#25 Appalachian Football @ Georgia Southern

#25 Appalachian State (5-1, 3-0 Sun Belt) @ Georgia Southern (6-1, 3-0 Sun Belt)

Thursday, October 25th, 2018 7:30pm est

TV/Video: ESPNU

Radio: WKBC 97.3 Wilkesboro, Charlotte, Winston Salem, Hickory & High Country; WATA 1450 Boone, Blowing Rock; WGVZ ESPN 730 Charlotte, Rock Hill, Salisbury; WCOG 1320 Winston-Salem, Greensboro; WCMC 99.3 Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill; WZGM 1350 Black Mountain, Asheville; WDNC 620 Durham, Raleigh; WHKP 1450, WHKP 107.7 Hendersonville; WAZZ 1490, WAZZ 94.3 Fayetteville; WPWT 870 AM, 100.7 FM Bristol/Johnson City, TN

Paulson Stadium 

Surface: Shaw Legion 41 synthetic turf

Capacity: 25,000

Jeff Sagarin Ratings

App State: 78.66

Georgia Southern: 63.90

Home: 2.47

App State is favored by the Sagarin ratings by 12.5 points (rounded)

Sportsbook: App State -8.5

Series: App State leads 19-13-1

Last meeting: App State 27, Georgia Southern 6,  November 9th, 2017, Boone, NC

WxCrum Forecast: Rain chances increasing through the evening 

We are all so lucky that we get to have this experience once a year. No matter which team is up or down in any given year, nothing really changes. App State and Georgia Southern teeing it up always brings out the best and worst of both fan bases. Whether App fans want to believe it or not, we have somewhat missed the Eagles feeling good about themselves. At the end of day, that is what makes this rivalry. It can be argued that the stakes could not be any bigger this week than they have before between these two schools. Multiple times, one has knocked off the other while they were the top-ranked team in FCS. Multiple times these teams have met with the inside track to a conference championship on the line. Multiple times, one team had more riding on the game than the opponent. It’s a bit different this time, because as much as things stay the same, they also change. Never have App and Southern played with a conference championship game potentially in the balance. Never have they played with a school ranked in the AP Top 25 and never has the slimmest of chances of a New Years Day bowl even been slightly considered. This game might be different, it might be the same, but none of that is considered when these teams are between the lines. It’s all about beating Georgia Southern. 

The last time we saw Chad Lunsford, he was still the interim coach for Georgia Southern. A long time assistant, but never once a coordinator earned the right to lead the Eagles based upon his five week audition. He signed a four year contract nearly double the base salary of the fired Tyson Summers and went to work quickly on getting back to the Georgia Southern basics. Lunsford first hired Scot Sloan away from App State to be his defensive coordinator, and then quickly followed that up by hiring his offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse away from New Mexico. With DeBesse’s hiring, the Eagles were somewhat getting their option offense back. 

Like Louisiana, the Eagles have been sliding for a couple years, but appear to getting things turned around. The Eagles of the last few seasons would not be 6-1 even with the schedule they have played to date. They easily returned the favor to UMass, who had waxed the Eagles in Amherst last year. Following a loss to Clemson, Southern pulled off the early shocker of the Sun Belt slate with a last minute comeback over Arkansas State. That’s when most began to take notice. Their next three opponents were not exactly intimidating, and they took care of business, which a included a close win over perennial Sun Belt cellar dweller Texas State. Southern pulled away from South Alabama in the second half in Statesboro and benefited from three New Mexico State turnovers in their win last weekend. 

With the option being back, you get to see more things like, the leading rusher being the quarterback. The majority of the offense does run through Shai Werts, but his production has declined since the beginning of the season. After 75 carries in the first four games, Werts has just 29 carries in the last three contests. He suffered an injury to his chest in the Texas State game but did return later in that tilt. His rushing average dipped from 95 yards a game in the first four, to 57 yards per in the last three. Werts might have been limited by design last week, as the Eagles still rolled up a season high 389 yards on the ground. 

Southern’s second leading rusher Wesley Fields sat out against New Mexico State with an injury after having his most usage in a game against Texas State with 26 carries for 93 yards. Fields has 472 yards and four rushing touchdowns in six games. Filling in for the injured Fields was redshirt freshman Logan Wright, who ran for 136 yards and two touchdowns on seventeen carries. Wright only had nine carries prior to last week. Senior Monteo Garrett also saw a season-high seventeen carries which he converted into 76 yards vs New Mexico State. Sophomore slot back Wesley Kennedy III, who also handles kickoff returns, added 97 yards on sixteen carries. 

Now that we mentioned every Eagle running back, it’s time to mention our own. Darrynton Evans stepped right in and scampered his way to 183 rushing yards and two total touchdowns in his first action as the main ball carrier. That performance was good enough to be named the Sun Belt’s co-offensive player of the week. Evans now leads the team with 425 rushing yards. In his last two games, Evans has toted the ball 42 times for 298 yards including three total scores. His style is completely different to what fans have been accustomed to for several years. Visually, it will take some getting used to, but arguing with the results will get you nowhere.

The biggest cliche in games where the intensity and emotions are heightened has something to do with “throwing out the records.” It might be old and tired, but generally, it is pretty dead on. It can be tough to look at a bunch of statistics with a run heavy team such as Georgia Southern to get a read on them. Most of time when Georgia Southern is a really good football team, they have been at or near the top team in the nation running the ball. Insert the fifth ranked rushing team in terms of yards per game. On the other side, App State is the seventh best in the same category. Southern has about ten more yards per game, while the Mountaineers boast a better yard per carry average by almost a whole yard (0.95). Otherwise, when you play a run heavy team, and that team is 6-1, their statistics are going to look good. They don’t give up a ton of rushing yards because teams are playing from behind.  They’ll have a ton of rushing yards, and they’ll throw the ball around when you least expect it and they’ll be pretty efficient when they do it. If this game will be affected by wetter than usual weather, it will be the team that is better passing the ball that will prevail. Yeah, you read that right. The beauty of that is the offense knows where they are going, and the defense has to react. I expect a bounce back performance by the Mountaineers in the passing game, despite the conditions. The first team to thirty points will take this one. 

 

The First Pick

The Stink 20

Mountaineers 31

Appalachian Football vs Louisiana

Appalachian State (4-1, 2-0 Sun Belt) vs. Louisiana (3-3, 1-1 Sun Belt)

Saturday, October 20th, 2018 3:30pm est

TV/Video: ESPN+

Radio: WKBC 97.3 Wilkesboro, Charlotte, Winston Salem, Hickory & High Country; WATA 1450 Boone, Blowing Rock; WGVZ ESPN 730 Charlotte, Rock Hill, Salisbury; WCOG 1320 Winston-Salem, Greensboro; WCMC 99.3 Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill; WZGM 1350 Black Mountain, Asheville; WDNC 620 Durham, Raleigh; WHKP 1450, WHKP 107.7 Hendersonville; WAZZ 1490, WAZZ 94.3 Fayetteville; WPWT 870 AM, 100.7 FM Bristol/Johnson City, TN

Kidd Brewer Stadium 

Surface: Fieldturf

Capacity: 30,000

Jeff Sagarin Ratings

App State: 80.79

Louisiana: 57.04

Home: 2.47

App State is favored by the Sagarin ratings by 26 points (rounded)

Sportsbook: App State -25.5

Series: App State leads 4-0

Last meeting: App State 63, Louisiana 14,  December 2nd, 2017, Boone, NC

WxCrum Forecast: Mostly Cloudy, AM drizzle possible, Winds increasing, Temps in the 50’s

Major test number one is out of the way. It took some time for the cold engine to start, but once it did, it ran like a charm. The Mountaineers fell behind 6-0, but responded on the next drive to take the 7-6 lead. Immediately following another Red Wolves field goal, the Mountaineers responded again, to take a 14-9 lead. From that moment, it was cruise control, and Arkansas State is still looking for answers. Meanwhile, the Mountaineers march on to another conference game, with another extended break. Besides the fallout from losing a great team leader and star running back, to the scuttle of trying to crack the Top 25 for the first time in school history, a lot will have happened between playing games. Focus could be tough when your mind is racing several different directions. Last week’s game is over and the team can’t rest on just one big win. Several more games are ahead of us, all against teams that want their shot against the Mountaineers. The Cajuns are 0-4 against App State. Georgia Southern has lost three straight in the series. Coastal is 0-4, Texas State 0-3 and Georgia State 0-4. From here on out nothing will be easy, and the week to week approach is paramount to this team’s success. 

