Appalachian Football @ Louisiana-Monroe

Here we go with Week 6

Appalachian State (4-1, 1-0 Sun Belt) @ Louisiana-Monroe (1-4, 0-1 Sun Belt)
Saturday October 17th, 7 PM 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 100.7 Bristol

JPS Field at Malone Stadium
Surface: FieldTurf 
Capacity: 30,427
Jeff Sagarin Ratings:

App State: 69.83

ULM: 55.84
Home: 2.76
App State is favored by the Sagarin ratings by 17 points (rounded)

Sportsbook: App State -11.5
Series: App State leads 1-0
Last Meeting: App State 31, ULM 29; November 8, 2014 (Boone, NC)
Weather: Mostly sunny and clear 77/51

          Business has suddenly picked up in college football. Behind us are the money games and out of conference matchups. From here on out, the games are all about  the business of winning a conference championship. No disrespect to Georgia State. We know that you are a considered a conference game, but it just doesn’t feel like it. At least not yet. What really feels like Sun Belt football is playing the Louisiana schools on the road. No disrespect to the Georgia Dome, it is a nice facility, but the Panthers are lost in there. The real work is now before Appalachian as they travel to a more hostile atmosphere, one  where Mountaineer fans will be more scarce than they have been at any point this season. The most difficult part of the week will be focusing on the present and not looking ahead. To this point in the season, Appalachian  has been able remain on task, taking care of every opponent, not named Clemson, with ease. Forget about whether or not this team has been tested. The test has been about making improvements from one game to the next while also getting valuable playing time for those whose names may be called on down the line. The Warhawks will provide the next test. A team that has played a tough schedule will be looking to turn the tide in front of their home crowd. Hopefully, the Mountaineers have done their homework. 

           Monroe faces an uphill battle most years in regards to how they arrange their schedule. Regularly, the Warhawks are forced to schedule multiple Power Five schools in the same season in order to be able to fund their programs. ULM is one of the smaller schools in Sun Belt, with enrollment below 9,000 and their athletic budget represents that. In the past they have played two and three of those schools in the same season. It does not help their record, but it does help the pocketbook. This season, ULM will collect checks from Alabama, Georgia and Hawai’i. Their lone win was FCS Nicholls State. 

          Since the last time Appalachian played ULM, the Warhawks have played Georgia Southern twice, losing both, and have beaten New Mexico State along with Nicholls State. Monroe and Appalachian seem to be heading in different directions, as Appalachian has now won ten of its last eleven games. Monroe appears to be a very similar team that Appalachian played last year, with an offense that has its moments, but sputters for the most part. The Warhawk defense still likes to play very physical, but has been on the field a tremendous amount of time this season and it has shown. Monroe is giving up 34 points a game and has let teams gash them on the ground to the tune 243 yards per game. 

          Monroe has been forced to start redshirt freshman Garrett Smith at quarterback who has had some struggles this season. A lot of the Monroe offense is based on short throws that are easy to help Monroe run the ball. The idea is to get Smith in rhythm and build his confidence. Smith has thrown all but eleven passes this year for the Warhawks, who as a team has only been able to muster 5.9 yards per pass attempt. Thats a miniscule number at any level of football. Smith is the least effeicient quarterback in the Sun Belt of those who are qualified. His nine touchdowns passes are good enough for fourth in the Sun Belt, but his seven interceptions are second to only South Alabama’s Cody Clements who has played an extra game. 

           Ajalen Holley is who the Warhawks will lean on in the passing game. The junior is second in the conference in several receiving categories including receptions (39), yards (480). Holley has stepped in nicely for injured wide out Rashon Ceasar, who was a favorite to be a first team all conference selection. Ceaser had 26 catches for 272 yards in three games before being lost for the season to injury. Holley will be the target of a lot of Smith’s passses. Outside of Ceaser and Holley, no other Warhawk pass catcher has eclipsed 100 yards on the season. The ULM running game isnt much to speak of. Kaylon Watson leads the team with 155 yards on the season on only 39 carries. Garrett Smith has more official carries with 55, but his sacks count toward his rushing total, which account for a lot of lost yardage. Smith has 136 yards on the season, and likes to get those on mostly quarterback draws with empty backfields and five wide receiver sets. 

