App State Football vs Troy (Sun Belt Championship)

Appalachian State (8-4, 6-2 Sun Belt) vs Troy (10-2, 7-1 Sun Belt)

Saturday, December 2nd, 2023 4:00pm EST

TV/Video: ESPN

Radio: FLAGSHIP 97.3 FM (North Wilkesboro), 96.5
FM/1450 AM (Boone), 99.1 FM/1060 AM/1030 AM (Charlotte),
105.3 FM/1320 AM (Greensboro), 790 AM (Johnson City),
107.7 FM/1450 AM (Hendersonville), 103.9FM/1250AM (Marion), Varsity Network App

Veteran Memorial Stadium

Capacity: 30,000

Surface: Prograss

Jeff Sagarin Ratings

App State: 72.54

Troy: 74.16

Home: 2.33

Troy is favored by the Sagarin ratings by 3.95 points

VegasInsider Line: Troy -6

Series: App State leads 8-3

Last Meeting: App State 32, Troy 28, September 17, 2022, Boone, NC

For the ninth consecutive year, App State has won at least five home games. Three straight years averaging over 30,000 fans at Kidd Brewer Stadium, and just a couple hundred away from eclipsing 35,000. There is no doubt, when you come to Boone for college football, you leave entertained. However, Kidd Brewer Stadium is quiet for now, and the Mountaineers will take their show on the road for the final two games of the season. That has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? Two more games. Only twenty FBS schools will play their thirteenth game this weekend. For the fourth time, App State will represent their division in the conference championship in just six opportunities. This feeling is the familiar territory we missed last year. It hurts to think about it the past, but it should make the current moments worth it more in the end. Whether the Mountaineers win or lose on Saturday will not define their season. Troy is a worthy opponent, and they won the conference a season ago. But that was last year, and nothing that happened a year ago will have an impact on this game.

Ten of the fourteen Sun Belt coaches picked Troy to represent the West division back in late July. The other four coaches picked South Alabama. Troy led their division for most of the season and cleared the division by three games. Only two of their conference games were decided by less than seven points being a two-point loss to James Madison and a touchdown win over Louisiana just a couple weeks ago. Only FCS Stephen F. Austin scored more than 30 points on the Troy defense, and that was the first game of the season. Western Kentucky and Louisiana were the only teams that scored 24 points on Troy. Everyone else: 17 points or fewer. For the season, Troy has allowed just 13 points per game to conference opponents, but that number has ticked up slightly the last three weeks to 18.3 points per game. Considering their opponents were two of the worst teams in the conference in Southern Miss and UL-Monroe, that might throw some caution to the wind. Louisiana was playing for bowl eligibility and got there, while the others were playing out the string.  

The Troy defense is elite. Easy to see there. Does not a take genius to figure that out. The Trojan offense is one of the better offenses in the league, but it does not compare to leading statistical categories like their counterparts do. Quarterback Gunnar Watson has played in parts of six college football seasons, all at Troy. Watson was on the 2018 Troy team that lost to App State 21-10, which was a winner-take-all game to represent the East in the inaugural Sun Belt Championship. Watson did not play against App State in 2018 or 2019 but has played in the last three matchups. None of them have ended well for Watson although last year was the closest, he and Troy had come.  In those three games, Watson has completed just over 60% of his passes for 526 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. He has thrown an interception in each game he has played against the Mountaineers, who coincidentally lead the Sun Belt with 15 interceptions this season and have eight interceptions in their last four games. The Mountaineers are 7-1 this season when intercepting a pass.

With senior day recognitions, Armanti Edwards’ number retirement and generally cool weather, the Mountaineers started a little slow last Saturday, but took advantage of four Georgia Southern turnovers to pull away. The Mountaineers scored immediately after each Eagle turnover, with two scores quickly responded by one play touchdowns. The Mountaineers also dominated the middle eight minutes of the game, scoring an unheard of 17 points even with a turnover of their own. After the score was tied at 17-17 with just 2:33 remaining in the second quarter, App State reeled off 34 consecutive points before allowing a kickoff return touchdown and field goal that cut a three score lead to a three score lead by Southern. Yes, you read that right. It has been amazing, week after week, how the Mountaineers offense can put up 532 yards and it feel like everyone got a piece of the pie. Eight receivers caught passes, with seven catching two or more. Three different running backs eclipsed 60 yards, which was more than the Eagles leading rusher.

The win last week coupled with James Madison taking out their frustrations on Coastal Carolina has put the Mountaineers in the spot they always hoped to be in by playing for a conference championship. The turnaround has been a true team effort. The offense can always play better, but when buoyed by their defense, a team can take on a completely different look. Weeks ago, we discussed slow starts with offense and it was hardly even noticeable this past week. If anything, this game resembled a microcosm of the entire season. A slower start that led to convincing win. Once the floodgates opened the Eagles were toast. Saturday marked the third straight game the Mountaineers recovered a fumble. They had just three in the previous nine games. Troy does not give up a ton of sacks, but all twenty-three sacks have come in six games. Turnovers or other impact plays, whether by attacking the ball at the line of scrimmage, on special teams, or in the secondary is what has made it tough for teams to overcome the Mountaineers and their offense.

What more could anyone ask for in a championship game? In the era of the Sun Belt championship game, the participants are usually decided by results that mattered in the regular season. Sometimes, there was a head-to-head battle that broke a tie in each division. In 2018, App State beat Troy in the regular season finale in a game that decided who would host the title game. In 2019 & 2021, the App State and Louisiana regular season winner would eventually host and win the conference championship. Last season, Troy defeated South Alabama in the regular season and hosted. Coastal Carolina defeated Marshall in the regular season which gave them the opportunity to participate. Hosting has mattered over the years. A road team has yet to win a conference championship game and usually the hottest team has also claimed the title. In 2018 and 2019, App State won their last six games in respective years. Louisiana won their last thirteen games in 2021, and Troy won their last eleven games last year. If you have noticed, we do not talk about 2020, because there was no game, cough, cough. Arguably, this is shaping up to be the best matchup in the history of the conference championship because we have two teams who are streaking right now. Troy is riding a nine-game streak, while the Mountaineers have won five in a row. The Trojans won the division going away and App State has had their back against the wall for last half of the season. In the last five weeks, Troy has been scoring touchdowns almost exclusively in the air. Gunnar Watson has fifteen touchdown passes during that span, and other Troy quarterbacks have tossed for two more scores. The Troy ground game has steadily run for a single touchdown in each of the last five games as well. Troy has determined their offensive course of action and have not strayed from it. That’s an easy path to take when their defense has been so consistent all year long. But what happens when that Troy teams sees the most balanced opponent they have faced in a long time. The last five Troy opponents are not exactly lighting the world on fire. Sure, both schools have had common opponents. The timing of when App and Troy played those four games gives us zero indication as to what we could expect this weekend. What we do know is that Kimani Vidal is a good running back who does not go down on first contact. He averages 112 yards a game, but Vidal gained 493 yards in two games against Stephen F. Austin and Arkansas State, who was dead last in the conference in rushing defense. In fact, over a third of Vidal’s rushing yards for the season come in those two games. Against James Madison, Vidal was held to 27 yards and there are plenty other examples where Vidal was limited, yet Troy was able to prevail. Keeping Vidal contained will do wonders for the backside of the Mountaineer defense. This is the true game within the game. Whether or not Troy can find enough rhythm on offense could be a deciding factor. Troy is well balanced, and if the Mountaineers can keep them off balance, and can roam the secondary, it will be a huge boost. Eventually the road team woes in the conference championship will come to and end. This might as well be this week.

The First Pick

T-roy 26

Mountaineers 31

App State Football vs Georgia Southern

Appalachian State (7-4, 5-2 Sun Belt) vs Georgia Southern (6-5, 3-4 Sun Belt)

Saturday, November 25th, 2023 3:30pm EST


Radio: FLAGSHIP 97.3 FM (North Wilkesboro), 96.5
FM/1450 AM (Boone), 99.1 FM/1060 AM/1030 AM (Charlotte),
105.3 FM/1320 AM (Greensboro), 790 AM (Johnson City),
107.7 FM/1450 AM (Hendersonville), 103.9FM/1250AM (Marion), Varsity Network App

Kidd Brewer Stadium

Capacity: 30,000

Surface: Fieldturf

Jeff Sagarin Ratings

App State: 71.23

Georgia Southern: 62.65

Home: 2.43

App State is favored by the Sagarin ratings by 11.01 points

VegasInsider Line: App State -8.5

Series: App State leads 20-16-1

Last Meeting: App State 48, Georgia Southern 51, November 26, 2022, Statesboro, GA

It’s difficult to describe if you were not present last week, but everything about last Saturday felt like big time football. Compliments to James Madison for a great environment and thanks to College Gameday. We all knew what the panelists would say last week. They were present to tout their hosts. As expected, as App State received the same treatment from the crew last season. But that week is behind us. The list of schools who want to be App State’s rival is long. Get in line JMU. Meanwhile the last game of the season gives us the school who is in front of that line. The gap between the Eagles and whoever else is next is still wide. It will be hard for anyone to supplant the hate and respect that App State and Georgia Southern have for each other. So be thankful for what you have this week. Give thanks for what makes you happy, and what makes you angry. Even if what gives you those feelings are the same thing.