New Louisiana athletic director Bryan Maggard did not waste any time firing Mark Hudspeth. He informed the once popular coach that he would no longer be the head coach the following morning after App State’s seven touchdown win last season. By the end of the next business week, Maggard tabbed one Billy Napier to the Cajuns’ 26th head football coach. Napier is the former Furman quarterback who was infamously involved in one of the most memorable plays and radio calls in Kidd Brewer stadium history. That result from sixteen years ago has nothing to do with this weekend, but it just had to be mentioned.

The Cajun’s were sliding for the past three years under Hudspeth and his ouster was imminent. The program that was considered on of the top teams in the Sun Belt is no longer. Currently, the Cajuns hold the top spot in the Sun Belt West but that seems like they are just renting space. A porous defense with no depth is unlikely to hold up against the some of the stronger offenses in the conference. The schedule does not  do any favors for the Cajuns either for the next few weeks. After travelling to Siberian North Carolina they return to Lafayette for Arkansas St and then hit the road to Troy. If the Cajuns plan to go bowling, they cannot afford any missteps. 

Louisiana was tabbed to finish fourth in the West division when the coaches cast their ballots back in July, but nobody expected the type of dominance we have seen from the East Division. The Cajuns lost at home to second year Sun Belt opponent Coastal Carolina about a month ago in a game that the Chanticleers dominated at every statistical level including possessing the ball for over 38 minutes. But the Cajuns have had a couple “get right” games the last two weeks against two of the worst teams in FBS; hapless Texas State and a very young New Mexico State.

The Cajuns sport a three headed rushing attack in Trey Ragas, Elijah Mitchell and Raymond Calais. They have combined to run 185 times for 1,355 yards. They make up 90% of the Cajuns rushing total for the season. All three are averaging well over 6.5 yards a carry and have combined for thirteen touchdowns. Ragas and Mitchell are similarly sized weighing in right around 220 points, while Calais is smaller at 180 pounds. Quarterback Andre Nunez is one of the more accurate passes in the country, completing 68.3 % of his passes. Nunez has eleven touchdown passes on the season, but five of those came last week against New Mexico State in their lopsided win. 

The Mountaineers throttled Arkansas State last week but it came with a huge cost. Jalin Moore suffered a severe ankle injury that will cost him the remainder of his Black and Gold career. Enough words cannot be said about Jalin Moore, and I’m not going to try, but it will be tough not talking about his performances for the remainder of this season. However, it opens the door for others to step forward and show they can handle a bigger load. Several different backs will get their shot to fill the absence, and it might take some time to figure that all out offensively.

Besides Moore’s injury, the story of last Tuesday night was the Mountaineer defense. The Red Wolves were limited to 117 yards on the ground on thirty-seven attempts. Justice Hansen was 25/40 passing, but was held to just 209 yards and App State picked him off three times.  Three field goals are not going to beat the Mountaineers. UNC-Charlotte tried that same strategy and it did not work. 

Louisiana will be a formidable opponent this weekend. Probably more so than Arkansas State was last week. The Red Wolves are trending down, but have not bottomed out as of yet. Louisiana hit rock bottom last year and are working their way back up the Sun Belt ladder. The Cajuns have their limitations this season, but are trying to minimize those weaknesses with their offensive style. They simply do not have the horses on defense to run the offense Napier would like. In turn, the Cajuns will try to shorten this game on Saturday significantly because they have to. They cannot afford to have the nations 116th ranked rushing defense and 103rd ranked passing defense on the field for a long time. The Cajuns are giving up close to seven yards per play. Their best defense will be their offense. Speaking of offense, everyone is curious to see what kind of changes, if any, that the Mountaineers make considering the running back situation. I think everyone gets a chance, and it would not seem prudent to let one man carry the entire load. Considering the issues the Cajuns have in the secondary, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Mountaineers decided to air it out a little more than usual and put pressure on Louisiana to score every time they have the ball. That would give the running game some live game experience to work out any kinks and potential rhythm issues. Eventually the Mountaineers will fail to cover a spread, as they have in eight straight games, but I’m not doubting them this weekend. 

The First Pick

Mild Peppers 20

Mountaineers 48

 

Appalachian Football @ Arkansas State

Appalachian State (3-1, 1-0 Sun Belt) @ Arkansas State (3-2, 0-1 Sun Belt)

Tuesday, October 9th, 2018 8:00pm est

TV/Video: ESPN2

Radio: WKBC 97.3 Wilkesboro, Charlotte, Winston Salem, Hickory & High Country; WATA 1450 Boone, Blowing Rock; WGVZ ESPN 730 Charlotte, Rock Hill, Salisbury; WCOG 1320 Winston-Salem, Greensboro; WCMC 99.3 Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill; WZGM 1350 Black Mountain, Asheville; WDNC 620 Durham, Raleigh; WHKP 1450, WHKP 107.7 Hendersonville; WAZZ 1490, WAZZ 94.3 Fayetteville; WPWT 870 AM, 100.7 FM Bristol/Johnson City, TN

Centennial Bank Stadium 

Surface: GEO Surfaces Field turf

Capacity: 30,406

Jeff Sagarin Ratings

App State: 78.48

Arkansas State: 64.77

Home: 2.43

App State is favored by the Sagarin ratings by 11.5 points (rounded)

VegasInsider: App State -9

Series: Tied 1-1

Last meeting: Arkansas State 40, App State 27, November 5th, 2015, Boone, NC

WxCrum Forecast: Partly cloudy with light wind, Temps in upper 70’s

It’s been almost three years. Over a thousand days. A budding rivalry that has barely gotten off the ground will finally go up, on a Tuesday. For the Mountaineers, it will be their first game played on the second night of the work week. Arkansas State is no stranger to Tuesday’s, having played eight such games. This game sits out on an island, or a cape, perhaps an isthmus, as App’s only game in twenty calendar days. Whichever your water feature of choice, this game has been landlocked as a premier match up in conference play. Both schools want to host the initial conference championship game and a win by either would go a long way in securing that honor. Only one of the two can host the game, but both could potentially participate. Beyond the importance of Tuesday night, is the possible chess match that could unfold if both teams played again. Before we get ahead of ourselves, we’ll remind you how both teams have won on each other’s field in the two games that have been played, and although not many players remain on each side, the head coaches do. That’s a feat in itself. Their conflicting styles will factor into this result. Whether it be slow and steady or uptempo and aggressive, one team will be ahead of the curve by the time that Tuesday is gone

The feeling in Jonesboro, is that Arkansas State has their most talented offense ever, led by a senior quarterback that throws for a lot of yards and touchdowns. The Red Wolves have been abysmal in non-conference play since Appalachian joined the conference, but that changed in 2018. Arkansas State grabbed peer wins over Tulsa and UNLV that looked good on paper. However, Tulsa is now 1-4 with their only win over, (laughs) Central Arkansas who, famously beat Ark State in 2016. UNLV is currently 2-3, with a wins over Prairie View A&M and 0-5 UTEP. You get the idea. Arkansas State grabbed a couple non-conference wins, but not much to write home about. 

