Appalachian State (8-4, 7-1 Sun Belt) vs Toledo (11-2, 7-1 Mid-American)
Saturday, December 23rd, 2017 7:00pm est
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
Jeff Sagarin Ratings
App State: 66.89
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