Earlier this season, people wanted to believe that Georgia Southern might be a legitimate threat to contend for the Sun Belt East. Over the course of time, just about everyone has had an inside line for just that. About a month ago, the Eagles were sitting at 3-1 in conference play with their only loss to James Madison. They had four winnable games in front of them, but three of those games were on the road. First came a loss at Texas State in which the Eagles lost by three touchdowns, but it was truly never that close. The Bobcats once led 45-10 before the Eagles closed the gap. Then the Eagles went to West Virginia to face a Marshall team that had scored less than ten points in each of their previous three games. Southern gave up 38 points to a redshirt freshman quarterback, which included a kickoff return touchdown to begin the game. Then Old Dominion stymied the Eagles on Senior Night in Statesboro, playing a one score game, and defeating the Eagles for the first time in their schools’ history.  

Briefly, we need to discuss this Georgia Southern defense. The 38 points they surrendered to a struggling Marshall team is eye-opening. But if you look back through the entire season you will realize this has been a struggle all year. The Eagles have given up 27 or more points eight times. They have allowed 35 or more on five occasions. So, let’s dissect those five teams. One is currently 4-7 UAB, who is winless on the road this year, but is 21st in total offense in the country. Wisconsin has the 80th best total offense in term of yards, and has scored just 28 offensive touchdowns this season, five on the Eagles. James Madison dropped a 41-spot on Southern while the Dukes’ offense averaged 7.1 yards per play. Texas State scored 45 points on eleven possessions. Seven of their first eight possessions were scores. The other was a fumble. Southern surrendered two second half leads to Marshall and the Herd fumbled four times, but the Eagles only fell on one of them. Marshall converted just two of nine third downs and lost the turnover battle by two.

It’s safe to say that optimism has transitioned into confidence. Going into last week, you could safely assume a good college football game was upon us. Comparing statistics only goes so far when you have good teams facing off against each other. Eventually those kinds of games come down to a few plays on either side. Making those plays was none other than each team’s quarterback and best wide receiver. The Dukes had only given up two touchdown passes in the previous five games, and Joey Aguilar threw three scores, two to Kaedin Robinson, including the walk-off winner in overtime. Another silent assassin was Eli Wilson. Per usual, nobody covers the App State tight end, and Wilson had a career day with four catches for 61 yards and a touchdown. Neither team could run the ball on Saturday, so it came down to Joey Aguilar making the extra play in overtime.  

The evolution of the new Mountaineer defense continues. The Dukes are a well balanced offense that leaned more toward the pass. They had not been a top team in the conference running the ball and the Mountaineers held them to their second-lowest rushing output of the season of just 61 yards. But lately the Dukes had leaned more into the pass which might have played right into the Mountaineers newfound strength. Jordan McCloud still put a solid 289 yards passing, but most of those yards came late in the fourth quarter when Madison was making their late push. The hard work was done in the first half. The six first half possessions for Madison resulted in three punts, two turnovers and one made field goal. As we documented last week, Madison made their pushes in the third quarter most of the year. Madison came out in the third quarter and punted twice and missed a field goal. Even when the Mountaineers played softer late in the fourth quarter, they still forced long touchdown drives of sixteen and twelve plays to keep momentum at bay.

The game this weekend appears to be between two teams heading opposite directions. Both teams are streaking, the Mountaineers winning four in a row, while the Eagles have dropped three straight. Most of us know how dangerous this game is annually, and especially so when it appears that one team is considered highly favored over another. More often than not in this rivalry its harder to win the game you are supposed to win. The new Georgia Southern presents a different kind of challenge than the Mountaineers have seen most of the year. In the second year of Clay Helton’s transformation, he was not as lucky as 2022 in getting the quarterback in the transfer portal he wanted. Davis Brin does lead the conference in passing yards over McCloud of JMU and App State’s Aguilar, but he is not efficient. Even with close to 100 more attempts than Aguilar, he lags in touchdown passes. Part of that is the entire Georgia Southern offense stalls in the red zone. The Eagles have crossed their opponents 20-yard line on 51 occasions but have managed just 26 touchdowns. Seventeen other times the Eagles kicked field goals. It leads to having a great statistic of scoring 85% of the time down close, but that’s simply way too many field goals and not enough touchdowns over the course of a season. It’s great for Southern that they have a good kicker who is accurate and can boot touchbacks 70% of the time, but that’s not winning them enough games in Statesboro. Ultimately their season has come down to offense and defense. Midway through the season, something changed. In their first six games of the season, Southern threw the ball for 331.5 yards per game on roughly 48 attempts per game. During those games they also ran the ball about 27 times a game. In the last 5 games, those numbers have shifted substantially. The Eagles have dipped to 262 yards passing per contest on just 37.4 attempts, while their total rushes have increased by six to 33 per game. Sure, there are fewer conference games early on, but those are balanced out by non-conference games against game that include fewer peers. Roughly, these numbers represent a 20% shift in play selection, from passing to running. Passing yardage went down around 20% as well, but rushing yardage only increased by 11.4 yards a game or just over 10%. Georgia Southern was not tricking anyone. Opposing coaches noticed it, adjusted, and the Eagles have not been as explosive as they were in the first half of the season. A team that commenced an uptick in running plays, with their top running back Jalen White potentially missing the game, against a defense that went from allowing 206 rushing yards a game in their first eight games to just 103 yards a game in their last three seems like a bad mix. If the Mountaineer defense can continue limiting those opportunities, and tackle well in the open field, it could spell a long day for Southern. The Mountaineers must make sure they do not lose this game based on last week’s result. I think its behind them and they are ready for the next step.  

The First Pick

Stinkers 23

Mountaineers 35

App State Football @ #18 James Madison

Appalachian State (6-4, 4-2 Sun Belt) @ James Madison (10-0, 6-0 Sun Belt)

Saturday, November 18th, 2023 2:00pm EST

TV/Video: ESPN+

Radio: FLAGSHIP 97.3 FM (North Wilkesboro), 96.5
FM/1450 AM (Boone), 99.1 FM/1060 AM/1030 AM (Charlotte),
105.3 FM/1320 AM (Greensboro), 790 AM (Johnson City),
107.7 FM/1450 AM (Hendersonville), 103.9FM/1250AM (Marion), Varsity Network App

Bridgeforth Stadium

Capacity: 24,877

Surface: Fieldturf

Jeff Sagarin Ratings

App State: 70.19

James Madison: 76.04

Home: 2.45

James Madison is favored by the Sagarin ratings by 8.3 points

VegasInsider Line: James Madison -8.5

Series: App State leads 12-5

Last Meeting: App State 28, James Madison 32, September 24, 2022, Boone, NC

We’ve all seen the made for television debate shows. The talking heads of daytime sports viewing remind us all what it’s like when the Mountaineers head to Atlanta for a football game. Same as it ever was, ten times over. And that leads into the fourth straight biggest game of the year for the Mountaineers. The season has been on the line since the second conference loss to Old Dominion. The first goal of securing bowl eligibility has been accomplished. Next up, facing a ten-win team with aspirations of sticking it to the NCAA. And oh yeah, that College Gameday program will be on site, as the Mountaineers will make their second appearance on the show in as many years, but this time as the road team. App State has found a groove and James Madison could be distracted with all the postseason waiver appeals and television cameras and personalities who likely want to talk about the same topic repeatedly.

It will be difficult to spend a lot of time on the James Madison schedule and try and dissect why they have won all their games. Many times, you’ll want to point out, “Hey, they have not played anyone!”, but for Madison, that not exactly the case. The Dukes scored 12 unanswered fourth quarter points to edge by Virginia back in Week 2. It was a P5 win on the road, even if the road trip was only about 60 miles away. Madison has shown they can win in a variety of ways which is typically what is bound to happen over the course of a season when you have ten wins. They have won ugly and pretty. Five of their games have been decided by one score. The Dukes defeated both Georgia Sun Belt schools by four touchdowns. They had some close wins over Troy and Old Dominion, and a win over Marshall that looked more lopsided than the final tally. The important thing to keep in mind is, that they won them all.