Those wins were enough to keep everyone calm in Jonesboro for the time being, and then they played Georgia Southern, looked the same as they did in their previous two games, and lost. Then all heck broke loose. Hit the panic button. Something has to change. It’s possible that loss was the perfect wake up call for the Red Wolves. They get to play at home, sleep in their own beds for an odd gameday, and they got a couple more days to prepare. 

The conference tabbed Justice Hansen as its preseason offensive player of the year. Hansen also won the award in 2017 with just shy of 4000 passing yards, 37 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. In 2018, his completion percentage is at the highest its been in his career and his interceptions are down, but his yards per attempt (7.5) is at a career low. Hansen has also run the ball 43 times for 152 yards in his last three games, a 3.5 yard per carry average. He’s on pace to be sacked more times than any other year in his career as well. What does all this mean? Hansen has been asked to do a lot and his team has not responded well to it. 

The Red Wolves rushing attack is spread out. Hansen leads the team in carries with 54, but is fourth on the teams with 189 yards.  Three other backs have carried the load. Marcel Murray, a freshman, has the most yards at 261 and has added a couple touchdowns. Warren Wand, who stands all of 5’5″, has 204 yards on the ground. Armond Weh-Weh is the bigger back and has carried for 190 yards on the season. Arkansas State has three receivers with over 200 yards receiving. Omar Bayless average 16.6 yards per catch and has a 54-yard touchdown to his credit. Kirk Merritt and Justin McInnis have combined for 52 of the teams 127 receptions.  

In a game that many were uneasy about coming in, App State throttled South Alabama 52-7. It had the same look and feel as the win over Gardner-Webb. The Mountaineers pounced the Jaguars early and cruised to an easy win with 348 rushing yards, led by Jalin Moore’s 123 yards and two touchdowns. Zac Thomas pitched in with an electrifying 54-yard touchdown run to highlight his 77 yards. Darrynton Evans had a 42 yard burst to boost his 61 yard effort. Marcus Williams Jr added 59 yards on 6.6 yards per carry. As a team, the Mountaineers have run for 1078 yards in just four games, and 780 of those yards have occurred in the last two games. 

Zach Thomas had an easy day, but was pushed in the third quarter by his own coach to see what he could handle. That eventually led to a couple of interceptions that were thrown when the game was well in hand. Typically a time to give repetitions to younger bench players, Scott Satterfield challenged his sophomore quarterback which provided an opportunity for live in-game teaching moments. Thomas had the help of his defense most of the day, as the Mountaineers shut down South Alabama’s run game to the tune of 2.4 yards per carry. 

Eventually, the “Who did you beat?” game wears off. Appalachian has three lopsided wins and a close loss at a top ten team. Nobody is asking Alabama if they have beaten anyone. I’m not comparing App State and Alabama, but if you continue to destroy teams, your resume speaks for itself. The same can be said about Arkansas State. Their wins are not very impressive, but they are wins. It is the losses that get nitpicked. Arkansas State had plenty of chances to score points against Georgia Southern, but couldn’t execute when the field got smaller. That’s been the case all season. Arkansas State has just eight touchdowns in fourteen trips to the red zone. Their red zone scoring percentage on the season is just .786, tied for 101st in the country. The only Sun Belt teams worse? South Alabama and Louisiana-Monroe. Offense is not the problem for Arkansas State. They have nearly 400 more yards than their opponents. The issue is the inefficiency. The Red Wolves are averaging just 6.0 yards per play, while their defense is giving up 6.1 per snap. On the flip side, Appalachian has given up just 12 red zone scoring chances, allowing nine scores, which is good enough for 29th nationally. The team that finishes their drives will prevail. The Mountaineers will finish a few more drives than the Red Wolves and will take home their second conference win of the season. 

The First Pick

Lil’ Red Riding Hood 23

Mountaineers 37

Appalachian Football vs South Alabama

Appalachian State (2-1, 0-0 Sun Belt) vs South Alabama (1-3, 1-0 Sun Belt)

Saturday, September 29th, 2018 3:30pm est

TV/Video: ESPN+

Radio: WKBC 97.3 Wilkesboro, Charlotte, Winston Salem, Hickory & High Country; WATA 1450 Boone, Blowing Rock; WGVZ ESPN 730 Charlotte, Rock Hill, Salisbury; WCOG 1320 Winston-Salem, Greensboro; WCMC 99.3 Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill; WZGM 1350 Black Mountain, Asheville; WDNC 620 Durham, Raleigh; WHKP 1450, WHKP 107.7 Hendersonville; WAZZ 1490, WAZZ 94.3 Fayetteville; WPWT 870 AM, 100.7 FM Bristol/Johnson City, TN

Kidd Brewer Stadium 

Surface: Fieldturf

Capacity: 30,000

Jeff Sagarin Ratings

App State: 77.03

South Alabama: 53.08

Home: 2.70

App State is favored by the Sagarin ratings by 26.5 points (rounded)

Sportsbook: App State -26

Series: Tied 1-1

Last meeting: App State 34, South Alabama 27, December 5, 2015 Mobile, AL

WxCrum Forecast: Partly cloudy to mostly cloudy, Temps in the mid to upper 60’s

We are back on track, playing games and no longer fretting about the past. Although a good old-fashioned whipping lacks the drama and intrigue of the conference slate, it was the perfect medicine for what cured the ailments of the App State faithful. Now the attention turns to the most important part of the season: ring games. The hardware is a big reason why you play, the reward at the end of a successful season. Appalachian has aspirations that include winning a title and the first hurdle is South Alabama, one of the five Sun Belt schools to beat the Mountaineers once. Not only are the Jaguars one of the five, they were the first of five schools to beat Appalachian, and one of only two schools to win in Boone. Those small facts are just enough to have the fan base on the edge of their seats for this game. That’s the kind of game you long for. Having just enough butterflies floating around to get you feeling a little funny. But never fear folks, it’s not 2014 anymore, and the Mountaineers are a much more talented group than what they fielded in their FBS infancy. The Jaguars are still trying to find solid ground in what is now their tenth season of football in school history and for the first time, they have a new head coach leading the charge. 

Over the years, the Jaguars seasons have been defined by their week in and week out inconsistencies. They can beat any team in the conference on any day, and can also be beaten any day. That is what eventually got former coach Joey Jones fired. Enter Steve Campbell, a lower division lifer, with stops all over the deep south, including Central Arkansas and Mississippi Gulf Coast CC. Campbell has never had a losing season in nineteen years as a head coach. He grew up on the Gulf Coast and although South Alabama may have not been a dream job, it is a job that makes him very comfortable. He is flanked with numerous coaches on his staff that he has coached with prior which creates a very cohesive group. 

One area that has drastically improved for South Alabama is their offense. A stagnant group in 2017 which averaged under twenty points per game, has increased their output by nine points. The problem is, their defense has done the same. The Jaguars allowed 26.5 points per contest in 2017, and that number has ballooned to 42 points per game. Scoring more points should put your team in position to contend for more wins, but for a team that has allowed thirty or more points in every contest, they likely are not very excited to see a team this weekend that is averaging 51.7 points per game in App State. 

Jaguar starting quarterback Evan Orth has played in every game this season, but only recently became the starter. Orth was listed fourth on the depth chart in the spring, but has outlasted his competition with his resilient nature. One quarterback decided to transfer, another was suspended, and the third was plain out inefficient. The UAB transfer has finally found a home and seems to be running the offense that Steve Campbell likes. A good mix of power reads, options, and the deep ball have kept the Jaguars in a lot of games. Orth has completed 69% of his passes for 789 yards, and six touchdowns to only one interception. Orth also has 113 rushing yards to his credit. Kawaan Baker has been the beneficiary of the option game from the slot. Baker leads the team with 134 rushing yards on just twenty-one attempts, but has crossed the goal line four times. Jamarius Way has over a third of the team’s catches for over half the team’s receiving yards. Way is a big receiver who does not have gamebreaking speed, but enough to be effective

In what eventually amounted to as game to pad statistics, Appalachian played just about everyone in their 72-7 win over Gardner-Webb. The Mountaineer offense was dominant from the start, scoring in just three plays on their opening drive and never trailing. It was an expected result that was inflated due to two blocked punts, one recovered for a touchdown, and the other where the Mountaineers scored on the following play. Long touchdowns by Jalin Moore from 81 yards, and D’Andre Hicks from 73 yards including a 62 yard punt return by Clifton Duck highlighted the day. Of the ten touchdown drives, only two of them took longer than five minutes to complete and the Mountaineers punted just once. 

