Appalachian State (10-3) vs Western Kentucky (8-5)
Saturday, December 18th, 2021 11:00am EST
Radio: 97.3 FM North Wilkesboro, 96.5 FM/1450 AM Boone, 1320 AM Greensboro, 107.7FM/1450 AM Hendersonville, Varsity Network App
Surface: Natural Turf
Jeff Sagarin Ratings
App State: 75.99
App State is favored by the Sagarin ratings by 3.87 points
Line: App State -3
Series: App State leads 4-1
Last Meeting: App State 17, Western Kentucky 14, Dec 2, 2000, Bowling Green, KY
After a wave of realignment, these bowl matchups were going to have some significance. Here we have App State, an active participant in Sun Belt expansion, playing against Western Kentucky, a former I-AA opponent. It was Western Kentucky’s jettison from the Sun Belt to Conference USA, that gave the Mountaineers a path to FBS football. And now, three Conference USA teams in Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Miss, have decided that they would rather be aligned with schools in the Sun Belt. That decision left those former Sun Belt schools, along with Middle Tennessee wondering what went wrong. The battle for these newly aligned conferences and their hierarchy in college football begins with Bowl Season 2021. For the time being, the Boca Raton Bowl matches two division champions that are actually staying in the leagues they currently represent. Western Kentucky is looking for a breakthrough win in their current rebuild, while App State looks to remain on course to continue their unprecedented bowl streak.
Playing new opponents is always fun. Coaches get to break up the monotony of watching conference opponents and get to sharpen their film watching skills. The last time Western Kentucky and App State met on the gridiron was 21 years ago. A lifetime ago. Both teams were still in FCS/I-AA. The ‘Toppers were coached by Jack Harbaugh, father of Jim and John, who currently coach Michigan and the Baltimore Ravens. Jack ended his tenure in Bowling Green with the second most wins in Western Kentucky history by a head coach. Since that snowy playoff meeting in 2000, the Hilltoppers won the Gateway Conference and the I-AA National championship in 2002. Jeff Brohm, now head coach at Purdue, helped Western win the 2015 & 2016 Conference USA championship. Adding all that together, Western has won four conference championships in the last 22 seasons. This will be Western Kentucky’s eighth overall bowl appearance since transitioning to FBS.
In 2021, Western Kentucky started slow, caught fire midway through the season, but ultimately fell short of the CUSA title. Similarly to App State, The Tops lost to the eventual conference champion in the regular season, and in the championship game. Western was competitive with UTSA in both games, which were shootouts. They lost 52-46 in October at home, and then lost 49-41 on the road in December. The theme in those two games were loads of offense, and optional defense. In both games, Western threw for over 500 yards. In both games, UTSA established the ground attack, running for 192 yards and 304 yards on the Western defense. Those were the 3rd and 4th most yards the WKU defense allowed on the ground this season. A lot of teams fell behind against the high scoring attack, and abandoned the running game all together. Typically the teams that could run on Western and had a formidable passing attack, gave the Toppers fits. The teams that ran on Western (190+ yards), but threw for less than 200 yards, were the only teams that Western defeated among the teams that ran well on them. Those teams were 5-7 Charlotte and 10-3 UT-Martin, who just lost to Montana State in the Second Round of the FCS Playoffs.
It’s hard to avoid the passing numbers you see from the Western Kentucky offense. Quarterback Bailey Zappe, offensive coordinator Zach Kittley and wide receiver Jerreth Sterns migrated from Houston Baptist. This is a group effort offense that works like a machine. The passing statistics are video game like numbers. Zappe is responsible for nearly everything that offense does. It all starts with him, and for App State to slow down this offense they need make Zappe see things that he normally does not see. That does not mean the Mountaineers need to send extra pressure, or less pressure. Sometimes that can be as simple as sitting down in passing lanes and mixing your blitz angles. The Western offense plays the game like they are running out of clock from the start. They are consistently are in attack mode. For an offense that has thrown for 300 or more yards in all but one game, its not about stopping them, but limiting their chances. Western threw for exactly 1100 yards and nine touchdowns in two games against UTSA and still lost both games.
Sometimes, it is just not your day or year. Winning a conference title was not in the cards for App State in 2021. It’s difficult to beat a team twice in one season, yet it happened. Still, this week, a trophy is on the line, and that is what the Mountaineers play for year in and out. This is an intriguing matchup, that on paper looks tough, but there are opportunities for App State to exploit Western Kentucky. As was previously mentioned, the Hilltoppers can get hurt by teams with good running games and offensive lines. Western defended 521 rushing attempts this season, which was the 7th most in FBS. Teams simply do not run at you unless they believe that they can. Most of the teams above Western in this category were quite bad at defending the run. Five of them were ranked 104th or worse in that category. The other was Cincinnati. The offense that App has run this year has been slightly more geared to the passing game at times, but that does not mean that App State has not been able to run when they have wanted to. The pass-run split works out to be roughly 42% pass plays and 58% run plays. The balance is still there, which should keep the 98th ranked defense on their heels.
It can be difficult to look past glaring statistics for a team like Western Kentucky. If anything, App State’s coaches have had the experience to deal with teams that are very one-dimensional on offense. Years of defending teams like Georgia Southern, Wofford and VMI come to mind. You absolutely know what is coming, all you have to do is execute. Even more recently with teams such as Arkansas State, you know that quarterback is taking the snap and looking downfield. Those teams are going to gain yards, and they are going to score some points. The task is to keep them uncomfortable. Make the other team play a game they do not want to play. Make them think about you, and not what they are doing. Western likes to score points. That is no secret. One surprising note, the Tops have connected on 22/27 field goals this season. That is a lot for a college kicking game. When presented with the opportunity, they take those points. It could be that Western knows their defense is subpar, and their best way to combat that is with scoring. One could argue when Western hit their stride this season, and went on a seven game winning streak, it was partly due to their defense. In that seven game stretch, the Toppers allowed just 18.8 points per game. Those teams combined record was also 34-50, with Marshall and their seven wins being the best team they played in that stretch. In their five losses, counting UTSA twice, the Western defense allowed 44 points per game. The record of those teams were 44-18. Their offense has shown it can score, and they scored below their average in their losses, but it was often their defense which dictated their results. Only Kent State and Hawaii defended more plays than Western Kentucky this season. Only three teams in college football defended more than 1000 plays all season. It almost seems like you can have your way with Western’s defense. App State was a Top 15 red zone defense team all season long. Three of the five field goals Western missed this season were against UTSA, including two in the championship game. Those misses forced Western to play from behind, and they never caught up. It’s unlikely kicking several field goals will win you this game. Putting the ball in the end zone will be big for both sides, and obviously, whoever does that more will win.
The First Pick
Hand Towels 31