The success of the James Madison largely starts with Arizona transfer quarterback Jordan McCloud. Week in and out he has been a consistent force, rarely having a bad week in the stat column. Last Saturday was probably a situation where McCloud could have rested the second half, when you consider the lopsided 44-6 victory over one-win UConn. However, this game was close in the third quarter, with James Madison leading just 16-6. But the next three Madison drives were all touchdowns, most of those yards consumed by McCloud throwing the ball and ending each drive with a touchdown pass. On a day where James Madison had their worst outing of the season on the ground, McCloud shredded the Huskies for 457 yards and four touchdowns. The second half surge has been a common theme for Madison. They led Georgia State by a 14-7 margin at half before scoring touchdowns on four consecutive possessions in the third quarter. All those drives travelled at least 65 yards on at least seven plays.

There was cautious optimism last week. The Mountaineers had always handled the Georgia State Panthers by convincing scores anytime the two teams played in Atlanta. It was evident from the opening drive from Georgia State that the much-maligned App State defense was ready to take another step in getting things figured out. The Mountaineers forced an opening drive punt after three plays, and then bowed up in the red zone after the Panthers ran twenty plays before fumbling on the ensuing drive. The next nine Georgia State possessions covered all of 63 yards and included eight punts and one interception. The Panthers did eek out a couple touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, but the damage had been done. The Mountaineers scored six touchdowns, three in each half, three on the ground and three by air. It was as balanced of an attack as we have seen all season from the offense despite some bobbled exchanges between the running backs and quarterbacks.

Last Saturday was a day to spread the ball around and six different Mountaineers scored. Makai Jackson had a breakout game, catching two long passes, one opening the scoring in the second quarter to give the Mountaineers a 14-0 lead. Jackson has now scored in back-to-back weeks and had a season high in catches and yards (3/98). Kaedin Robinson snuck behind the defense for a short receiving touchdown and Dalton Stroman turned on the jets for a 77-yard catch and run touchdown to open the scoring on the first play of the second half. The defense was stout all day, defending 87 plays, thanks to the Mountaineers getting up and down the field on offense with ease. They allowed just 3.0 yards per carry and only 3.9 yards per pass attempt. The defense turned the Panthers over twice en route to allowing just 260 yards for the game. After surrendering 588 yards to Southern Miss, the Mountaineers have given up less than that figure in the last two games combined.

At this juncture of the season, most teams have put their best foot forward. Coaches know what they are about to face on the other side of the field. Rarely are there any surprises. From James Madison’s perspective, just about everything they have done has worked. Winning ten games does not happen by accident. Usually, along the way, teams will have a game or two where the margins are closer. As mentioned earlier, the Dukes have played in five one score games. Four of those games were consecutive and started with their Week 2 over Virginia. Three of those games were played on the road. Since that four-game run, James Madison has had it rather easy. Maybe too easy? The Mountaineers have played four nail-biting games on the road, but those games also occurred several weeks ago. An argument can be made that both teams last truly competitive game was against the same opponent in Old Dominion. I’m looking past Southern Miss for just a moment. Bear with me. Both games were one possession games that came down to the fourth quarter. Even with James Madison losing the turnover battle to Old Dominion, they had enough in the tank to slip by. Old Dominion converted nine of their eighteen third attempts, were perfect in the red zone and connected on both field goal attempts. Old Dominion really could not have played much better. But against this James Madison team, you almost must play perfect because they have been for most of the season. In all the “close” games that James Madison has played in, there has been a constant. The Dukes have given up 12 touchdown passes all season long, and every single one of them came in games that were decided by one score. Joey Aguilar has multiple touchdown tosses in every game this season outside of Wyoming, when the Mountaineers offense was also held out of the end zone. For the most part, Aguilar has improved weekly, cutting down on his early season interceptions and has made better decisions overall. James Madison’s defense was dominant against the run earlier in the season but has shown some vulnerability against the ground game of late. Seven of Madison’s opponents have had success throwing the ball against them, excluding teams with bad offensive lines and who have had offenses who have struggled late, such as Georgia State and Marshall. The Mountaineers are one of the hotter teams in the Sun Belt right now and confidence is building. How does it carry over into a huge game for the Mountaineers with the Dukes finally having nothing to play for except pride? This pick will have a little more heart in it than usual, but I believe in the Mountaineers will do what needs to be done to keep the division hopes alive.

The First Pick

Delegates 27

Mountaineers 34

App State Football vs Marshall

Appalachian State (4-4, 2-2 Sun Belt) vs Marshall (4-4, 1-3 Sun Belt)

Saturday, November 4th, 2023 6:00pm EST

TV/Video: NFL Network

Radio: FLAGSHIP 97.3 FM (North Wilkesboro), 96.5
FM/1450 AM (Boone), 99.1 FM/1060 AM/1030 AM (Charlotte),
105.3 FM/1320 AM (Greensboro), 790 AM (Johnson City),
107.7 FM/1450 AM (Hendersonville), 103.9FM/1250AM (Marion), Varsity Network App

Kidd Brewer Stadium

Capacity: 30,000

Surface: Fieldturf

Jeff Sagarin Ratings

App State: 66.21

Marshall: 64.44

Home: 2.19

App State is favored by the Sagarin ratings by 3.96 points

VegasInsider Line: App State -4

Series: App State leads 15-10

Last Meeting: App State 21, Marshall 28, November 12, 2022, Marshall, WV

The last third of the regular season is upon us and this is the time of the year when the championships are decided. Neither App State nor Marshall have looked like a division contending team. Yet the Sun Belt East remains wide open and could be for the taking. One would expect some teams to rise and separate themselves from the rest. This game will be a de facto elimination game for conference championship contention for whoever loses. It could be a fourth conference loss for Marshall or a third for App State, all to division foes. Like this series needed any more spice added to it. These historical juggernauts have routinely gotten into each other’s way since 1977. Marshall has won consecutive games in this series only one time when games were played in back-to-back years (1987-99). When Marshall won the Southern Conference in 1994, their only conference loss was to App State. Ten of the twenty-five games in this series have been decided by one score or less, and Saturday looks to be no different.

The Thundering Herd were having a great start to their season until they got to the month of October. They started the season with four wins but have not won a game since. Three of the first four games were played at home, with the one road game being played at East Carolina, who is now 1-7. Three of the four October games were played on the road, and the other was James Madison on a Thursday in Huntington. There were signs of this Marshall squad appearing to fall behind, but their schedule did them no favors. Looking back, FCS Albany and ECU should have been pushovers. However, the Herd played Albany to a four-point game, and the ECU game was played tighter until late in the fourth quarter, in a game that had a weather delay. Suddenly, the schedule got tougher, but defeating Virginia Tech by a touchdown seemed to set aside the woes of the previous games. After playing in one score games in four of the first five games, Marshall lost the last three games by multiple scores and have zero offensive touchdowns in the last two losses.

The true heartbeat of the Marshall team is junior running back Rasheen Ali. His season got off to fast start, thanks to 91 carries, 475 yards and nine rushing touchdowns in the month of September. However, just like the Herd, Ali has fizzled in October. Ali missed the game against James Madison and has just 218 yards in the last three contests and only two rushing touchdowns. Ali had a season low 12 carries for 52 yards last week against Coastal Carolina. Continuing the theme of the downward October trend, just look at the play of Marshall quarterback Cam Fancher. His completion percentage has dropped nearly ten points from month to month, from 71% to 61.3%. In September, Fancher was sacked just twice. In October, he was sacked nineteen times!! So, when you wonder why Fancher did not finish the Coastal game, Marshall coach Charles Huff was quoted, “overall health and general lack of execution.” Huff also mentioned that he would have kept Fancher in had the game been close.

This is what this team will do. We are going to give you some anxious moments in the first half while the offense gets going, and then some tense moments in the second half as the team adjusts, and ultimately gives themselves a chance late. The Mountaineers scored five touchdowns in the second half, and four touchdowns on their final four possessions in the win over Southern Miss. The last three touchdown drives travelled 228 yards and took only 15 plays. Joey Aguilar threw for 391 yards. It might have been the quietist nearly 400-yard performance in recent memory. All that credit goes to the pass catchers who finished in the end zone. Dashaun Davis’ 57-yard touchdown reception was a highlight catch and run. Christian Horn had a superb game with eight receptions, 165 yards and two scores. Eli Wilson also scored on a 26-yard catch and frolic to the south end zone. Although the run game was slowed tremendously, Kanye Roberts turned a middling performance into a respectable one with a 61-yard go ahead score to help him finish with 109 yards for the second straight game.