The rushing attack led the day, with 432 yards coming on the ground, with Hicks going for 150 yards on eleven attempts and Moore ending his day with 119 yards on just eight carries. Moore now has 253 yards and three touchdowns on the year, all on just 37 carries. His low usage should keep him fresh for later in the season. Zac Thomas had a light day, with 185 yards passing to up his total to 750 yards on the season. Thomas added one passing and one rushing touchdown. Thomas has had a hand in nine touchdowns for the Mountaineers this season. 

South Alabama has had a difficult schedule to this point. They have fallen victim to always tough Louisiana Tech, and the high octane offenses of Oklahoma State and Memphis. All three are in the top 20% of all NCAA offenses this season. As are the Mountaineers. What those three schools cannot claim is top ten defense. Memphis is 23rd, La Tech is 37th and Oklahoma State is 70th. Having a couple lopsided games certainly can skew some of this data, but eventually, your team starts resembling what they actually are. South Alabama has a rather inexperienced interior of their offensive line. Even with an offense that likes to get rid of the ball quick, I’d expect Appalachian to send pressure up the middle to test a young offensive line. With an offense such as the Jaguars, who are only averaging 3.62 yards per rushing attempt, the Jaguars could be in plenty of long yardage scenarios on third down. That is where the Mountaineers break the soul of South Alabama. The Mountaineers can clog the running lanes with their rangy linebackers who have surrendered just 2.93 yards per carry. I’ve been back and forth on this pick all week long, and although the Jaguars might score some points, the Mountaineers might just be too much to overcome this weekend. 

The First Pick

Spotted Cats 17

Mountaineers 41

Appalachian Football vs Gardner Webb

Appalachian State (1-1, 0-0 Sun Belt) vs Gardner Webb (1-2, 0-0 Big South)

Saturday, September 22nd, 2018 3:30pm est

TV/Video: ESPN+

Radio: WKBC 97.3 Wilkesboro, Charlotte, Winston Salem, Hickory & High Country; WATA 1450 Boone, Blowing Rock; WGVZ ESPN 730 Charlotte, Rock Hill, Salisbury; WCOG 1320 Winston-Salem, Greensboro; WCMC 99.3 Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill; WZGM 1350 Black Mountain, Asheville; WDNC 620 Durham, Raleigh; WHKP 1450, WHKP 107.7 Hendersonville; WAZZ 1490, WAZZ 94.3 Fayetteville; WPWT 870 AM, 100.7 FM Bristol/Johnson City, TN

Kidd Brewer Stadium 

Surface: Fieldturf

Capacity: 30,000

Jeff Sagarin Ratings

App State: 75.86

Gardner Webb: 30.45

Home: 2.67

App State is favored by the Sagarin ratings by 48 points (rounded)

Sportsbook: NL

Series: App State leads 7-0

Last meeting: App State 45, Gardner Webb 7, October 6, 2007

WxCrum Forecast: Increasing Clouds, with chances of rain, Temps in the Mid 70’s

As a fan, dealing with a bye week is brutal enough. This past weekend was worse. Watching college football on television is usually fun, but when your team is not playing when they were scheduled to, just steps from your own doorstep? Just about as bad as it gets. Football fans have that every week routine. It begins on Monday with teleconferences and news articles, and progresses throughout the week with coaches shows and practice reports. Next thing you know, its Thursday, the day before you might travel to a game. And you do it over and over again. Week after week, the players, coaches, fans, journalists, equipment managers and everyone in between, embrace that grind. There are not many more magical times of the year than football season. September without a football game is like Easter without eggs, Christmas with no ham, and Kool-Aid without sugar. It just isn’t the same. Eventually we all move on, and the games return and its all forgotten, but it was a grim time for several days. Hopefully, when toe meets leather on Saturday afternoon, we’ll all be back in our happy place: the win column. 

The head coach of the Runnin’ Bulldogs is 1983 alum Carroll McCray, who is in his sixth season in Boiling Springs. Previously, McCray was in charge at Austin Peay from 2003-06. McCray spent his first four years in the coaching world under one Sparky Woods from 1983-87 in Boone, NC at App State. McCray carries a 38-77 all time record, and more recently is 22-38 at his alma mater. His lone winning season in his ten year head coaching career came in his first season at Gardner-Webb, where his team went 7-5. The Runnin’ Bulldogs play a tougher than usual schedule for a Big South squad. Besides their first two losses of the season coming to North Carolina A&T and Western Carolina, Gardner-Webb also faces off against 2017 FCS playoff participants Monmouth and Charleston Southern to close the season. Currently ranked in the top ten of the FCS polls, Wofford and Kennesaw State also loom on the horizon for Gardner-Webb.

Although it has been a short time since App State has been in FBS, it feels like ages ago. Watching film of Gardner-Webb and Western Carolina brought back a lot of memories. A smattering of fans, 2,257 “attended” the game, that was moved up one day to avoid Hurricane Florence. Gardner-Webb racked up 246 total yards of offense on 70 plays. For much of the game, these two teams didn’t seem like they were very far off in regards to talent, but the box score paints a different story. The Bulldogs gained 145 yards rushing, but also lost 48 yards on the ground. All in all, they gained 2.4 yards per rush on their forty attempts. 

No longer feeling sorry for Zac Thomas, the sophomore was perfect against UNC-Charlotte. No, seriously, he completed all fourteen of his passes, for 295 yards and three scores. Very tidy numbers. Two of his scores, to Corey Sutton and Dominique Heath were absolute dimes, right on the pylons. Thomas added twenty-nine yards on the ground and a rushing touchdown. His next incomplete pass will draw groans and boos from the crowd. Kidding aside, Thomas has exceeded expectations quickly, and fans are chomping at the bit to see what he can do next. 

Maybe the next thing that Zac Thomas will do is throw a pass to Corey Sutton and let him leave defenders sprawled out in his wake. Oh, sorry, that has already happened and we’ll probably see it again before too long. Thomas hit eight receivers against UNCC, with Sutton being the main beneficiary. Sutton’s catches went for 27, 38 and 90 yards. That gives him a decent slash line for two games at 9/242/2 on the season. Also benefiting is Malik Williams, who snagged three passes for 51 yards, including a big catch and run for 38 yards that set up App State’s third touchdown of the day in the 45-6 trouncing of the 49ers. 

There have been few murmurs of football the last two weeks with much of the focus being placed on hurricane relief. Sure, we stomped the mud a few times over the last several days over the assumed unwillingness of our last scheduled opponent’s desire to play the Mountaineers anywhere. It was an emotional time for all involved. But alas, here we are, with what seems like a second beginning to the football season. Gardner-Webb provides one final tuneup prior to hitting the conference slate for eight straight games. I want that twelfth game back as much as anyone, and we’ll get it back, and hopefully at home if we take care of what is ahead of us for the next two-plus months. Gardner-Webb’s roster is mostly homegrown and very young. Leading rusher Jayln Cagle is from Kannapolis. Leading receiver Kyle Horton played high school at Charlotte’s Mallard Creek. Four of their top six tacklers are also from North and South Carolina. Even their kickoff specialist is from Newland. This team will have something to prove, despite nearly two dozen freshman seeing game action this year. They have not had much offense to speak of, but they get up, wipe themselves off and continue to play. The effort is there, the execution, not so much. Gardner-Webb has not scored at all in the second half this year in either loss, and have just managed 16 points in their last 120 minutes of football. Additionally, the Runnin’ Bulldogs have never scored more than 17 points on Appalachian, while the Mountaineers have scored 30 or more in five straight games. By the time Saturday is over, it should be six in a row. 

