after Jalin Moore suffered a season-ending injury. Evans followed a 115-yard rushing effort at Arkansas State with 183 rushing yards against Louisiana (Lafayette).

Appalachian State also ranks No. 4 nationally at 6.31 yards per rush, behind just Memphis (6.91), Clemson (6.48) and Oklahoma (6.38). The Mountaineers are No. 7 in rushing yards per game (265.0) and tied for No. 9 in fewest sacks allowed (six). Appalachian State has averaged 323.0 rushing yards in its last four games.

Since they were successful running the ball against Louisiana (Lafayette), the Mountaineers didn’t need to throw as much. Quarterback Zac Thomas had an off day against the Ragin’ Cajuns, completing only 10-of-20 passes for 106 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. But he still leads the Sun Belt as is among the national leaders in several statistical categories: quarterback rating (81.9, No. 8 FBS), point responsibility per game (17.0, No. 12 FBS), yards per completion (14.3, No. 13 FBS) and yards per pass attempt (8.7, No. 19 FBS).

Thomas has completed 80-of-132 passes for 1,146 yards and eleven touchdowns this year. He has thrown only four interceptions.

Wide receiver Corey Sutton leads the Apps in receiving with 17 catches for 366 yards and four touchdowns. They again need to get solid production from him, as well as in their intermediate passing attack from slot receivers Malik Williams and Dominique Heath and tight ends Collin Reed and Henry Pearson.

Defensively, the Mountaineers have been stingy against the pass and the run.

They lead the nation with only four plays of 30-plus yards allowed. Appalachian State, West Virginia and Mississippi State are the only defenses that haven’t allowed a gain of 50-plus yards.

Appalachian State is averaging an FBS-best 6.33 defensive three-and-outs a game and is No. 3 at 45.8 percent (behind Southern Miss’ 46.8 and Alabama’s 46.1). It forced six on Louisiana’s first nine drives Saturday.

Outside linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither averages a Sun Belt-leading 12.3 tackles. His 15 tackles against Louisiana are the most by a Sun Belt player in a game this season, and the 14 tackles he had in the previous game at Arkansas State are tied with teammate (linebacker ) Jordan Fehr for the second-most by a conference player.

Davis-Gaither leads the Apps in tackles with 54. He also has 5.5 tackles for loss, one sack and has broken up four passes.

The key for the Mountaineers’ defense is consistently defending the option properly. The option is based on individual assignments being executed man-to-man across the entire defense. First, each defender has to properly read the play as relates to his specific assignment, then, they each have to win their individual battle with a blocker or ball-carrier.

All it takes is for one missed assignment by the defense to turn a routine offensive play into a touchdown. In Georgia Southern’s four games since their single loss at Clemson (38-7), the Eagles have scored 16 offensive touchdowns that averaged 20 yards per score. Six of those 16 scores were of 25 or more yards.

And limiting Georgia Southern’s success on first down is the first objective for Appalachian’s Stop Force. If the Eagles are consistently picking up 4-5 yards (they average nearly six per play) then they avoid obvious passing situations. Despite their run-game success Georgia Southern has a relatively low third-down conversion rate (39.0%), though they do lead the league with a 92.3 percent red-zone scoring average.

Appalachian State can’t afford to fall behind the Eagles–especially by more than a touchdown and extra point-plus in the second half– if the Eagles are consistently moving the ball. Their clock-grinding offensive approach limits total possessions for opposing offenses. The Mountaineers had only nine possessions the entire game against Georgia Southern a year ago.  

Both teams have been good in special teams play, but Appalachian State has often been great.

Georgia Southern’s Tyler Bass may be the Sun Belt’s best kicker, hitting all nine of his field goal attempts this season, including four from at least 40 yards.

But with four special teams touchdowns that tie Utah State for the FBS lead, Appalachia State has scored via a kick return, two punt returns and the return/recovery of a blocked punt.

Steven Jones is tied for second nationally with two blocked kicks, and Tae Hayes blocked a field goal against South Alabama. Clifton Duck is No. 5 nationally by averaging 15.4 yards per punt return for the Apps, who are tied for third place nationally by forcing 7.5 punts a game.

Three more players have excelled on special teams for the Mountaineers. Chandler Staton has nailed six field goals and 33 point-after conversions, and he leads the Sun Belt in scoring at 8.5 points per game. Clayton Howell is sixth nationally with just 42 punt return yards allowed and Michael Rubino is 17th nationally with a league-leading 30 touchbacks (his touchback percentage of 66.7 ranks 24th nationally and second in the Sun Belt).

This game should be close. Georgia Southern is vastly improved from a season ago (a dismal 2-10 over-all record and 2-6 in the conference) and should give the Mountaineeers’ their stiffest challenge since the Penn State game. Still, Appalachian State has proven it can win with offense, defense and special teams. The Eagles are more one- dimensional and Satterfield’s club has an edge in over-all talent. In the end, the Mountaineers should return to Boone still unbeaten in the Sun Belt with only Troy possibly blocking an East Division title and a 10-1 regular season finish. And a win at Georgia Southern could even push Appalachian State higher in next week’s Top 25 rankings. Prediction: Appalachian State 31, Georgia Southern 24.