The defense is still growing and figuring out how to put their best players on the field. Giving up a first drive touchdown has occurred in three of the four Mountaineers’ home games. Playing from behind is frustrating, but at this point, the players are accustomed to it. Understanding your deficiencies is as important as maximizing strengths, and in the short term, might be more important to this group’s success. The Mountaineer defense intercepted six passes in the first four games and allowed just one touchdown pass. Yet, the month of October has seen App State intercept just one pass while surrendering eight touchdown passes. The defense has also allowed over 400 yards in four straight games, and 560+ yards in two of the last three weeks. The 175+ rushing yards allowed in each of the last five games was punctuated by a 301-yard effort by Southern Miss last week. Marshall has the worst rushing offense in the league by a wide margin, even with Rasheen Ali averaging 99 yards a game.

There are a couple different ways to look at this game. Both teams have a unit that performs well above their conference opponents. When App State has the ball, they will have their hands full with a defense that has been mostly stingy, but a lot has been asked of them of late with the Marshall offense stumbling. Conversely, that Mountaineer defense has given up a lot of yards lately. Is it so simple as to which team has the worst unit? This Marshall offense is essentially all Fancher and Ali. They have been asked to do a lot, and at times they have, but there is only so much punishment they can take. A lot of Fancher’s game comes down to scrambling out of the pocket, which forces him to complete a lot of off-platform throws. That is shown by how many yards he has lost as a “runner”. It’s a little sickening to see that Fancher was credited with 45 carries in games against Old Dominion, NC State and Georgia State, in which he gained 136 yards. At three yards a rush, that does not seem too bad, but 102 of those 136 yards came against ODU. The next 30 carries went for 34 yards. This next twelve carries, against JMU went for -66 yards. Keep in mind, this includes yards lost being sacked. Against Coastal, he had seven carries for eight yards. Can you see the picture here? Fancher has been beaten up physically over the past five weeks and the only cure might be rest. The question becomes, how does Marshall maximize their best players, who are dealing with injuries, over the course of the next four weeks? Cole Pennington stepped in for Fancher for the final five drives of the Coastal game. The first went 60 yards over fourteen plays but resulted in a turnover on downs. The other four drives resulted in a fumble, another turnover on downs and two interceptions. Fancher and Pennington threw two interceptions each. Marshall will make a big play or two. Fancher is more likely to make those plays and Ali will not be far behind. The Mountaineers must limit those big plays and counteract them when Marshall gets in long yard to gain scenarios. I trust the App State offense to find the end zone enough times against this Marshall secondary, who is susceptible to balls over the top.

The First Pick

Turds: 24

Mountaineers 30

App State Football vs Southern Miss

Appalachian State (3-4, 1-2 Sun Belt) @ Southern Miss (1-6, 0-4 Sun Belt)

Saturday, October 28th, 2023 3:30pm EST

TV/Video: ESPN+

Radio: FLAGSHIP 97.3 FM (North Wilkesboro), 96.5
FM/1450 AM (Boone), 99.1 FM/1060 AM/1030 AM (Charlotte),
105.3 FM/1320 AM (Greensboro), 790 AM (Johnson City),
107.7 FM/1450 AM (Hendersonville), 103.9FM/1250AM (Marion), Varsity Network App

Kidd Brewer Stadium

Capacity: 30,000

Surface: Fieldturf

Jeff Sagarin Ratings

App State: 67.29

Southern Miss: 51.48

Home: 2.00

App State is favored by the Sagarin ratings by 17.81 points

VegasInsider Line: App State -17

Series: Southern Miss leads 2-0

Last Meeting: App State 20, Southern Miss 21, November 20, 2014, Hattiesburg, MS

This sport can be harsh sometimes. The line between winning and losing is thin. Whether it’s one play, one call by the officials, or a collection of a couple plays and couple bad bounces. More often than not, these things even themselves out over time, it just seems most turns of events are bouncing away from the Mountaineers. It’s been a hard pill to swallow for several weeks. Being so close, yet so far. But the only way to change your fortunes is to keep working. And when the bounces start coming back, the wins will become sweeter because you earned it. Nobody wants it more than the players and if anyone does want it more, it’s the coaches, because they want to see it for their players. And most importantly, we all want to see them succeed. So as you normally would, pack your vehicles, head for the mountains, catch up with former classmates and enjoy what is left of the fall foliage. And when you head into Kidd Brewer, give your all, because those players are giving theirs for you.  

Last season, in its first year in Sun Belt play, Southern Miss managed a 4-4 conference record with wins over Arkansas State, Texas State, Louisiana and UL-Monroe. All four of those wins were within the division. They lost both East division games, to Georgia State and Coastal. This season, Arkansas State and Texas State avenged their losses. Most recently, Southern Miss was manhandled by South Alabama last Tuesday evening. The score was 55-3, and it looked worse than that. That game marked the fourth time this season that Southern Miss scored 13 points or fewer in a game. Outside of an opening week win over Alcorn State, and playing high scoring games against defensively bad Arkansas State and shootout prone Texas State, the Southern Miss offense has struggled. Backup quarterback Holman Edwards, previously of Houston, relieved regular starter Billy Wiles, previously of Clemson, in the loss to South Alabama. Golden Eagle head coach Will Hall was noncommittal of who might start this weekend.

The Eagle offense managed 149 yards against South Alabama. Sixty-five yards came on their final drive of the game, in which ended in a fumble. The previous week, Southern Miss lost to Old Dominion, and their lone touchdown was a punt return. Southern Miss has not scored an offensive touchdown since September 30th. They are not as bad as they have played in recent weeks, but their margin of error is quite small. Quarterback play has been a major issue. Wiles has played well against bad teams, and against good teams, he has struggled. All seven of his touchdown passes came against those subpar defenses in Alcorn, Ark. State and Texas State. Those three games were also the only ones in which he threw for 215 or more passing yards. In the other four games, his passing yards never surpassed 180 yards. Those numbers do not seem too far off, but the run game numbers likewise reflect poor output. The Golden Eagles averaged 204 yards rushing in the “poor defense’ games, compared to just 86 yards rushing against Florida State, Tulane, Old Dominion and South Alabama.  

Last Saturday night created a low point for the Mountaineers, who are now on the wrong side of the win-loss column. The Mountaineers scored three times, each time occurring on fourth down. It’s honestly a wonder that the result of this game was not worse. Failing to convert on any of those fourth downs could have the changed the final tally dramatically. Only the Wyoming game created a lower point total for the Mountaineers, with 22. App State scored five times in that game. Plenty of folks have been looking for consistency for the Mountaineers. One of the main gripes was starting games quicker. Turns out, App has played better from behind all season than they have while out front. The Mountaineers scored first against Old Dominion and Wyoming, and held leads in the third quarter, but ultimately lost. Truth is, in the last four games, a game defining odd play has taken place in each fourth quarter that dramatically shifted the result. The blocked field goal at Wyoming. The goal line stop in Monroe. The fumble against Coastal. The botched mesh play in Norfolk.

In his first career start, Kanye Roberts performed about as good anyone could have expected. Still just a redshirt freshman, who had logged only thirty carries this season, Roberts took on 26 carries against Old Dominion. Roberts touched the ball on eight of the Mountaineers ten drives. The majority of Roberts’ yards came in the first half, aided by a 24-yard and 12-yard carry on the second series for the Mountaineer offense. Although his paced slowed in the second half, it was Roberts who carried the ball eight times for twenty-eight yards on the drive that put the Mountaineers up 21-20 in the third quarter. Those carries were not scattered either. All eight carries were in a matter of ten plays, that moved the offense to the edge of the red zone. After twenty carries through the Mountaineers first six drives, Roberts carried the ball just six times on the last four drives.

It’s quite crazy to think we come this far and not mentioned any Southern Miss playmakers. Franke Gore Jr is easily the most recognizable player, being the son of longtime NFL running back Frank Gore. His season has resembled the Golden Eagles season almost to a tee. Gore carried the ball six times in the win over Alcorn State, figuring there was not much need for him to carry the load in an FCS game. Gore eclipsed 100 yards twice this season, in those Arkansas State and Texas State games. All four of his rushing touchdowns came in those games. Since those outings, Gore has been stuck. He carried the ball 29 times for 66 yards against Old Dominion and 12 times for 37 yards against South Alabama. With 434 yards on the season, Gore is averaging just 3.8 yards a carry. Gore is really close to his pace of having a third straight 800-yard season, which is still very consistent, but behind some expectations considering he was a Sun Belt first team pick in the preseason. Backup running back Rodrigues Clark was spotted with a cast on his hand on Tuesday at practice. Assuming Clark does not play Saturday, that leaves the Golden Eagles thin at the position. Next in line for carries would be Kenyon Clark, who has only thirteen rushes on the year, but ten came in their last game. Tiaquelin Mims has a punt return touchdown to his credit and is also Southern Miss’ third leading receiver. Overall, the Mountaineers will be facing another team facing quarterback uncertainties. That makes the fifth game this season they have had to think about more than one quarterback on the opposing team. As a result, the Mountaineers will be preparing for another bottom-quartile team in terms of offensive yards, first downs generated and third down conversions. Oddly enough, Southern Miss is one of better red zone teams in the country, but that is mainly due to being 2nd in the country in red zone field goals. Of their red zone scores, over half of them are field goals. I’d love to sit back here and say something simple, like field goals won’t be enough to beat the Mountaineers at home. Then again, the last four games have been nothing like a Saturday afternoon home game in Boone. It will have been six weeks between Saturday home games for the Mountaineers this week. That’s not an easy schedule to deal with for anyone. App State needs a rebound game in the worst way, and hopefully they can break the trend of one score games.  