The First Pick

Runnin’ on Fumes 10

Mountaineers 56

Appalachian Football @ UNC-Charlotte

Appalachian State (0-1, 0-0 Sun Belt) vs UNC-Charlotte (1-0, 0-0 C-USA)

Saturday, September 8th, 2018 6:00pm est

TV/Video: ESPN+

Radio: WKBC 97.3 Wilkesboro, Charlotte, Winston Salem, Hickory & High Country; WATA 1450 Boone, Blowing Rock; WGVZ ESPN 730 Charlotte, Rock Hill, Salisbury; WCOG 1320 Winston-Salem, Greensboro; WCMC 99.3 Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill; WZGM 1350 Black Mountain, Asheville; WDNC 620 Durham, Raleigh; WHKP 1450, WHKP 107.7 Hendersonville; WAZZ 1490, WAZZ 94.3 Fayetteville; WPWT 870 AM, 100.7 FM Bristol/Johnson City, TN

Jerry Richardson Stadium

Surface: Matrix artificial turf

Capacity: 15,314

Jeff Sagarin Ratings

App State: 71.30

UNC-Charlotte: 47.96

Home: 2.36

App State is favored by the Sagarin ratings by 21 points (rounded)

Sportsbook: App State -13.5

Series: First Meeting

Last meeting: n/a

WxCrum Forecast: Partly Cloudy, chance for a shower, Temps in 80’s

For sixty minutes, the Mountaineers and Nittany Lions traded blows like two heavyweights in a twelve round bout. As the game progressed to overtime, it was Penn State who landed the final flurry that would complete the most exciting game of the college football’s introductory weekend. A loss is not just always a loss. This was not a game where the out-of-towners simply hung around. Our team not only battled to take the lead twice against Penn State, they also persevered through multiple two touchdown deficits in the fourth quarter. Any other foe may have folded, but not the Mountaineers. Throughout time, Appalachian has faced many long odds in football games, but one thing always rings true. App State is going to give you four quarters. They are going to give you an honest days work. They are going to give you everything they have, because anything less is unacceptable. Now, the scene changes, from one of the largest venues in the sport, to the smallest. Facing a program with twenty-two wins the last two seasons, to one that has eighteen wins, all time. A wanna-be fledgling upstart versus an established storied powerhouse. The roles will have been flipped, and this weekend App State plays the role of the hunted. 

The 49ers are in their sixth season of football existence. Brad Lambert has been the head coach for all six seasons as he was lured away from Wake Forest where he previously served as an assistant, including three seasons as the Deacons defensive coordinator. In the first two years of transitional play before diving into Conference USA in 2015, the 49ers averaged 33 points per game in 2013 and 38 points per game in 2014. During those seasons, the 49ers sported identical 5-6 records. Since Conference USA play has commenced, those numbers have taken a slide. Charlotte averaged 17.5 points a game in a two-win 2015 season, 25.2 points which gave them four wins in 2016, and then completely bottomed out last season averaging 14.2 points in a one-win season. Scoring is not completely indicative of wins and losses in FBS football, but two seasons scoring under 2o points a game is not going to cut it in today’s high scoring college football world. 

 Charlotte has already matched their win total from a season ago. It helps when you play an FCS opponent at home and benefit from two significant weather delays. Fordham’s lack of a run game forced their hand. Eventually Charlotte began attacking the passing game, which led to the Rams gaining just 287 yards on the day, the lowest total that Charlotte had given up since 2015. Fordham was a combined 3/20 on third and fourth down for the contest. Charlotte gained 488 yards against Fordham, a balanced total of 221 on the ground and 267 in the air. Charlotte passed just twenty times, completing thirteen passes. Three passes went for big gainers, a 60-yarder to Victor Tucker, a 71 yard connection to running back Benny Lemay and 45 yard gain for Workpeh Kofa. The 49ers took their shots downfield, but was a very pedestrian 10/17 passing for 91 yards excluding those big plays. Appalachian did give up one big pass play to Penn State last week and its well known that the Mountaineer defense prefers not to give up such plays. 

Last week, we felt sorry for Zac Thomas for one reason; his constant comparisons to his predecessor. Apparently Thomas likes the pressure, as his future performances will only be compared to his very first career start. Thomas was virtually flawless in regulation passing for 270 yards and two touchdowns, all while completing 67.5% of his passes. That’s forgetting 43 yards rushing and a touchdown on the ground. Sure, his one interception was the final nail in the coffin as the game ended on that play, but without Thomas’ performance, App State is not in that position late in the game. Thomas flashed a wide arsenal of skill, from toughness to touch, and remember, that was his first start. 

The Mountaineer receiving group did not disappoint. Corey Sutton somewhat quietly led the team with six catches for 87 yards. Malik Williams’ route running was considered his most improved aspect of his game. Williams was able to slip behind the Penn State defense on two occasions to score fourth quarter touchdowns, catching beautifully thrown balls from his quarterback. Thomas Hennigan was consistent with four catches for twenty-eight yards, despite being constantly harassed by defenders for most of the game. Jalin Moore also added five receptions for thirty-six yards, working mostly from the backfield on swing passes. This newly found receiving threat provides another element in which opposing defenses will have to defend Moore, who only had seventeen career receptions to his name prior to this season. 

Beyond the bad blood and back and forth jawing between fan bases for the past several years, we finally have a football game that will be played this weekend. All the extracurricular jargon has somewhat overshadowed the meat of the real story. In an effort to save his job, Mike Lambert fired both coordinators on his coaching staff this past offseason. Offensive Coordinator Shane Montgomery came from Youngstown where he was known as a balanced play caller. Defensive Coordinator Glenn Spencer  left Oklahoma State to get back to the southeast. His Cowboy teams were in the top half of the conference in the very offensively loaded Big 12 conference. The 49ers showed balanced in offensive yardage on Saturday against Fordham, but they ran the ball 47 times compared to just 20 passing plays. Will Charlotte attempt to employ a game of keep away? Benny Lemay received the majority of the carries, toting it 25 times for 135 yards and 5.4 yards per carry average. That has been consistent with Lemay’s career attempts, averaging in the mid 5.0 range for three seasons. Lemay is well built at 5’9 and 218 pounds. He might lack the speed that Troy’s Jordan Chunn had, but their makeup seems comparable. Speaking of speed, that is where I expect App State to excel. Charlotte often had issues in the first half against Fordham getting separation in the passing game. The two teams actually looked pretty evenly matched early on. I don’t expect many match ups to be even this weekend. This will be a different animal for Charlotte. They will feel like visitors in their own stadium. However geeked they might be for this game, and the crowd they’ll get to play in front of, adrenaline can only go so far. App State was the better fourth quarter team nearly a week ago, and I expect them to be the better team for four quarters on Saturday. 

