Appalachian Football vs. Illinois State

Here we go with the Second Round:

#16 Illinois State (8-3, Missouri Valley At-large) @ #7 Appalachian State (8-3, SoCon At-large)

Time: 2:00pm

TV/Video: ESPN3

Radio: WKBC 97.3 Wilkesboro, Charlotte, Winston Salem, Hickory & High Country; WATA 1450 Boone, Blowing Rock; ESPN 730 Charlotte, Rock Hill, Salisbury; WCOG 1320 Greensboro, Winston Salem, WMFR 1230 Greensboro, High Point; WSML 1200 Burlington, Greensboro; WCMC 99.9 Raleigh, WZGM 1350 Black Mountain, Asheville; WPWT 870 Bristol, Johnson City; WTOE 1470 Spruce Pine, WDNC 620 Durham, WLON 1050 Lincolnton

Kidd Brewer Stadium

Surface: Field Turf

Capacity: 24,050

Jeff Sagarin Ratings: 

ASU: 58.48

ISU: 62.73

Home: 2.90 points

Illinois State is favored by the Sagarin ratings by 1 ½ points (rounded).

Series: First Meeting

Last Meeting: n/a

WXAPP’s Boone Gameday Weather Trends:

8AM – Low 40s. Partly Cloudy
Noon – Mid 50s. Mostly Sunny
Kickoff – Mid 50s. Partly Cloudy
End of game – Low 50s.

From here until the season is over, every game is a battle. In seasons past, Appalachian would have a game or two on the schedule where a win seemed more likely than not, but that was not the case in 2012. Each week has already been a battle. The Mountaineers went at it for eleven straight weeks without a break. One can argue that the Coastal Carolina game was one of those easier games, but the Chanticleers are also in the playoffs. Montana and East Carolina provided tough tests early on in the season, and the Southern Conference was as strong as it has been in recent memory. Luckily for Appalachian, a three week break between their final regular season game and their first playoff game has provided some much needed rest. Illinois State played perhaps their toughest opponent on their schedule in their final game of the season against North Dakota State and sat on pins and needles the following day waiting to learn their playoff fate. Appalachian was all but a sure bet to make the playoffs. For Illinois State, this is their first playoff appearance since 2006 while the Mountaineers are in the postseason for the eighth straight year. However, don’t read into this Illinois State team as one that is just happy to be here. They set goals to win all their road games and did just that. It will have been four weeks since Illinois State last played a road game when foot hits leather on Saturday. Can the Redbirds maintain the road momentum?

The Mountaineers and Redbirds have never met before on the gridiron. Appalachian has played four of the Redbirds conference mates, all in the playoffs, most recently in 2010 against Western Illinois. Appalachian is 4-0 in those games, all being played in very familiar venues. Three times Missouri Valley opponents lost at Kidd Brewer Stadium. The fourth, Northern Iowa, lost to the Mountaineers in Finley Stadium in Chattanooga, a place the Mountaineers visit every other year when playing the Chattanooga Mocs.

Illinois State quarterback Matt Brown was the Missouri Valley offensive player of the year. He is big for a quarterback, tall and strong at 6’4 and 235 pounds. He is protected by one of the most underrated offensive lines at the FCS level. The Redbird line only allowed ten sacks on the season. They average 6’5” tall and 316 pounds across the board, with 59 combined starts. Brown has played in every game of his career, amassing some brilliant statistics. Brown is only 98 yards shy of surpassing 10,000 passing yards for his career. Considering he has thrown for 100 yards or more in 41 of his 44 games, hitting that milestone is almost a given. Although he is much bigger, Brown reminds me of Matt Barr, the 2010 Walter Payton Award finalist from Western Illinois. Brown is more accurate than Barr in 2010, but Barr throw for almost 800 more yards, and tossed seven more touchdowns. Brown is mobile, but does not use his athleticism too much outside the pocket beyond extending the play, opposed to running for first downs. When Barr came to Boone, he had a rough day, completing only 13 passes for 98 yards to go along with three interceptions. The weather in Boone that day might have played a factor as six inches of snow covered the High Country.

The Redbirds are a passing team, as the lead the Missouri Valley in passing yardage, but make no mistake, this team wants to establish possession and run the ball. Fifty-two percent of their play calls were runs. Seven of their games this season, Illinois State won the time of possession battle significantly. Twice the opposing team won the battle of possession, while two other instances, the difference was negligible. In their three losses, ISU lost the possession battle twice, most notably in their home shutout loss to Southern Illinois. Darrelynn Dunn is the primary ball carrier for the Redbirds. Dunn carried 221 times on the season, which is right at twenty-two carries a game, considering he did not play against Southern Illinois. The majority of his carries, 58% of them, were in the first five games of the season. The same can be said about his touchdown numbers. Nine of his twelve touchdowns were in the first five games of the season. In the latter half of the year, Dunn has slowed down, with only 307 of his 850 rushing yards coming in the Redbirds final five games.