          Mountaineer fans should not have been surprised to see Georgia State sell out to stop the run last weekend. After Marcus Cox rumbled for 250 yards and three touchdowns last season against Panthers, they had only one hope to stay close, which was stacking the box and forcing Tayloor Lamb to throw. Considering Lamb’s perceived struggles, more due to a rough patch of weather, that was not a bad gamble on the part of Georgia State. But Lamb made the Panthers pay with a 45 yard completion on the first drive, a 29 yard touchdown pass on the second drive, and another 49 yard completion on the third drive. All of those big plays set up points and a quick 17-0 lead that Appalachian never relinquished. Instead of Nick Arbuckle being considered the better passer, it was Lamb who lit up the dome for 314 yards and  three touchdown passes to three different receivers. Lamb also added 53 yards on the ground, on four carries, inlcuding a 41 yard scamper in the second quarter that got the Apps out of the shadow of their own goal line. 

          As has been the story all season long, the Mountaineer defense put on another show against Georgia State. The defensive backfield did a great mixing coverages and forcing Arbuckle to think twice before throwing. Arbcukle was sacked twice and only managed a pedestrian 166 yards in the air while the App front seven held the Panthers to only 59 rushing yards on the game. It was the third time this season the Apps have held an opponent to less than 60 yards on the ground. The Mountaineers lead the Sun Belt in total defense by almost a 100 yards and have only allowed 11.4 points per game, a category which they lead by nearly two full touchdowns. The list goes on, but the picture has been well painted. This defense is not a beneficiary of a somewhat weak schedule. This is a dominant defense. Enter Monroe and an offense that has lacked consistency and a young quarterback who leans heavily on one receiver. This is potential disaster waiting to happen for the Warhawks this weekend. Monroe’s chance to win this weekend will be to do what Georgia State did. Try and stop the run and hope that they can catch Taylor Lamb on a bad day. Betting against the most efficient quarterback in the league might not be wise, but Monroe is going to have to take away something from Appalachian. The start of this game will be very important. Appalachian has outscored oppponets 45-3 in the first quarter this season while the Warhawks have been outscored 41-10. If those trends continue look for the Mountaineers to make easy work of ULM for their second conference win. 


The First Pick:

Gold Beaks 10

Mountaineers 35

Louisiana-Monroe @ Appalachian Football

Here we go with Week 8

Louisiana-Monroe (3-5, 2-2, Sun Belt) @ Appalachian State (3-5, 2-2 Sun Belt)

Saturday, November 8th, 3:30pm EST

TV/LIve 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 Hendersonville; WAZZ 1490 Fayetteville

Kidd Brewer Stadium

Surface: FieldTurf

Capacity: 23,150

Jeff Sagarin Ratings

App State: 56.99

Monroe: 55.81

Home: 3.17

App State is favored by the Sagarin Rating by 4.5 points

Sportsbook: App State -3.5, O/U 54

Series: first meeting

Last Meeting: n/a

It has been some time since Mountaineer fans have experienced a winning streak. Nearly two years to be exact. Appalachian has a chance to extend its winning streak when it welcomes Louisiana-Monroe to The Rock for Black Saturday, which is always reserved for the best or toughest opponent on the schedule. Monroe was an easy choice for Black Saturday as its history in the Sun Belt dates back to 2001 and includes a Sun Belt Championship in 2005. Monroe played in their first bowl game in 2012 when they lost to Ohio in the Independence Bowl. The Warhawks left the division formerly known as I-AA in 1993 after winning a national championship over Marshall in 1987. This is the twenty-first season for Monroe in Division I and they have only generated one winning season, in 2012. Monroe went 6-6 three times in that same period of time. Getting to 6-6 this season would be a tall task, not only for Monroe, but also for Appalachian. Both teams certainly have their sites set on at least breaking even in 2014. Monroe would have to win on the road for the first time this season. Appalachian would most likely need to win both home games and steal one at Lafayette or Arkansas State. Chances are slim for either team to pull it off, but the race to six wins is a major accomplishment in the Sun Belt. Even if a 6-6 record is not rewarded with a bowl berth, just being able to tell recruits that you were bowl-eligible is a big deal. Before either team gets to six wins, one team has to get their fourth win this weekend, while the other will get that sixth loss. Monroe has dropped four straight games while the Mountaineers are feeling confident and hope to ride the momentum.

As previously noted, Monroe has risen through the ranks of college football like most Sun Belt schools. Similarly to Appalachian, Monroe had some success in the NCAA playoffs. The Warhawks made the playoffs four times from 1987-1993, with a 5-3 overall playoff record. That success vaulted the school into Division I where they were an independent, without a conference affiliation, for seven seasons before landing in the Sun Belt.

Fast forward to 2012, the year the Warhawks went 8-5 and made the headlines for their big win over #8 Arkansas on the opening weekend of the season. Monroe won that game in overtime before heading to Auburn the following week and losing in overtime. After Auburn, Monroe battled Baylor in a shooutout before falling by five points at home. Monroe then won five straight games, including three over Sun Belt opponents who are no longer in the conference. Monroe then split their final four games, losing to the Sun Belt stalwarts Lafayette and Arkansas State before defeating North Texas and Florida International. Monroe went 6-2 in conference play that year. Five of those six wins were over teams who have left the Sun Belt. Those two losses were in back to back weeks, just like Appalachian’s schedule stacks up after this weekend.

