About three hours down I-40 from Kenan Stadium, nestled in the verdant hills of the high country, is a small school with a larger-than-life vision for their football program. It used to be that Appalachian State was little more than an afterthought, a small mountain school in the UNC system with a football program to match. Slowly but surely, however, that small mountain school began to make noise.
It started fairly quietly: an FCS national title in 2005. The sound from the mountain began to swell in 2006, as the Mountaineers went back-to-back as FCS national champions. In 2007, the roar from the hills became impossible to ignore as the Mountaineers defeated the #5 Michigan Wolverines in Ann Arbor, shocking the college football world, en route to their third consecutive FCS ring. Now, folks across the country are aware of the existence of Boone, North Carolina and the football team that plays there.
It’s a good time to be an Appalachian State alumni/football fan, and I should know—I am one. This piece is less a game preview than a conversation with myself about what I expect from both of my teams on Saturday, and a futile attempt to convince myself that I won’t be disappointed with either outcome.
The context above is all to say this: Appalachian State is no fluke. It’s been written about multiple times, but few teams have made the jump from FCS to FBS football as successfully as the team from Boone. In recent years, the Mountaineers have given other Power 5 teams all they wanted, barely falling in overtime to Tennessee and Penn State in 2016 and 2018, respectively. Appalachian State has enjoyed a string of successful seasons, notching double-digit win totals in three of the past four seasons and winning their bowl game in each one.
Despite the sustained success since making the transition to a full-fledged member of the Sun Belt Conference, the Mountaineers have a few questions to answer this season. One symptom of such success at the Group of 5 level is the loss of personnel, and former head coach Scott Satterfield was plucked at the end of the 2018 season to try and right the ship at Louisville. His replacement, Eliah Drinkwitz, may be familiar to Tar Heel faithful; from 2016 to 2018 he was the offensive coordinator for the team from Raleigh, where he brought out the best in quarterback Ryan Finley.
This is no rebuilding program, though; the Mountaineers return 17 starters from the 2018 campaign and benefit from a very strong next-man-up culture. The Mountaineers are due for another Power 5 victory, but the Tar Heels will hope to deny that search for a little longer on Saturday. Carolina will have something to play for as well as they strive to snap an 8-game losing streak to in-state FBS opponents.
Through the first two games of the season, the Appalachian State offense has looked dominant even without the presence of 2018’s leading pass-catcher Corey Sutton, who was suspended for the first two games for a violation of team rules. Running back Darrynton Evans, looking to fill the shoes of departing star Jalin Moore, led the nation in rushing through the first two weeks of the 2019 season, and will be a key player for the Tar Heel defense to stop on Saturday.
The Mountaineers also benefit greatly from the stalwart leadership of junior quarterback Zac Thomas, who threw for 2,039 yards last season while completing nearly 63% of his attempts. Appalachian State looks to lean on their excellent running backs to pound the ball early to loosen up defenses and allow Thomas to pick them apart in the passing game, as well as to wear the opponents down in late-game situations. The strength of the Mountaineer rushing attack gives them the ability to salt away games once they’ve gained the lead, and Thomas has the ability to beat you through the air if you sell out to stop the run.
A key matchup on Saturday will be in the trenches between the Tar Heels defensive line and the Mountaineers offensive line; in order to throw the Mountaineer offense off of its rhythm, players like Aaron Crawford and Jason Strowbridge need to be disrupters. Appalachian State likes to run a lot of zone blocking schemes in an attempt to get running backs free in the defensive backfield, where the speed of guys like Evans can act as the equalizer against a bigger defense. Eating blocks in the middle and filling running lanes is important to stop the rushing attack of the Mountaineers.
The Tar Heel secondary will also have a lot to think about. Appalachian State, in addition to the aforementioned return of Corey Sutton, have an arsenal in the wide receivers room. Thomas Hennigan runs clean routes, has fantastic hands, and is unafraid of taking a jump ball away from a defender. Zac Thomas is often able to find him on the sidelines near the sticks in 3rd-and-long situations to extend the drive. Hennigan is also a capable downfield blocker; he is able and willing to hold a block on the corner in order to spring Jalen Virgil, a burner who can be counted on to turn the corner on a jet sweep and tiptoe into the end zone before the defense is able to adjust to the speed. The Tar Heel defense will have to count on making the correct reads and not gambling on jumping routes—the Appalachian State quarterback takes good care of the ball and doesn’t generally force throws into disadvantageous situations.
Turnovers will be a big story in Saturday’s game—the team who best takes care of the ball may very well be the team who comes out on top. This is good news for the Tar Heels: the Mountaineer defense hasn’t been as scary through the first two games of the 2019 season as the 2018 version was. Some of this is due to a new defensive scheme implemented by defensive coordinator Ted Roof, and some is due to the loss of key personnel for the team from Boone. Two starting corners, Clifton Duck (cousin of UNC’s Storm Duck) and Tae Hayes left the program after the 2018 season to attempt to monetize their skills at the next level. Appalachian State also lost starting safety Austin Exford to graduation after last year’s campaign.
This leaves the Mountaineers without as much experience in the defensive backfield, something that Sam Howell will hope to exploit on Saturday. The pocket will also be slightly more comfortable than it may have been had these two teams played last year; Appalachian State graduated two stud defensive linemen in Myquon Stout and Okon Godwin, the latter of whom tallied 4.5 sacks last year. The linebacker position is not as tenuous for Appalachian, as they return last year’s sack leader in senior linebacker Jordan Fehr and replace departing senior Anthony Flory with a solid rotation of sophomores Trey Cobb and D’Marco Jackson, the latter of whom returned a blocked punt for a touchdown in the Mountaineers’ game against Charlotte. The Carolina line will have to keep an eye out for blitzes coming from the defensive backfield, as well as rushers coming from the edge.
Against Charlotte on September 7th, the Mountaineer secondary was habitually giving 49er receivers free releases from the line of scrimmage; sometimes even allowing a cushion of seven to ten yards. If this continues against the Heels, receivers Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown, along with the rest of the Heels’ wideouts, will have a field day on underneath/comeback routes and Carolina will ride those completions to easy first downs and extended drives. This could also open up double-move routes for guys with speed to beat the defender and cruise downfield for easy yardage. Appalachian State is coming off of a bye week, however, which means the Mountaineers have had two weeks to prepare for the offensive threats posed by Carolina’s talented wide receiver depth.
There’s no denying that the Tar Heels will be the first true test for an Appalachian State team accustomed to winning. Look for the Mountaineers to try and start fast offensively and attempt to make the Heels play from behind in this game. Carolina needs to match that urgency right away on offense, and the defense will have to step up and make sure this doesn’t turn into a shootout against a Mountaineer team that feels as though it can score on anyone. The team to force the most turnovers will have the decided edge in the game, so the Heels will need to take good care of the ball and protect their freshman quarterback to give him time to take advantage of the less-experienced Mountaineer secondary.
If Carolina can protect the ball and keep the explosive Mountaineer offense in check, I foresee a nerve-wracking 31-27 victory for the Tar Heels.