Appalachian will counter Matt Brown with a great quarterback in the making in Jamal Jackson, who also needs less than 100 yards passing to hit a milestone. Jackson is 95 yards away from hitting 3,000 for the season. Jackson has completed a ridiculous 65% of his passes. His average of 264 passing yards a game would be higher had he been able to finish the game against Western Carolina. Jackson has become slightly one-dimensional since his injury, but has been flawless. Jackson has not thrown an interception since getting hurt and has added back to back 300 yard passing performances for the first time in his career. As Jamal goes, so do the Mountaineers, as they are 13-1 when he throws a touchdown pass in a game.

Stephen Miller has provided the perfect counter punch for the Appalachian offense when the Mountaineers run the ball. The all-conference performer ranks 11th nationally with 1,307 rushing yards on the season, while adding eleven rushing touchdowns. Miller has been a very capable receiver out of the backfield as well. Miller has twenty-nine catches for 367 yards and another four touchdowns. Most of his receptions are not the check down variety you normally see from a running back. His averages 12.6 yards per catch and many of his touchdowns have been wheel routes from out of the backfield.

Appalachian’s receiving corps is arguably one of the best in the nation. A freshman, Sean Price leads this group with 68 catches for 1,029 yards and eight touchdowns. Appalachian is a perfect 6-0 when he scores. To top it off, Price has put up these numbers in only nine games on the season. Andrew Peacock has come on really strong in the last weeks of the regular season. Forty-five of his sixty-eight catches have come in the last six games. Peacock had a career game the last time out against Furman, catching 11 passes for 130 yards and a touchdown and also throwing a seven yard touchdown pass on his only pass attempt of the season. Tony Washington and Malachi Jones are the possession receivers in this offense, but they also have game breaking ability. They catch just about everything that comes their way and have nicely complimented the rest of the Mountaineer offense. The scary thing about this group of receivers is that they all come back next year.

The deciding factor in this game, many have believed will be on the defensive side of the ball. On paper, Illinois State appears to have the better defense. All of their starting defensive line and linebackers are upperclassmen, with four seniors and three juniors. That experience will provide a test for a Mountaineer offensive line that some consider being very raw. The Redbirds are fourth nationally in sacks per game, while the Mountaineers are vulnerable to a less mobile Jamal Jackson. The key for Appalachian will be being able to run the football consistently. For the Redbirds, pressure on Jackson will be vital to them winning the game. The Mountaineers are a rhythm offense, that relies on stringing together consecutive plays of positive yardage. If Appalachian can protect Jackson, it could be a long day for Illinois State. Jackson has shown he can make just about every throw he needs to, and can sit back and pick apart defenses. I do not believe this Illinois State defense has played as team as athletic, and as skilled as Appalachian. Their coach referenced to his time as a coordinator with Purdue when speaking about the Mountaineers overall talent. It reminded him of a time when the Boilermakers played Georgia in the Capital One Bowl on New Years Day in 2005. Georgia had four players average over 13.5 yards per catch in that game. Three players averaged over 19 yards per catch on that day. For the Mountaineers, they must get the Redbirds off the field. This team looks like one that prefers a ball control game. They have been in shootouts to win games, and they also won in lower scoring battles, so they can adjust their style of play accordingly. This team got off to fast start to the season, winning their first five games, but has since finished the season 3-3. Their special teams is not the greatest, while Appalachian boasts one of the best punters in the nation in Sam Martin. Another interesting statistic I came across is how many penalties the Redbirds had been whistled for this season. Three times the Redbirds were called for two penalties or less in games, but on the other eight occasions, they averaged 9.5 flags per game. The Redbirds have also given up an abnormal amount of first downs via the penalty flag. Twenty-eight times, the Redbirds have given their opponents a new set of downs via penalty, mostly on personal fouls and pass interference calls. The last thing Illinois State needs to do is give an explosive offense like Appalachian extra yardage. I think this game has the making to be a classic, depending solely on Illinois State and how well they play. It appears to be a great matchup, one that will probably not be decided until the fourth quarter.

The First Pick:

State Birds 24

Mountaineers 30