Much has been made about Monroe’s tough loss last weekend at Texas A&M, but I am not buying it. The Aggies were without sophomore quarterback Kenny Hill after a team suspension. Hill had over 2600 yards and 23 touchdown passes in his first eight games. Texas A&M had to start Kyle Allen who was seeing his first action as a college quarterback after being one of the most heralded recruits in 2013. Allen managed 106 passing yards on 13/28 passing and was responsible for two turnovers. Monroe’s game plan was to keep the ball away from the Aggies. They were successful, controlling the clock for close to 34 minutes despite only rushing for 78 yards.

Warhawk quarterback Pete Thomas ran the ball more times against A&M than he did in any game this season, although his nineteen carries only covered forty-four yards. Thomas also threw the ball more times than he had all season with forty-seven attempts. He is a big quarterback at 6’5 and 235 pounds and came to Monroe via NC State and Colorado State. Thomas started all twenty one games as a freshman and sophomore at Colorado State before being sidelined with an injury for the remainder of the 2011 season. He sat out the 2012 season and redshirted before heading to Raleigh where he appeared in nine games and made six starts. Thomas then took advantage of the NCAA rule allowing graduate students to transfer and play their fourth year of football at another school without having to sit out, a move made popular by Greg Paulus of Syracuse football via Duke Basketball and Russell Wilson currently of the Seattle Seahawks, who transferred to Wisconsin after leaving NC State. Wherever Thomas has played collegiately, he has been an accurate quarterback and has had decent passing yards, but his touchdown numbers are low. In his career, he has 7,744 yards and holds a 29/35 touchdown to interception ratio. His yards per pass, completion percentage and QB efficiency rating are all at career lows in this season.

The Monroe rushing attack is nearly not worthy of a mention. On the season, the Warhawks have rushed for 729 yards. In comparison, Appalachian has dropped back to back four hundred yard rushing games in its last two contests. Leading rusher Centarius Donald is a big back at 6’1 and 223 pounds but is a complete plodder after three knee surgeries. Donald’s 469 rushing yards have come primarily at home. Donald has only thirty carries on the road this season for 113 yards, at 3.8 yards per carry. As a team, the Warhawks average only 2.7 yards per carry and 91 rushing yards per game on the season. Against Troy on September 27th at home, Monroe managed just 29 rushing yards.

Appalachian had every answer last Saturday against Georgia State. The physical plant dominated the turf in convincing fashion, moving about four inches of heavy snow prior to kickoff, which paved the way for Marcus Cox. The sophomore from Dacula, Ga ran for a career high 250 yards and three touchdowns. Ricky Fergerson added another 130 yards on the ground which was aided by an 84 yard run in the third quarter. Appalachian converted three turnovers into twenty-one points en route to their second shutout of the season. Only Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana State, Stanford and yes, Appalachian State have two shutouts in FBS football this season.

So, after three games with big offensive numbers, Appalachian gets the Sun Belt’s top defense, in terms of yards allowed. But Monroe has yet to face three of the top five rushing offenses and total offenses in the Sun Belt this season. Monroe has played Texas State, who ran for 229 yards on the Warhawks and Arkansas State who rushed for 288 yards, but Monroe has games against Appalachian, Lafayette and Georgia Southern looming before the end of the season. My guess is Monroe will not be at the top of the conference in defense in four weeks. The Monroe secondary is also suspect over the top. Troy completed pass after pass where the Trojan receivers simply beat the defenders deep. The issue when playing the awkward 3-3-5 defensive formation of Monroe is protecting the quarterback. If Appalachian can keep Taylor Lamb’s pass attempts around twenty, the Mountaineers will be looking good. I can see a couple deep shots to Malachi Jones or Shaedon Meadors if the line can protect. Monroe’s offense is very similar to Troy. They like getting the ball in their receivers hands and allow them to make plays in the open field. Monroe will force you to make one-on-one tackles in space. Even though Pete Thomas runs a bit, he is somewhat of a statue if his first read is covered. The Mountaineer secondary will be tested if Appalachian cannot get some pressure on the quarterback. The spread is just about perfect for this game. For Monroe, it is a good number considering their solid kicking game and strong defense. But if the Warhawks want to win they have to get to twenty points. They are 1-5 scoring under twenty points and 2-0 scoring more than 20 points. They are gonna need at least 24 to beat the Mountaineers.

The First Pick:

Mountaineers 27

Indians 23