Here we go with the Second Round:
Western Illinois (8-4) @ #1 Appalachian State (9-2)
TV: ESPN Gameplan, MASN
Stadium: Kidd Brewer Stadium
Jeff Sagarin Ratings:
Home advantage: 3.02 points
Appalachian is favored by the Sagarin ratings by 7 ½ points (rounded).
Series: First meeting
Last Meeting: n/a
A lot has happened to the Mountaineers in the last week and a half, and it starts with a rough performance down in Gainesville. Despite a down year for the Florida Gators, they showed how much of a gap there is in talent level and recruiting by easily beating Appalachian. There were times when the Mountaineers did not play well, but even correcting those mistakes would not have been enough against Florida. The hangover did not last long, as early the following morning after the Florida game, Appalachian was awarded the top seed in the NCAA Division I Playoffs which also came with a bye in the newly expanded twenty team playoff field. A week off was a great reward for a grueling season in which Appalachian won their sixth straight conference championship. With that bye, came the opportunity to watch their next opponent, Western Illinois defeat Coastal Carolina in a turnover-filled game. That brings us to game week as I am sure the Mountaineers and their fans are ready to begin the push toward a national championship. Luckily, for Appalachian the road to Frisco comes through Boone and that is big hurdle for any team with title aspirations.
Western Illinois and the Missouri Valley Conference is a relative unknown to most Mountaineer fans. Appalachian and Western Illinois have never met on the gridiron, and the Mountaineers have only faced three Missouri Valley opponents in the past. All three of those games came in the playoffs in 2005 and 2006. In 2005, Appalachian won its first National Championship over Northern Iowa and defeated Southern Illinois two rounds earlier. In 2006, Appalachian handily defeated Youngstown State in the semifinals to earn a berth to their second championship game.
The Leatherneck offense is led by Missouri Valley player of the year and Walter Payton Award finalist Matt Barr, who has thrown for 3,312 yards and 26 touchdown passes against seven interceptions. In the last three games, Barr has only managed 3 touchdown passes against four interceptions against some of their tougher opponents, Southern Illinois and playoff teams Northern Iowa and Coastal Carolina. Barr is a player who is mobile, can stretch the pocket and give his receivers another second or two to get open. When his receivers have not been open, Barr has run for 452 yards and seven touchdowns. The Appalachian defense must contain and consistently pressure Barr to keep him from gaining a rhythm.
Appalachian has used the bye week to get healthy. Several players like Mark Legree and Travaris Cadet used it to rest and have not practiced much. It is always important at this time of the year to have your playmakers healthy so you can you use your entire arsenal on both sides of the ball, most importantly on offense. The last two seasons, Armanti Edwards suffered leg injuries which took away his ability to run in the postseason. Once teams figured that out, they blitzed and were able to slow down Appalachian. A Walter Payton award finalist in his own right, DeAndre Presley does not have any known injuries, and any success Appalachian might have will depend on how well the quarterback plays. When defenses have to worry about his team leading 753 rushing yards and eleven rushing touchdowns, it makes it much easier for Presley to sit back in the pocket and determine which all conference performer he plans to throw to. Balance has been the key for Appalachian all season, and if Western Illinois does not know what is coming, Appalachian will be hard to stop.
When dissecting this Western Illinois team, the first thing that jumps out is their offense, which racks up a lot of yards (476 ypg) and scores a lot of points (34.1 ppg). The second thing that was noticed was their road record, which is now at 2-4 after defeating Coastal Carolina last weekend. What happened to Leathernecks when they had to travel? I saw two key factors that are instrumental in playoff success on the road, and Western Illinois was struggling in those areas. The 34 points a game looks great on paper, but not so good when you consider the Leathernecks only averaged 22 points per contest on the road, and never broke 30 points on the road all season. To advance in the playoffs, you have to be able to score. If it were not for five Coastal Carolina red zone turnovers, we would not be talking about Western Illinois this week. Secondly, you have to be able to stop the running game. If you are having trouble scoring, you need to be able to get opposing offenses off the field, so you can get more opportunities to score. The Leatherneck defense has had trouble stopping the run, ranking 93rd nationally, allowing 176.8 yards per game this season. Look deeper and you will find that the Leathernecks give up 223 yards rushing a game on the road. Compare that to season averages, and Western Illinois would rank 112th out of 117 teams. The five teams that rank below 112th were a combined 6-48 this season. It should be pretty obvious to see where this leads. I have a hard time believing that a team is going to come to Kidd Brewer Stadium, where Appalachian has won 53 of 56 games, score less than 30 points, while allowing the Mountaineers to run all over them and win a playoff game against a team that is 11-1 at home during the playoffs in the last five seasons. It does not add for me and it should not add up to a Western Illinois victory at The Rock on Saturday. The Mountaineers should be anxious to erase the memories of the Florida loss and prove to the country that they are the team to beat.
The First Pick:
Dog Collars 23