The First Pick

Royals: 19

Mountaineers 42

App State Football @ Wyoming

Appalachian State (2-1) @ Wyoming (2-1)

Saturday, September 23rd, 2023 7:00pm EST

TV/Video: CBS Sports Network

Radio: FLAGSHIP 97.3 FM (North Wilkesboro), 96.5
FM/1450 AM (Boone), 99.1 FM/1060 AM/1030 AM (Charlotte),
105.3 FM/1320 AM (Greensboro), 790 AM (Johnson City),
107.7 FM/1450 AM (Hendersonville), 103.9FM/1250AM (Marion), Varsity Network App

War Memorial Stadium

Capacity: 29,181

Surface: Fieldturf

Jeff Sagarin Ratings

App State: 73.56

Wyoming: 67.34

Home: 2.23

App State is favored by the Sagarin ratings by 3.99 points

VegasInsider Line: Wyoming -2.5

Series: Series Tied 1-1

Last Meeting: App State 31, Wyoming 13, October 3, 2015, Boone, NC

After three games to open the season in the state of North Carolina, the Mountaineers will hit the high road for the first time in 2023. Wyoming’s Mar Memorial Stadium is difficult to get to, and its elevation is the highest in all the land. Their homefield advantage is similar to one that the Mountaineers enjoy, albeit several thousand feet higher above sea level. This will be an interesting test for the Mountaineers as its the first flight of the season compared to a short drive to Chapel Hill two weeks ago. This is also important for any potential bowl scenarios, whether that be eligibility or placement. Those non-conference games against Gardner-Webb and East Carolina do not have the same juice as this one-off game against Wyoming before starting conference play. Additionally, the Cowboys are riding the momentum of beating Texas Tech and also hanging with the Texas Longhorns for the majority of the game. It will be important for App State to come out ready to play, but not so amped that they lose their fire before it even gets started.

The Craig Bohl tenure at Wyoming has been unlike his run at North Dakota State. Bohl won three national titles for the Bison before heading to Wyoming, where he has been for ten seasons. Excluding 2020, where Wyoming played only six games, Bohl has won 6 or more games every season for six seasons running. The only gripe from some Cowboys fans is that Wyoming has not won more than 8 games in any of those years. Bohl has been consistent, but to the point of just above average. Wyoming’s best season under Bowl was in 2016, but still managed just 8 wins despite 6 conference triumphs. Administration has been as patient as Bohl’s offenses have been. Other programs might have cut bait, but it seems Wyoming knows who they are and what they are up against. You fire a coach, and its possible you bottom out, and then your program chases those 6-8 wins a year they were accustomed to.

The Cowpokes are not going to wow anyone with a thrilling offense. They are pro-style in nature. Not the current pro-style offenses that you see today, but more like those pro offenses of 20-30 years ago. The statistics do not pop off the page. It’s never about what they do, but more importantly, how they do it. In their three games the season, Wyoming has been patient with the ground game. They averaged 3.9 yards per carry against Texas Tech, 4.4 yards against FCS Portland State, and 4.1 yards against Texas. Those numbers are the epitome of patience. As a team, Wyoming has 61 more yards rushing than Nate Noel. Three different players have led the Pokes in rushing in each game. In Week 1, it was quarterback Andrew Peasley who dashed for 68 yards on 15 carries. Sam Scott had 70 yards on 11 carries against Portland State and Harrison Waylee ran for 110 yards on 18 carries against Texas. Waylee did have a 62 yard scamper versus Texas. Essentially, he had 17 other attempts that went for just 48 yards.

Nate Noel is getting a lot of love, and deservedly so. Averaging 145 yards per game on the ground is a strong number through three games. Noel has hogged the workload, and has been producing to the tune of 5.8 yards per carry. As much as Noel is responsible for the quick offensive start, the balanced passing game for the Mountaineers is equally responsible. Seven different receivers have caught touchdown passes. Dashaun Davis and Kaedin Robinson are completely different players, yet they are separated by just one yard on the stat sheet. Both have caught exactly ten passes, two touchdowns, and their longest plays are also both 34 yards. Robinson has the yardage edge 154-153. Likewise, Christian Horn and swiss army knife Milan Tucker also have exactly 83 yards and a touchdown, with Horn having two more catches than Tucker.

A couple of fluke plays made the score a lot closer with East Carolina then it should have been. It was kind of the same story back in 2021. The 33-19 score two years ago was not that close, and neither was this 43-28 final from Saturday. That says a lot about your program and what expectations are on a week to week basis. Both teams are completely different than 2021, but some things just never change. The App State defense was only responsible for 14 points, and half those points came on the first drive when East Carolina started a quarterback for the first time. It’s understandable to be cautious, but the point here remains. After the first drive, the Mountaineers gave up just a mere 7 points. Turning the Pirates over three times via interception gave fans glimpses of what this defense can be. Joey Aguilar did throw a bad interception, but as long as he tosses a couple touchdown passes a game, or three as was the case Saturday, it will be mostly forgotten as long as those mistakes are not made over and over.

Wyoming has earned an early reputation this season as a team that controls the ball commits very few mistakes. In three games, the Cowboys have accumulated 100 minutes of possession. On the flip side the Mountaineers have controlled the clock for 96 minutes. The Cowboys have only committed nine penalties on the season as well. The Mountaineers have been flagged just thirteen times, which is something that really has not been talked about. Appalachian has never really been a team that worries about penalties. Sometimes you play with passion and get hustle penalties, which are unlike flags called for incorrect formations or shifts. Those should be avoided. However, if you do all the other things correctly, penalty flags shouldn’t come in to play. It’s part of the game. But the fact the Mountaineers have been decent in that area has only made the offense that much more dangerous. The Mountaineers have 16 offensive touchdowns compared to the Cowboys nine on the season. Excluding overtime scores, Wyoming has averaged 20.3 points per game. East Carolina may have the worst offense in Division I football. Wyoming’s is better, but its still a bottom 20 offense in football in terms of yards, and bottom third in terms of gained first downs. But that is kind of the point here. Wyoming does not care about the flash, they want the substance. The onus is on the Mountaineer defense to come up with stops and get the ball to the offense. The Cowboys have converted third downs into first downs at a 37% clip on the young season, which ranks in the bottom third of FBS. It’s the most important statistic on Saturday. Get the Cowboys off the field, or else they employ the same strategy the Mountaineers did against the Tar Heels a couple weeks ago.

The First Pick

Poking and Prodding 20

Mountaineers 28

App State Football vs East Carolina

Appalachian State (1-1) vs East Carolina (1-1)

Saturday, September 16th, 2023 3:30pm EST

TV/Video: ESPN+

Radio: FLAGSHIP 97.3 FM (North Wilkesboro), 96.5
FM/1450 AM (Boone), 99.1 FM/1060 AM/1030 AM (Charlotte),
105.3 FM/1320 AM (Greensboro), 790 AM (Johnson City),
107.7 FM/1450 AM (Hendersonville), 103.9FM/1250AM (Marion), Varsity Network App

Kidd Brewer Stadium

Capacity: 30,000

Surface: Astroturf

Jeff Sagarin Ratings

App State: 73.14

East Carolina: 64.83

Home: 2.24

App State is favored by the Sagarin ratings by 10.55 points

VegasInsider Line: App State -9.5

Series: App State leads 20-12

Last Meeting: App State 33, East Carolina 19, September 2, 2021, Charlotte, NC

There are several ways to look at it. You can hold your head high and be proud. You could also drag your feet for a couple hundred yards and wonder about another big fish that wiggled away. You might even do both of things at the same time. And then you hear the cries, whining and disrespect. From social media posts, to remarks made by those with the title head coach. “I’m proud of my football team” said one. “I’m glad we don’t have to play them again” said another. Those leaders who receive more praise than they deserve, and more criticism at their expense at same time. Only you can choose your leader. You can run with the guy who will run at your side into battle, or you can run and hide. The Mountaineers will never run and hide from a challenge, but embrace it and learn from it. This weekend will be another challenge. Traffic on the roads and entering the gates will be an adventure. There is going to be a ton of people in the High Country this weekend. A third consecutive in-state foe awaits the home team. Will you embrace it, or run away?

