By David Coulson
BOONE, N.C. — Signs of a historic football showdown loomed everywhere on the Appalachian State campus on Thursday morning, from staff struggling to find parking spaces, to students arrayed in black and gold clothing.
The Mountaineers will be hosting Georgia Southern at 7:30 p.m. in the first-ever Thursday night college game at Kidd Brewer Stadium as two arch-rivals play for high stakes in a contest set to be televised nationally by ESPNU.
And the signs of this festive event were everywhere.
In the Plemmons Student Union, a radio broadcast featuring sports journalist and broadcaster David Glenn was preparing to air on campus. The Curtis Media Company production will air from noon to 3 p.m. on stations throughout the state.
A campus protest group was scheduled to hold a demonstration on what they are calling “the overemphasis of football” at App State.
But all of that was just a prelude to the main event — two 5-1 teams that are bitter foes, battling for first place in the Sun Belt and bowl eligibility. ASU is 2-0 in league, while GSU is 3-0.
It will be the 30th meeting between the two schools with a combined nine national titles in the Football Championship Subdivision before moving to the Football Bowl Subdivision (six for Georgia Southern and three for App State), with the Mountaineers leading the series 15-13-1.
“You have two programs in the same place,” said Appalachian coach Scott Satterfield. “It was good that we came into FBS and the Sun Belt at the same time. Like us, (Georgia Southern) is doing things the right way.”
Though the two teams are one-two in most offensive and defensive categories in the conference, the two just do things a little differently from a schematic perspective.
Georgia Southern has switched from its traditional triple option to an attack that features the shotgun formation and spreading of the field, but the Eagles still are one of the top running teams in the country.
Tailback Matt Brieda is the leading rusher in the conference with 875 yards and 11 touchdowns. He piled up 135 yards in last year’s 34-14 victory over the Mountaineers, scoring a 56-yard touchdown on the fifth play of the game at Statesboro, Georgia.
Quarterback Kevin Ellison (151 yards rushing, 73 yards passing) is another effective runner for the Eagles who are averaging nearly 400 yards on the ground per game also lead the conference in scoring (40.3). Georgia Southern is No. 1 nationally in rushing and No. 11 in scoring.
“They look a lot like they did last year,” said Satterfield. “They do a great job running the football.”
Appalachian is more balanced between running and passing.
“This is really a different opponent than we’ve played so far, with their ability to both run and throw,” Georgia Southern coach Willie Fritz said.
But ASU’s biggest advantage is probably its edge on defense.
The Mountaineers’ high-pressure, blitzing 3-4 set is ranked fifth nationally in points allowed (11.8) and ninth in total yards allowed.
“They run to the ball well and they tackle well,” Fritz said of the ASU defense. “Defensively, they are the No. 1 team in our conference.”
Georgia Southern could be vulnerable to the Taylor Lamb-led, Mountaineer passing attack with safety Matt Dobson likely out for the season and several other defensive players questionable for Thursday’s game.
Marcus Cox’s ability to give energy to the App State rushing attack should be a major key for the offense.
Fritz tried to downplay the rivalry aspects of the game this week, calling the contest “routine.”
“I told my guys, this game is worth one, just like last week and just like next week,” Fritz said Monday during the weekly Sun Belt Conference teleconference. “You’ve got to have that kind of mentality if you want to win a bunch of ballgames.”
But that isn’t a sentiment shared by the Mountaineers.
“We will treat this like it is one game, but it means more,” said ASU linebacker John Law. “It is more than a normal game.”
Law said that he and his teammates remember coming out flat against Georgia Southern last year and are determined not to let that happen again.
“I hate losing,” Law said. “I especially hate losing to Georgia Southern.”
Defensive end Ronald Blair shared a similar view.
“Every game on the schedule is a big game,” said Blair, “but this one has a little more juice.”