The First Pick

Digging for Gold 9

Mountaineers 40

Appalachian Football @ #10 Penn State

Appalachian State (0-0, 0-0 Sun Belt) vs #10 Penn State (0-0, 0-0 Big Ten)

Saturday, September 1st, 2018 3:30pm est

TV/Video: Big Ten Network

Radio: WKBC 97.3 Wilkesboro, Charlotte, Winston Salem, Hickory & High Country; WATA 1450 Boone, Blowing Rock; WGVZ ESPN 730 Charlotte, Rock Hill, Salisbury; WCOG 1320 Winston-Salem, Greensboro; WCMC 99.3 Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill; WZGM 1350 Black Mountain, Asheville; WDNC 620 Durham, Raleigh; WHKP 1450, WHKP 107.7 Hendersonville; WAZZ 1490, WAZZ 94.3 Fayetteville; WPWT 870 AM, 100.7 FM Bristol/Johnson City, TN

Beaver Stadium

Surface: Natural Grass

Capacity: 106,572

Jeff Sagarin Ratings

App State: 69.75

Penn State: 86.49

Home: 2.36

Penn State is favored by the Sagarin ratings by 19 points (rounded)

Sportsbook: Penn State -24

Series: First Meeting

Last meeting: n/a

WxCrum Forecast: Mostly Cloudy, chance for a shower, Temps in 70’s

The season opener. On Labor Day weekend. A Big Ten Opponent. On their own television network. A stadium that can hold over 100,000. The stage is set for another season of football at a historic venue, and as usual, the Mountaineers hope to destroy the dreams of national title contenders in college football’s opening weekend. Appalachian will play the role of decided underdogs, who will carry that chip on their shoulder as they always do when facing an opponent that is perceived to have more talent and potential. No question, the challenge that lies ahead will be tough, but not insurmountable. Both sides have plenty of unknowns on both sides of the ball, but also return plenty of celebrated athletes who will look for their fit among the newcomers. Exactly how those new players fit with the old is the great mystery that every college football coach has to deal with at this time of the year. For some it takes longer than others to find that mesh point where each player is on the same page. Preparation only takes a team so far in August. Regardless of the result, coaches will be able to evaluate and adjust their plans for their season. This weekend will not make or ruin the season for any football team in the country. This is the time to learn and find out exactly what 2018 has in store for Appalachian State. 

You might have heard of this team, Penn State, in the past. Perhaps it was for two national titles in the 80’s. Maybe it is the four Big Ten titles in the last quarter century or the 48 total bowl games they have played in. Maybe there are infamous reasons why you know about Penn State, but mainly its the traditional old school uniforms and their claim to fame as being Linebacker U. Jack Ham played for the Steelers and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Greg Buttle played in the early 70’s and is considered all time great for the New York Jets. More recently, Navarro Bowman, Sean Lee, Lavar Arrington, Paul Posluszny, and many more spent several years in the NFL. Perhaps the most recently notable Penn State football player is Saquon Barkley, who was selected second overall by the New York Giants in the 2018 NFL Draft. Also drafted were tight end Mike Gesicki by the Dolphins, Daeshon Hamilton by the Broncos, and defensive backs Marcus Allen, Troy Apke, & Christian Campbell. 

 Luckily, the Mountaineers do not have to deal with those six players, but they will have to worry about potential Heisman candidate Trace McSorley who will break several Penn State records before he leaves the blue and white. With back-to-back 3500+ yard passing seasons and 59 career touchdown passes, McSorley already holds the career touchdown record for the Nittany Lions and will break the all time passing yardage record before the leaves turn in the Susquehanna Valley. McSorley has wheels too, totting the ball for eighteen rushing touchdowns and just shy of 900 yards in his career. More often than not, McSorley will gain his rushing yards on designed runs, out of the zone read, or in option looks, but he isn’t afraid to tuck it if he cannot find a receiver open. Containing McSorley  will certainly be a high priority for the App defense. 

With the undeniably difficult task of filling the shoes of the departed Barkley, Miles Sanders will get the first crack. The junior from Pittsburgh only carried the ball 31 times in 2017, but averaged 6.2 yards per carry. Sanders averaged 7.4 yards per carry in his freshman season on 25 attempts. The big play ability appears obvious. Most of his 2017 work came in lopsided blowouts over Georgia State, Michigan and Nebraska. Wide Receiver Juwan Johnson has all the physical tools at 6’4″ and 230 pounds and is fresh off a big sophomore campaign of 54 catches for 701 yards. Johnson had multiple catches in every game in 2017 except Pitt. DeAndre Thompkins is the other returner at wide out with meaningful playing time. Thompkins hauled in 28 catches for 443 yards. 

Part of me feels sorry for App State’s new starting quarterback Zac Thomas. He has probably heard Taylor Lamb’s name hundreds of times when answering questions since the end of last season. And then to top it all off, his own coach hinted at the similarities between McSorley and Lamb at the Sun Belt conference call earlier this week. This could be some type of new motivational tactic that gives Thomas what he is looking for to silence all the haters. The simplest thing Thomas can do to quiet the whispers of “He’s not Taylor” is to be himself. He’s going to make some mistakes, but he is also going to make some plays that will surprise you and make you think, ‘He’s definitely not Taylor”. The more Thomas sees, the more he’ll improve. There is no substitution for experience, so it might take a couple games, but it will come easier which each passing week. 

From one season to next, Appalachian’s young wide receiving corps have grown up, and they are going to be here for awhile. Three sophomores highlight the starting lineup, including returners Thomas Hennigan and Malik Williams, and transfer Corey Sutton. Despite their youth, this trio will become household names if they are not already. Hennigan’s 585 yards and seven touchdowns was one of the best years as a freshman in school history. Williams didn’t have quite the numbers, but has made the most improvements since 2017. Sutton does not have a catch as a Mountaineer, but it is only a matter of time for the Charlotte native. He’ll get plenty of looks this season.  

Don’t worry. We have not forgotten about Jalin Moore. We know all how much he means to this team and the identity of the App State offense. His superlatives are exactly what one would expect from a Mountaineer running back. Moore has been noticed by some of the college game’s best coaches, yet he still thrives in his underdog role. Fortunately, Moore will not have to do it all in 2018. Darrynton Evans is fully recovered from his injury-robbed 2017 season and will be a major player in this offense. The workload is yet to be determined, but Evans’ speed provides a different change of pace. That’s what I am most looking forward to this season. How will all the weapons be utilized? Who gets the majority of the workload outside of Jalin Moore. It’s tough to know those answers with so many question marks, but the potential is definitely there. Penn State also has their fair share of uncertainties. With a defense that appears to be stronger on the outside than the inside, how will the Mountaineers decide to attack the Nittany Lions? The Penn State offense appears to be the safer side of the ball. In 2017, their turnover per game margin for the season was +.92, the same as Appalachian. A new offensive coordinator for Penn State, and a new defensive coordinator for Appalachian might be the most interesting coaching matchup of the weekend. McSorely vs Clifton Duck and Tae Hayes will be another encounter to watch. A seemingly explosive Miles Sanders and a somewhat green Mountaineer linebacker group could also be another important duel. The typical zero turnover, lowly penalized game will be important for both sides in the opener. It’s easy to assume that Penn State’s overall talent is probably greater than that of Appalachian, but for whatever reason I have a good feeling about this one. A blowout is not what I am expecting, but it could certainly be in the range of results. I just do not see 2018 Penn State being 10 Vegas points better than 2017 Georgia over Appalachian. That might not be the correct thought process, but it’s what I am going with. 

The First Pick

Cat Scarfs 30

Mountaineers 16

 

2018 Tailgate Menu

You’ve been thinking about it for weeks. It always takes forever this time of the year, and the anticipation is killing you. Of course, you’ve been drooling thinking about what we are eating at tailgate this year, much less that football season is right around the corner. In 2018, we’ll be trying something out at tailgate for the first time. Hopefully by the time the season comes to a close, we’ll have a seventh home game in early December. 

 

Southern Miss – September 15th – Baby Back Ribs

Is there any better way to kick off the new season? You’ve had them before and they are always top notch. Never over-sauced, with the just the right amount smoke make ribs the ultimate sweet treat for the first tailgate of the season.

 

Gardner-Webb – September 22nd

Spicy Corn Dogs

This seems like a very simple, unlikely option but this should be something that #teamcorndog can celebrate. Traditional deep fried dogs on a stick with a batter that will make you run to the cooler for another cold beverage.

 

South Alabama – September 29th – Homecoming

You all know the deal. Turkeys will be plentiful, brined and prepared three separate ways. The schedule threw a curveball at us with a rare September Homecoming game, the first of its like since 2006, and only the fourth such game in school history.