Coming into this season, East Carolina and App State had similar scenarios facing their team. The Pirates have a lot of new faces playing critical roles, and most of those were on the offensive side of the ball. Holton Ahlers exhausted his eligibility and Mason Garcia has been given the start for the first two games at quarterback. Filling in at running back, in place of Keaton Mitchell, has been Rahjai Harris. It’s been an uphill climb in these first two games for East Carolina in filling those holes. Ahlers and Mitchell are both on NFL rosters as we speak. Garcia has had an especially rough time. He has thrown for 142 yards in two games, completing just 51% of his passes, with two interceptions and one touchdown. That one touchdown pass went for 2 yards to a tight end after East Carolina’s defense fell on a Marshall fumble at the three yard line. That was the first touchdown of the season for the Pirates, and it took them nearly 88 minutes to do so. Garcia’s longest completion of the season went a whole fourteen yards. Harris is the leading running back on the team with 51 yards.

In week one, Michigan took it easy on East Carolina, cruising to a 30-3 win. The Pirates had the ball a total of nine times, with three of those drives resulting in a three and out. Just five drives resulted in ten or more yards gained. Those turned into two punts, one turnover on downs, a missed field goal, and a made field goal. The made field goal occurred on the last play of the game. Without getting into too much detail, the Pirates are running a lot of plays, but they cannot get down the field. The Pirates averaged 4.3 yards per play against Michigan and just 3.9 yards per play last week against Marshall. Additionally, the Pirates have been whistled for 23 penalties for 230 yards in just two games. Numbers like that lead to a grossly inefficient 34% on third down conversions, which ranks 101st out of 130 teams on the young season.

Multiple storylines have emerged following another close loss to a P5/P4/Autonomy school on the road. The biggest one, is Joey Aguilar. Plain and simple. His story is just beginning to unfold. One side of the field had one of the best quarterbacks in the country, and Joey Aguilar outplayed him, and not for one second did the moment feel too big for him. He could have completed a few more passes, but that’s being picky. The passes that connected went for 12.5 yards per completion. He avoided negative plays with his arm and legs. Even with an assumed lack of depth behind him, he played big and owned every moment. Throwing for a cool 275 yards and running for 42 more. The one interception he’ll learn from, but it did not account for the loss. Calling Aguilar a game manager does not give him enough credit. Joey Aguilar is a gamer, and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us next.

App State’s defensive strategy was wise on Saturday night. Try to keep Drake Maye from beating you. For the most part, that worked. For only the third time since 2015, North Carolina won a game without throwing a touchdown pass. The flip side of that, was that big plays in the running game boosted the Tar Heels efforts. Maye routinely checked to running plays to avoid throwing against a secondary that was dropping seven and eight players into coverage. In all, the strategy worked as a team effort. A loss in overtime is nothing to be ashamed of, especially on the road, in games that you are not “supposed” to win. However, the balance could be hard to strike between improving the run defense and the strategy of keeping the play in front of you. That balance becomes especially more difficult after losing Brendan Harrington for the season due to injury.

Perhaps this discussion is slightly premature, but there is some discussion on the banks of the Tar River about whether or not Mason Garcia should continue as the Pirates starting quarterback. Garcia, who is listed at 6’5 and 249 pounds fits the typical prototype East Carolina quarterback size we have seen the from the past. But Garcia is having issues staying in the pocket. The Pirates do call some designed runs for Garcia, on delay draws from the shotgun formation. That has led to Garcia leading the team in carries and rushing yards. But, either his receivers are not getting open, or his pocket is breaking down before they are open, or Garcia is concerned with protection. It possible the game has not slowed down for him yet. Either way you cut it, Garcia has happy feet, and when the throw is not there when he wants it to be, he takes off upfield. This had led some to start clamoring for backup Alex Flinn. Garcia had very little experience coming into 2023, and Flinn has even less. Flinn has played in both games this season, early on against Michigan, and finished the game against Marshall once it was out of reach. He is a fifth year redshirt junior, who played a total of five snaps before this season. At this point, East Carolina isn’t hitting the panic button, but they have been looking at it pretty hard. At some point they have to start scoring some points or else their defense will be gassed come mid-October. The Pirate defense likes to play down hill in the run game, but their secondary have been roasted in two games, surrendering 270 yards passing a game, and 12.5 yards per catch. The Mountaineers are likely to remain patient in the run game to an extent, but the confidence of this past weekend can only propel them forward with Joey Aguilar becoming more comfortable. One would assume that Nate Noel will be looking for an eventual breather after fifty carries in the first two games, but the formula appears to be working for now.

The First Pick

Sinking Ships 17

Mountaineers 35

App State Football @ #17 North Carolina

Appalachian State (1-0) @ #17 North Carolina (1-0)

Saturday, September 9th, 2023 5:15pm EST

TV/Video: ACC Network

Radio: FLAGSHIP 97.3 FM (North Wilkesboro), 96.5
FM/1450 AM (Boone), 99.1 FM/1060 AM/1030 AM (Charlotte),
105.3 FM/1320 AM (Greensboro), 790 AM (Johnson City),
107.7 FM/1450 AM (Hendersonville), Varsity Network App

Kenan Memorial Stadium

Capacity: 50,500

Surface: RootZone 3D Blend AstroTurf

Jeff Sagarin Ratings

App State: 72.39

North Carolina: 80.18

Home: 2.90

North Carolina is favored by the Sagarin ratings by 10.69 points

VegasInsider Line: North Carolina -18

Series: North Carolina leads 2-1

Last Meeting: App State 61, North Carolina 63, September 3, 2022, Boone NC

Last week was the game that the Mountaineers needed. It had a little bit of everything. An injury to a key piece of the offense. A game that was close in the second half. A backup quarterback that took the lead, and padded it to provide a necessary margin. Some stress and adversity will serve the team well in the coming months. The largest story by far is the quarterback situation. Nobody wants to see an injury to a player, especially not in the first game of the season. For the time being, App State appears lucky to have had a true competition throughout camp which has allowed Joey Aguilar to have the practice reps needed to be ready for this opportunity. It takes a special player to be ready at a moment’s notice, and perform like he did in that second half. It does not matter who the opponent is. On Saturday, Aguilar was the closer, and this weekend he will be the starter. Joey Aguilar will have the rare chance to become a household name a lot quicker than even he could imagine.

The Tar Heels may have put the end of their 2022 campaign behind them last week in Charlotte. They avenged their 2021 Duke’s Mayo Bowl loss to pseudo-nemesis South Carolina in the Duke’s Mayo Classic with a semi-comfortable 31-17 win over the Gamecocks. That sentence was a mouthful. That win ended a four game slump at the end of last season for North Carolina. Losses to Georgia Tech and NC State in Chapel Hill were followed by getting throttled by Clemson in the ACC Championship game and losing the Holiday Bowl to Oregon. So after starting 9-1 last season, and rising to as high as #13 in the Associated Press Poll, the season ended on a somber note. Hopes are high for the 2023 Heels, as they came into the season ranked 21st, knowing they have a potential Heisman candidate in quarterback Drake Maye. Yet, there is some caution in the wind with how bad their defense was last season. They showed some signs last week of improvement, but some are still not sold.

Without putting too much stock into one game of a long season, it still provides some glimpses into what a team might look like at the end. The Tar Heels were mostly in control of the game in the first half, but the scoreboard was not really representative of statistical discrepancies. The Heels had four true possessions in the first half and scored on three of those drives, and ended the other in South Carolina territory. They ran 40 offensive plays and rolled up 241 yards of offense on those four drives. After scoring on consecutive drives to start the second half, their next two drives ended in interceptions. South Carolina was essentially finished, but North Carolina gave them life in the second half. By that point, the Gamecocks had abandoned the run game, and Spencer Rattler was running for his life. The Gamecocks resorted to a horizontal quick passing game, which resulted in Rattler finishing the game with 48 drop backs. He was sacked nine times, with seven of those coming in the second half. Rattler finished an efficient 30/39 for 353 yards, without throwing an interception despite being harassed the entire second half.

