Appalachian State (0-0, 0-0 Sun Belt) vs East Carolina (0-0, 0-0 AAC)
Thursday, September 2nd, 2021 7:30pm EST
Radio: 97.3 FM North Wilkesboro, 600 AM Winston-Salem, 1270 AM Charlotte, 1450 AM Hendersonville, Sirius XM 80, TuneIn App
Bank of America Stadium Charlotte, NC
Jeff Sagarin Ratings
App State: 73.55
East Carolina: 62.31
App State is favored by the Sagarin ratings by 11.24 points
Line: App State -10.5
Series: App State leads 19-12
Last Meeting: ECU 35, App State 13, September 1, 2012, Greenville, NC
And we are back. As in college football is back, but most importantly, fans in the stands are back. Hopefully we are past limited attendance and other measures that kept that lifeblood out of college athletics last season. Also back, is a matchup between App State and East Carolina for the first time in nine seasons. For the first ever, these two schools on the opposite ends of the state, will face off on the gridiron as FBS institutions. This will be the first game of a scheduled four game series, with App State hosting the first game in Bank of America Stadium this year and concluding with alternating games on campus sites from 2024-2026. As is normal practice in scheduling college football games way in the the future, this series was announced in early 2017. Since then, East Carolina has fired and hired another coach, while App State has just hired two coaches. The two programs have somewhat gone in opposite directions since the agreement was made, which surprises nobody considering their fans barbecue preferences.
East Carolina and App State were in different places nine years ago. That was the last time these two in-state rivals met. In 2012, East Carolina went 8-5 and lost the New Orleans Bowl to Louisiana. Their regular season schedule included games against North & South Carolina, Southern Miss, UAB and Marshall. Those were the schools App State wanted to play, and at that time, moving to FBS was in the works. In nine short years, App has now played those schools, and beaten most of them. East Carolina was in Conference USA, and App State wanted to be in a conference with the Pirates. But as the college football world turns, now both schools are in difference conferences and their trajectories have changed immensely. The Pirates have played in just two bowls since the 2012 season, defeating Ohio in 2013, and losing to Florida on January 3rd, 2015, after the culmination of the 2014 season. Since App has been bowl eligible in FBS, East Carolina has not appeared in a bowl game.
East Carolina and App State have not shared many common opponents in the last two seasons, and using data from 2020 games for comparisons sake might not make the most sense. Nonetheless, we do have one opponent from last year that was certainly eyebrow raising for both schools. It’s not often you can glean much from many Georgia State games, but its what we have. East Carolina got slapped around by the Panthers last year in Atlanta, to the tune of a 49-29 final score. The Pirates scored first to lead 7-0, but Georgia State answered with four unanswered touchdowns and won going away. The biggest takeaway from this game is how easily Georgia State moved the ball compared to how difficult it was for East Carolina’s offense to get going. The Panthers averaged 3 more yards a play on offense. But this game had a little bit of everything, with six combined turnovers, a punt return touchdown, two interception return touchdowns, and twenty accepted penalties between the two teams.
The Pirates return of a slew of offensive skill talent for the 2021 season. Holton Ahlers returns at quarterback and will be in his fourth year at ECU. Ahlers has 25 career starts under his belt. He started every game in 2019, and all but one game in 2020 due to pandemic protocols. Ahlers is a dual-threat left-handed passer that saw some of his numbers dip in 2020 after a stupendous year in 2019, where he passed for 3,387 yards and ran for another 359 yards. Ahlers has run for over 1,000 yards in his career, but the majority of that was accumulated during the 2018 and 2019 seasons. In 2020, Ahlers ran for just 109 yards. Wide receivers CJ Johnson and Tyler Snead are the top returners at the position. Johnson caught 54 passes for 908 yards during his freshman campaign in 2019, but was limited somewhat in 2020 to nineteen receptions. However, Johnson did average 21.3 yards per receptions last year and remains a serious weapon for Ahlers. In the slot, Tyler Snead is a workhorse, logging 134 career receptions in twenty-five games. Snead isn’t much to look at, standing all of 5’7″ and weighing in at 174 pounds, but he is reliable and gets the job done. Snead also serves as the Pirates punt returner and kick returner.
It has been a long offseason, but not a lot has changed, thanks to an extra year of eligibility granted to collegiate athletes. That led to a flurry of graduating seniors deciding to come back and play another year for the Mountaineers, mainly because, last year did not turn out how they wanted, and they did not want to be remembered that way. So when the depth chart was officially released on Monday, you saw a lot of the same faces. Seemingly, four positions groups had little to no change at the top. But new faces have emerged in key spots, and fans and media have talked about them for months. Quarterback Chase Brice and the “new” guys on the offensive line have dominated those conversations. Sure, Brice is new, but he has been here since the spring with “new” offensive coordinator Frank Ponce. The left side of the offensive line is not new to App State, just to the starting roles, with true freshman behind them. Does live game chemistry need to be developed for some of these players? Sure, but we have to stop acting like all of these faces are, well, new.
Under Mike Houston, the Pirates have typically had enough offense to win football games. East Carolina averaged 26.8 points per game in 2019, and 30.2 points per game a season ago. The real issue comes down to defense. In 2019, the Pirates allowed 33.7 points a game and 35.4 last year. The point differential shrunk, but there is still a lot of room for improvement. East Carolina has the same defensive coordinator from a season ago, and they have stressed forcing turnovers. There is trendy train of thought in some football circles that turnovers, and not yards allowed or other metrics, are the key to a successful defense. Obviously turnovers are big, and East Carolina forced 18 turnovers in nine games a season ago. That was good enough for 25th in the country in total turnovers gained. Yet, gaining turnovers only goes so far, when a team also turns it over themselves. The Pirates gave away 21 turnovers, which was 122nd in the country, which is not good. Eventually, you have to stop the opposing offense. The Pirates were not good at that in 2020 either. East Carolina allowed 6.2 yards per play, and 447 yards per game. When you think about all these big numbers allowed on defense, forcing turnovers is just about the only option to give your team a chance to win. Not to mention, that of that 447 yards allowed per game, over 200 yards were given up on the ground. App State eclipsed that mark in eight games last season. With the Mountaineers breaking in a new quarterback, what better way to make him feel comfortable than to hand it off forty times. That’s not my suggestion, and honestly feel that is semi-lazy. It’s the first game, but that does not mean we have time to keep things simple. I’m expecting a balanced attack from the Mountaineers, with a lot of intermediate passing with well-timed deep shots down the field. If East Carolina wants to contend, they are going to have to be better on both sides of the ball after halftime. The Pirates were outscored in the third quarter 79-27 last season.
The First Pick