 

Louisiana – October 20th

The Cajuns will come to Boone for the third time in four seasons and have been gifted with a mid-fall date. The previous games were played after Thanksgiving. Former Furman QB Billy Napier leads the Cajuns and we’ll be serving Josh Jeffries Jambalaya. Make sure you Go For a 2nd bowl of this Cajun dish!

 

Georgia State – November 17th – Black Saturday

The Black Saturday game in the past has signaled the appearance of Championship Chili, but once Georgia State started coming to the mountains, we have opted for chicken and waffles. Add a blueberry topping to poke fun at the Panthers who have difficulty scoring touchdowns.

 

Troy – November 24th

Appalachian’s goal every year is to win a conference championship. The Mountaineers have grabbed at least a piece of title the last two years, and hopefully will be playing for a Sun Belt Eastern Division title against Troy. This is where Championship Chili will make its appearance in 2018, unless….

 

Sun Belt Championship – December 1st

….We are playing for the Sun Belt title at home against the Western Division winner. We won’t know who that will be until we play some games. It’s possible the Eastern title is decided prior to the Troy game. We can’t have championship chili if we aren’t playing for one. We’ll play it by ear. Hope that we are playing this game in Boone, and hope for smoked pork butts on November 24th.

Appalachian Football vs Toledo (Dollar General Bowl)

Appalachian State (8-4, 7-1 Sun Belt) vs Toledo (11-2, 7-1 Mid-American)

Saturday, December 23rd, 2017 7:00pm est

TV/Video: ESPN

Radio: WKBC 97.3 Wilkesboro, Charlotte, Winston Salem, Hickory & High Country; WATA 1450 Boone, Blowing Rock; WGVZ ESPN 730 Charlotte, Rock Hill, Salisbury; WCOG 1320 Winston-Salem, Greensboro; WCMC 99.3 Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill; WZGM 1350 Black Mountain, Asheville; WDNC 620 Durham, Raleigh; WHKP 1450, WHKP 107.7 Hendersonville; WAZZ 1490, WAZZ 94.3 Fayetteville; WPWT 870 AM, 100.7 FM Bristol/Johnson City, TN

Ladd-Peebles Stadium

Surface: FieldTurf

Capacity: 33,471

Jeff Sagarin Ratings

App State: 66.89

Toledo: 74.57

Home: n/a

Toledo is favored by the Sagarin ratings by 7.5 points (rounded)

Sportsbook: Toledo -7

Series: App State leads 1-0

Last meeting: App State 31, Toledo 28, December 17th, 2016

Two separate journeys have landed two similar teams at the same destination for the second season in a row. We’re not in Montgomery anymore, but it might feel like it. It was just 53 weeks ago when the Rockets and Mountaineers played a splendid game in the Yellowhammer State’s capital city. The game was so great, the bowl committee’s could not pass it up. There were gripes from both fan bases about an App State/Toledo sequel. With the New Orleans Bowl enamored with bringing in fans, the Dollar General reps chose a game between two conference champions. Once you think about it, you really can’t ask for much more out of a bowl game. These two teams are eerily similarly in their makeup, but have taken different paths to Mobile. Toledo was the runaway favorite in the MAC, and cruised through conference play only stumbling to Appalachian bowl victim #1 in Ohio. The Mountaineers did everything but cruise this year, battling through a plague of injuries mid-season, and rallying late to finish the season in dominating fashion. The Rockets look pretty, already reaching eleven wins, playing in and winning their conference championship game, and doing it all with relative ease. The Mountaineers looked good winning in November, but every other game was a battle, trailing at many times in the second half, only to recover and pull it out. Those experiences on both sides will assist them as they look for victory in the Port City. 

The Rockets have not changed much in a year. They still have a lot of the same pieces they featured in Montgomery in 2016. However, there are some critical pieces that are missing, such as Kareem Hunt, who has moved on to the Kansas City Chiefs. Double-digit touchdown catching tight end Michael Roberts is with the Detroit Lions. All played significant roles, but Toledo has not missed a beat. Quarterback Logan Woodside is back and had another huge season. He completed 65% of his passes for 3,758 yards with a cool 28 touchdowns and just five interceptions. Woodside threw for 300 or more yards seven times this season, and has just one game this season where he threw for less than 200 yards. Fifteen of his touchdown passes came against Akron, twice, and Tulsa. That’s down from his 2016 season which saw Woodside throw 45 touchdown passes. 

Terry Swanson took over for Kareem Hunt at running back, and the Rockets have not missed a beat. Swanson caught just one pass for nine yards in the 2016 Camellia Bowl, but has 1,319 yards in 2017 on the ground with 14 touchdowns. Swanson has played a ton in his Toledo career, amassing 3,557 yards rushing, but 2017 marks his breakout season as a senior. Swanson has eight 100-yard rushing games this season, all Toledo wins. He was kept under 100 yards and did not find the end zone in both Toledo losses. Swanson is not alone in the backfield. Toledo also sports a pair of 600-yard plus rushers in Shakif Seymour and Art Thompkins. Seymour eclipsed 100 yards against Central Michigan and added twelve touchdowns on the season as the Rockets premiere red zone threat. Thompkins also had one game with 100 yards against Bowling Green, but has seen his role decrease throughout the season. Thompkins had double-digit carries six times in the Rockets first seven games, but has just 22 carries in the last six games. 

The Rocket wide receivers are dangerous, and led by the Johnsons, Diontae and Jon’Vea. The former is the leading receiver with 72 catches, 1,257 yards and thirteen touchdowns. Jon’Vea has nearly replicated his junior season in 2017, with a 41/675/5 line. Jon’Vea just had two catches for 22 yards in last year’s Camellia Bowl. Diontae missed all of 2016 with a foot injury. The more well known Cody Thompson, who burned App State last year was injured earlier this season and is out for the season. The Rocket receiving corps have put up the numbers, but its a completely different group than the Mountaineers saw in 2016. 

The Mountaineers are led by four-year starter Taylor Lamb whose passing stats will never match up with a player like Woodside yardage-wise, but the touchdowns and efficiency are there. Lamb and Woodside have nearly identical stats in the touchdown to interception ratio, but what Lamb gives you that Woodside cannot are his legs. Lamb’s ability to run has come at almost perfect times this season, whether its a designed play or a great read, Lamb’s decision making has been nearly flawless in the ground game. His forty-five yard per game average is an integral part of the Mountaineer offense. Lamb shredded Toledo last year for 126 yards on only nine carries. His 119-yard passing performance against Toledo was aided by several dropped passes.

This season, Lamb benefits from a receiving corps that is almost entirely different from this time last season. The only constants are Ike Lewis and Dante Jones. They caught four of Lamb’s fourteen passes in Montgomery. They other ten completions went to players who have either graduated or moved on in one form or fashion. Toledo will have to contend with Thomas Hennigan, who plays faster on the field than he does on tape. Hennigan’s 556 yards and 7 touchdowns are nearly unheard of by a Mountaineer freshman. Slippery Ike Lewis has exploded in his senior season for 666 yards and 8 touchdowns and is a terror in open space. Lamb will likely want to rebound from that performance against Toledo a year ago. 