Give some props to Gardner Webb for hanging tough last week, scoring some points, and making things a little more interesting than what a select few may have expected last week. At the same time, I am not sure enough could be said for how App State adjusted to the unexpected themselves. After a less than stellar open to the game, an injury forced Ryan Burger to the sidelines late in the second quarter. At this point, the Mountaineers trailed by a field goal. On the first play, Joey Aguilar stepped in and fired a pass to an open Kaeden Robinson, who dodged a defender and trotted into the end zone. The Mountaineers would go on to score on every possession that Aguilar directed, outside of one three and out in the fourth quarter. Curiously enough, as App State was trying to kill the clock on their final drive of the game, on a 4th and 1, the Mountaineers threw to the end zone instead of running the ball up two scores. It was mostly a meaningless touchdown, but for me, it sent a message. Something else on film to think about.

On the defensive side of the ball, there were certainly moments to be happy about, and others, not so much. The Webb did all their scoring in the second and third quarters, which really made things dicey as App State was trying to figure out it’s own offensive issues. However, the defense started the game with two possessions that went a total of eleven yards. In total, Webb had five possessions that went less than ten yards, and the Mountaineers forced turnovers on three straight drives in the second half. Pressure started to get into the Gardner Webb backfield, and disrupted the ability of the Bulldogs to step into some throws. The Bulldogs gave it their best shot, but in the end, the depth won out. It’s a process, but I believe that the defense learned a lot about itself. Although Gardner Webb and North Carolina have different offenses, there are similarities in strategy. Both teams looked their best when they were able to dictate tempo and stay on schedule with the chains. Finding those negative plays and avoiding costly penalties will be as vital this week as it was last.

Heading into last season, North Carolina suffered some injuries in the running back room which required them to lean on some younger guys. Caleb Hood had 87 yards against App last year, with most of that coming on a 71-yard run. This season he is fourth on the depth chart. Omarion Hampton managed just 17 yards in the game last year, but gutted out 42 yards on sixteen carries against South Carolina. The guy the Heels really missed last year was British Brooks, a 5’11, 225-pound back who ran for 103 yards against South Carolina With Brooks and Hampton, Maye only had four carries himself against USC. I believe the Heels want to take care of Maye as much as possible this season, and the best way to do that is with a good run game. Maye was not sacked on Saturday night in Charlotte, and the Heels would love to keep it that way. After seeing some of the success that Gardner Webb had with Narii Gaither and Jayden Brown, I was surprised the Bulldogs did not run more than they did. But their intent was clear, to force App State to make open field tackles outside the numbers. Mack Brown has mentioned it several times, from last year on to this year. The intent of the offense is to make sure that Drake Maye can facilitate, by getting the ball to his playmakers. North Carolina is still waiting to hear back on the second appeal of Tez Walker regarding his eligibility. In the meantime, Kobe Paysour was the hot target this past weekend for Drake Maye. He reeled in seven catches for 66 yards and a touchdown. Last year in Boone, with now Indianapolis Colt Josh Downs sitting out with an injury, it was also Paysour who paced the Heels with eight catches for 92 yards and a score. It’s fair to draw some data from last season’s game, outside of that wild and wacky fourth quarter. Are we set up for another similar game? The two previous matchups were absolute classics, that went down to the final plays. Why would anyone think that this game could be any different. There is plenty of tape on Drake Maye, and a lot to lean on from a year ago. Joey Aguilar is the unknown here. There is one half of FBS football tape here. Sure, the Heels can lean on Frank Ponce’s tendencies as a coordinator, but there is probably a big difference in calling plays for Chase Brice and for Joey Aguilar.

The First Pick

Baby Blues 30

Mountaineers 24

App State Football vs Gardner-Webb

Appalachian State (0-0) vs Gardner-Webb (0-0)

Saturday, September 2nd, 2023 3:30pm EST

TV/Video: ESPN+

Radio: FLAGSHIP 97.3 FM (North Wilkesboro), 96.5
FM/1450 AM (Boone), 99.1 FM/1060 AM/1030 AM (Charlotte),
105.3 FM/1320 AM (Greensboro), 790 AM (Johnson City),
107.7 FM/1450 AM (Hendersonville), Varsity Network App

Kidd Brewer Stadium

Capacity: 30,000

Surface: Astroturf

Jeff Sagarin Ratings

App State: 73.57

Gardner Webb: 43.72

Home: 3.39

App State is favored by the Sagarin ratings by 33.24 points

Series: App State leads 8-0

Last Meeting: App State 72, Gardner-Webb 7, September 22, 2018, Boone NC

We have all waited patiently and longer than any season, since the end of the 2014 season for the next one to start. In the 2013 and 2014 seasons, during the Mountaineers transition from the FCS to FBS, they were not eligible for postseason play. Those seasons ended in November. Prior to that, it was 2004, when Appalachian finished 6-5 and failed to play a game in the month of December. I had to stop for a minute and think about that. That 2004 season ended with a rather tragic loss to Western Carolina. One that should not have happened. It’s not about how that game ended, or that it was a loss. What comes to mind is what that game/season set off in the coming years. Once again. A long offseason, with a lot of thoughts, reflection and energy going toward the moment that is right before us. There were moments in 2004, that simply did not make sense. With that, some things had to change. That group of Mountaineers figured it out, and I believe this one will too.

The Mountaineers last played The Webb 5 years ago, and plenty has changed since then. Nothing can be drawn from that 65-point massacre. Fourth-year head coach Tre Lamb now leads the Bulldogs, and has been successful in turning the program around. First, he is a Lamb, and hails from a family tree of football that is legendary in the state of Georgia. Both his father and grandfather won state titles in the high school ranks. His uncle Bobby, who is still on the field at Anderson College, also coached at Furman and Mercer. And how could we forget cousin Taylor, currently on staff at Virginia, who was a star signal caller for the Mountaineers from 2014-2017. Tre Lamb was hired in December 2019, but the Bulldogs did not play a game until 2021. Gardner-Webb opted for 4 games in the spring of 2021, and then played a full 11 game slate in the fall. The 2022 season was where the results started to come forward, as the Bulldogs finished the year 7-6 with an FCS playoff appearance and Big South championship highlighting the season.

In 2023, the Big South and the Ohio Valley Conference have merged to form an association for football, to ensure that all schools have a chance to compete in the FCS Playoffs. This will be the first year of that association, which shines a light on what realignment looks like at the FCS level. The Webb has been tabbed as a preseason Top 25 team by multiple outlets and were selected to finish second in the new Big South-OVC. Like Appalachian, The Webb will be breaking in a new starting quarterback in 2023, but both teams might lean on the run game early on. The Bulldogs return Narii Gaither, who ran for over 1,000 yards last season and scored eight touchdowns. In 2021, Gaither put together an almost identical season with 966 yards and seven touchdowns. Gaither is a true three down back as well, as he caught 69 passes for another 608 yards in the last two seasons. He’s fifth all time at Gardner Webb in rushing yards.

The spring and fall competition has come to end. Ryan Burger will be handed the football first in 2023, in hopes to live up to expectations of those before him. Over the years, most of the great Mountaineer quarterbacks started young, and became legends with time. Think of the likes of Richie Williams, Armanti Edwards, Taylor Lamb and Zac Thomas. They all got their shot as underclassmen. Nobody is crowning Burger yet. If anything he has put the pressure on himself to be great, and this is simply the first step in the process. Burger will have plenty to work with around him. The wide receiver room contains essentially the same trio from last season, including Dashuan Davis, Kaiden Robinson and Christian Horn. They combined for 97 catches, 1,460 yards and nine touchdowns. In 2022, it seemed like every time Dalton Stroman caught the ball, it was a big one, evidenced by his 19.5 yards per catch. Had Stroman caught one more pass, he would have found himself in the top ten of the App State record books for average yards per catch in a season.

A lot of the focus of the offseason was about the quarterback position, and justly so, but the most changes have occurred on the defensive side. The Mountaineers return just four starters on that side of the ball, but have been buoyed by transfers. Formerly of Rutgers, Shawn Collins will start at one end position, while Michael Fletcher comes from Michigan State to provide depth on the other side of the line. Tyrek Funderburk (Richmond) will start at one cornerback position in his graduate year. A second graduate transfer, Jarret Paul of Kansas could be the first man up if an injury occurs in the secondary. That mix of experience, along with several other key pieces who played as true freshman, and others such as Nick Ross, Andrew Parker and Brendan Harrington could provide a unique blend of players that most Mountaineer fans have never seen. I’m more intrigued by this group than any, especially with the return of Scot Sloan to coordinate the defense. They will get right, and it might take a couple weeks to round into form, but I like what this group could become.

Gathering information in the first few weeks of a new football season is tough. You have no games to go on besides what happened nine months ago. That information is tougher when the first opponent you face is an FCS squad, with limited media coverage, and generally a sports information staff at the school that is also smaller. So, when you look at a depth chart from an FCS school and they have used the famous ‘OR’, not once, but twice at the quarterback position, there is nothing left to do, but shake your head. Well, it’s not that dramatic. Matthew Caldwell’s name is in ALL CAPS, while Gino English and Jaylen King are listed in proper case. Caldwell makes the most sense, as he was with The Webb last season. English transferred from Florida State where he played less than sparingly. King was in high school this time last year, but played in a run heavy offensive system. On paper he appears to be the athlete of the group. It’s possible we see King on the field in some form or fashion. The Webb does not return a lot of production from 2022 in the wide receiver room. In an Air Raid system, anyone could have a big day beyond those listed as the starters. However, Webb lost their top two pass catchers from a season ago, who combined for 141 receptions, 1,941 yards and fifteen touchdowns. That seems like a lot. Actually, it is a lot. If Matthew Caldwell does indeed start at quarterback, he is not devoid of playing time. He got some action in six games, some wins, and some losses. However, every game that Caldwell appeared in came in games decided by twenty or more points. Take that for what you will. One element of the App State offense that I am excited to take hold, comes from the mobility of Ryan Burger. How much can the new gunslinger stretch the field with his legs. We’ve heard about it, and now its time to see it in person. Having a quarterback that you have to account for in the backfield, whether the pocket breaks down or the receivers are covered, is a big difference maker. When it’s 3rd down and 7 yards, can Burger find that open field and give the offense a new set of downs. There are no doubts that a large focus of the offseason went into the entire team becoming better athletes. Several Mountaineers will tote the rock this weekend. How will that training impact the likes of Nate Noel and Ahmani Marshall? Can’t wait to find out.

The First Pick

Boiling Springs Pound 20

Mountaineers 41

App State Football @ Georgia Southern

Appalachian State (6-5) @ Georgia Southern (5-6)

Saturday, November 26th, 2022 6:00pm EST

TV/Video: ESPN+

Radio: FLAGSHIP 97.3 FM (North Wilkesboro), 96.5
FM/1450 AM (Boone), 99.1 FM/1060 AM/1030 AM (Charlotte),
105.3 FM/1320 AM (Greensboro), 790 AM (Johnson City),
107.7 FM/1450 AM (Hendersonville), Varsity Network App

Paulson Stadium

Capacity: 25,000

Surface: Shaw Legion HP synthetic turf

Jeff Sagarin Ratings

App State: 68.42

Georgia Southern: 61.89

Home: 1.86

App State is favored by the Sagarin ratings by 4.67 points

VegasInsider Line: App State -4.5

Series: App State leads 21-15-1

Last Meeting: App State 27, Georgia Southern 3, November 27, 2021, Boone NC

Having difficulties conjuring up the energy to get excited about this game should not be the case. That might change on Saturday morning, when you’ve had plenty of turkey, and you maybe went shopping in a store on Friday. Sorry, that will change on Saturday morning. Turkey Day provides a distraction that’s not needed in this rivalry. It takes away from the message board and social media trash talk that has been hashed out and regurgitated for years. For instance, we’ve all heard that 6 is greater than 3. And finally, we can tell Southern fans about their series record against Georgia State. But seriously, you’ll wake up on Saturday morning, wherever you are, and one of the first things on your mind will be, “It’s a long time until 6pm”. The game will be on your mind just about every time you look at the clock. It will dictate just about every decision you make. And although we may not feel it during the week, that excitement will be there on Saturday.

The most interesting part regarding this matchup is that we have a “new” Georgia Southern. It is more than just first year head coach Clay Helton being new. Most noticeably, we have pass heavy Georgia Southern. They have a quarterback that has thrown for more yards than any other quarterback in the conference, but also leads the conference in interceptions by a significant margin. This dramatic shift has not eliminated the Southern ground game, but they are a middle of the road attack, in a conference where most teams have not run the ball well all year. The Eagles will find a way to score some points, but they have been playing catch up against their own defense all season long. In their first nine games of the season, Southern eclipsed 20 points in every game, but have managed just 17 and 10 points respectively against Louisiana and Marshall in their last two games. Since defeating Old Dominion on October 22nd, the Eagles have lost three conference games in a row.

The name of that quarterback is Kyle Vantrease, a sixth year player who transferred in from Buffalo, and is having a career year in Statesboro. Who knows what the Eagles look like without him. Clay Helton came to town to get Georgia Southern back to respectability, and he might be ahead of schedule if it were not for the last three weeks. Vantrease has had easily his worst three weeks of the season in November. Having completed under 60% of his passes in three straight games, throwing just four touchdown passes, and suffering four of his six sacks on the season, it seems that defenses have finally adjusted to the new offensive scheme. Yet, this is not all on Vantrease. South Alabama turned the ball over three times against Southern and the offense could not run in order to stay on the field. The defense gave up over 500 yards to both Marshall and Louisiana. Marshall converted over 50% of its third downs in a thirteen point win and Louisiana was just 3/14 on third downs and won by nineteen points. Make it make sense!

The Mountaineers rolled up a solid 498 yards against one of the worst defenses they have played all year in Old Dominion. If it is possible, the Southern defense is much worse. The Eagles have a bottom five defense nationally, mainly because they are a bottom five defense against the run. They have allowed 227 yards a game on the ground, this after Marshall rolled up 255 yards on the ground last week. In fact, Marshall’s struggling offense could be coming around, because they torched the Eagles for 529 total yards. Seven times this season, opponents have run for over 200 yards on Southern, which includes in each of the last three weeks. In fact, you can attack the Eagles in just about any way you want. In ten of the their eleven games, excluding their opener against Morgan State, Southern has allowed 240 or more yards either passing or rushing. Some weeks they gave up the pass, others the run, and on a couple occasions, they did both. The Eagles record is 1-5 in games where they allowed 240 or more yards rushing, with the only win coming against Nebraska.

It appeared the Mountaineers wanted to take the ball straight to Old Dominion last week with a patient and hard nosed running game. The Mountaineers ran the ball ten times for 44 yards in the first quarter, which also opened up some big passing plays that led to a 10-0 lead after one period of play. App State ran for another 60 yards in the second quarter on seven carries, and eclipsed 300 yards of offense by halftime while heading to the halftime break with 24-0 score. From there, it was basically cruise control. That’s pretty much the App State program we are accustomed to. On top of taking the game to the opponent early, you crush their will to compete with a vanilla game plan in the second half. Ahmani Marshall did not log a carry in the first quarter, got three carries in the second quarter, and then finished the game as the teams leading rusher with 137 yards on nineteen carries. Marshall ran for 56 yards in the third quarter and 58 yards in the final frame. Old Dominion tacked on two late scores for the backdoor cover, but it was mostly a relaxing afternoon.

When these two teams play, something is supposed to be on the line more than just bowl eligibility. That is not supposed to be the prize at the end of this game. The reward should be the inside line to winning the conference championship or winning the division. The last couple years, as this game has been played on a Saturday, at the end of the season, there was nothing on the line. Last year, the Eagles were playing out the season with an interim coach. Two seasons ago, people were tired of a pandemic and also looking forward to just getting to the end of the season. But 2018 and 2019 were different. Those games had some significance, as much as it pains to even mention it. Has this series begun to lose what it has been made of? Does it lack the punch it once had? Was moving it to Saturday a good move, but also a poor decision now that it has found Thanksgiving weekend? Is the cure simply about having games of significance? The more this sport evolves with the transfer portal and immediate success with quick trigger coaching moves, do you lose the importance of a rivalry? When there are 40 or so players on Georgia Southern’s roster that did not get their introduction to college football in Statesboro, are they as endeared to school buses and drainage ditches as the freshmen they play with? Clay Helton was one of the lucky ones to get a second chance coaching at an FBS school. Butch Jones at Arkansas State did the same. There is so much of this Southern team that reminds me of what happened in Jonesboro a year ago. A house cleaning of sorts that came with a much needed philosophy change, with new presidents and athletic directors charged with the task of fixing it. The early results are in, and those defenses at both schools are terrible. A quick glance at Southern’s roster, and you see a lot of guys with experience starting on both sides of the ball, yet they have fives in late November. And will they have to start over again next year? Vantrease will move on and their current backup played last year against App. Lot of questions going forward, but in the meantime, we play Saturday. This game comes down to the big plays, such as third downs and red zone scoring. This shapes up like last week does, but Southern’s offense is in better shape that Old Dominion. On the year, Southern is 18th in the country converting third downs into first downs, doing so 47.3% of the time. The Mountaineers are 98th in stopping third downs, allowing a 41.9% conversion rate to its opponents. And both ODU and Southern are decent red zone defenses, and App State converted 2 of 4 chances against the Monarchs. Still, this Southern defense is really bad, and I think the Mountaineers score from deep like they did last weekend. Southern has allowed 33.25 points per game at home to FBS opponents and that trend will continue.

The First Pick

Eaglets 33

Mountaineers 38