With all the talk about the signal callers, this game could come down to which running game excels the most. Appalachian has found its footing in their last three games to close the season. Initially I was concerned with a three week layoff between the season finale and the bowl game. That notion was quickly dismissed, considering App State went sixteen days between Georgia Southern and Georgia State, without any bumps, and then really proved their point against Louisiana. They key to Appalachian’s win last year could repeat itself a year later. The Mountaineers kept the Rockets off the field in 2016, possessing the ball for over 35 minutes of game clock, allowing Logan Woodside to drop back to pass just 26 times. The Mountaineers have averaged over 300 yards rushing per game in their last three, and nearly got there against Toledo in 2016, racking up 297 ground yards. The App State defense also has to do their part. Keeping Toledo off the field is not just up to the offense grounding out first downs. It’s important to keep Toledo off schedule. Woodside will get his passing yards, but the App’s must limit the explosive plays and keep Toledo uncomfortable. In both Rocket losses this season, they struggled to run the ball and became one dimensional. The Mountaineers must be disciplined on first down and tackle well. Both teams are familiar with Ladd-Peebles Stadium. App beat South Alabama there in 2015, and Toledo won the GoDaddy Bowl after the 2014 season. The weather could provide an interesting challenge and completely change the way this game is played. Forecasters are calling for rain most of the day. Ball security will be increasingly important. These two teams combined for zero turnovers last year, but I expect we’ll see a couple on Saturday. Whoever takes care of the ball late will win.

The First Pick

Bottle Rockets 31

Mountaineers 35

Appalachian Football vs Louisiana

Appalachian State (7-4, 6-1 Sun Belt) vs Louisiana (5-6, 4-3 Sun Belt)

Saturday, December 2nd, 2017 2:30pm est

TV/Video: ESPN3

Radio: WKBC 97.3 Wilkesboro, Charlotte, Winston Salem, Hickory & High Country; WATA 1450 Boone, Blowing Rock; WGVZ ESPN 730 Charlotte, Rock Hill, Salisbury; WCOG 1320 Winston-Salem, Greensboro; WCMC 99.3 Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill; WZGM 1350 Black Mountain, Asheville; WDNC 620 Durham, Raleigh; WHKP 1450, WHKP 107.7 Hendersonville; WAZZ 1490, WAZZ 94.3 Fayetteville; WPWT 870 AM, 100.7 FM Bristol/Johnson City, TN

Kidd Brewer Stadium

Surface: FieldTurf

Capacity: 30,000

Jeff Sagarin Ratings

App State: 64.88

Louisiana: 52.52

Home: 2.32

App State is favored by the Sagarin ratings by 14.5 points (rounded)

Sportsbook: App State -15

Series: App State leads 3-0

Last meeting: App State 24, Louisiana 0, October 12th, 2016

On Saturday, Appalachian will play its 32nd game in the Sun Belt Conference, completing its fourth year since leaving the Southern Conference. Those were four quick years. To this point, the Mountaineers have compiled a 26-5 record in conference play, which is only matched by Arkansas State as the best record in conference play during that stretch. Appalachian has finished no lower than third in the conference standings every year. The only time Louisiana finished above the Mountaineers was in 2014, handing the Cajuns their only conference loss that season. The Mountaineers dominated that day, and have ever since in this short three game series. When the Mountaineers entered the Sun Belt, Louisiana was the top dog. They have a winning record against six current conference opponents, have a .500 record versus two opponents, and have a 7-8 record against Troy. Appalachian remains the only team the Cajuns have not defeated. The beatings have also continued to get worse each season, beginning with a nineteen point win in 2014, a 21 point victory in Boone the following season, and a 24-0 shutout by the Mountaineers a season ago. A win on Saturday would give App its second straight share of a conference title, and leave the Cajuns watching the bowl games from their couches.

The Ragin’ Cajuns have had their chances in 2017 to improve their record, but the warning signs came very early in the season. A close 51-48 win over SE Louisiana in an FCS tune up was the just the start. Three straight losses followed to up tempo Tulsa, UL-Monroe, and Texas A&M. The Monroe loss was an absolute shocker. Louisiana had won three straight and eight of nine games in the series. The Cajuns had to score thirty second half points just to hang with Monroe and tie the game at 43 before the Warhawks prevailed in OT. Louisiana surrendered 215 points in the first four games. The Cajuns then rallied for wins in three of their next four games, and kept their opponents from scoring 20 points in those three wins. But, its been ugly lately as the Cajuns have given up big numbers in their last three games; 50 to Ole Miss, 34 in a win over New Mexico State, and 34 to two-win Georgia Southern.

The Cajuns have had to use three different quarterbacks for significant stretches of the season. None of them are particularly good. Jordan Davis has played the most this season, and missed two games in there entirety due to injury. Davis has 1,281 yards, 9 TD’s and six interceptions and has been sacked ten times. Andre Nunez played decently in the four games he appeared in, take away the 47-3 whipping by Arkansas State. Nunez has not played since and has been concussed at least once this season. Freshman Levi Lewis inexplicably played in his third game last week against Georgia Southern, jeopardizing his redshirt status. Lewis was a prized recruit as a dual threat quarterback who played basketball and ran track in high school.

As the Cajuns could start a freshman at quarterback, they will definitely start a freshman running back in Trey Ragas, who is a load and a half. Just like all bigger running backs, you cannot allow them to get started. It will be a tall task for Appalachian. Ragas has one-third of the carries this season for the Cajuns, and he has toted the ball for 799 yards at a 5.9 yard per carry clip. He probably deserves more carries. He has only carried twenty or more times on one occasion, against New Mexico State, and he showed that he deserved it with a season high 132 yards and two touchdowns. Equally as dangerous is senior running back Darius Hoggins. He is a lot smaller than Ragas but provides a good change of pace. Hoggins is another candidate for more work, as he has not topped eight carries all season in a game. Equally surprising, Hoggins had a 75 yard touchdown run against Georgia Southern early on and carried just once more in the game.

This game comes down to Louisiana’s defense. They are downright atrocious. I couldn’t believe the difference when researching why they win, and why they lose. In their 6 losses, the Cajun have given up 49.6 points per game. In their wins, they have allowed 23.8 points per. That is less than half. Not sure I have ever seen such a discrepancy. Their five wins include zero teams at this point that are bowl eligible and their road wins include South Alabama, the most confusing team in the conference, and three win Idaho.

A healthy Jalin Moore is a very welcome sight. Moore might have been as healthy as he was all season last weekend. He received a season high 32 carries vs Georgia State, which topped his previous season high he had in the last game he played in at UL-Monroe. Moore has gone over 100 yards nine out ten times in his career when he received more than nineteen carries. The only exception was Miami. Four times he has reached the 200 yard mark in those same situations. Over a third of his carries have come in his last two games. He is now within striking distance of rushing for 3,000 yards in his career and only six other Mountaineers have accomplished that feat.

We all know why programs like UL-Monroe and South Alabama schedule multiple games against the SEC. They need the money from a pay game to support their programs. Louisiana choosing to play two road SEC contests does not make sense for a school with plenty of resources and facilities. Had they had a lighter schedule, they would not be fighting for bowl eligibility so late in the season. In 2016, it was Boise State and Georgia that littered the Cajun schedule and they needed wins in their final two games to go bowling. The nine win seasons are now a thing of the past, and mediocrity seems to be the goal anymore in Lafayette. So Saturday, Hudspeth and his Cajuns will hope to overcome a long hard trip to the mountains and try pull off another last game victory to throw current bowl projections in the shredder. Meanwhile, Appalachian has its eyes on a rather big prize. This game could certainly affect where the Mountaineers are heading later in December. A win on senior day coupled with another ring of the hand of a star studded graduating class is the goal. The Mountaineers likely have prepared for two different quarterbacks starting for Louisiana on Saturday. Coach Hudspeth wouldn’t tip his hand at his news conference, so the Apps will be pulling double duty in the film room. Regardless of who starts for Louisiana, they’ll have to take care of the football. Interceptions have been big in their losses, but so has their defense. The Cajuns will be facing their toughest defensive challenge of the season. The Mountaineers have improved dramatically in the last two games with the return of Devan Stringer and rank 33rd nationally. The top three defenses that Louisiana has faced this year are just inside the top sixty and they averaged just 15 points per game against those opponents. As much as the onus is on the Cajun offense to score, its reciprocal with their defense to keep their opponents off the board. They have not done that consistently enough this season and I don’t expect that balance to come together this weekend.

The First Pick

Green Peppers 16

Mountaineers 34