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UNC vs. Appalachian State: Game Preview

An uphill climb to a hostile environment

NCAA Football: Coastal Carolina at Appalachian State Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

This is a difficult week for me. It was a tough week in 2019, when I wrote a very similar game preview, and it may be even moreso this time around. It’s not difficult in terms of finding things to say (I mean, I almost-accidentally wrote 1,200 words on things to do in Boone and the surrounding area earlier this week), and it’s not really an issue of not being able to find things to dig into on both sides of this matchup. It’s tough that both of my teams can’t be undefeated after this week.

I’ve been open on this site about being an Appalachian State alumni, and typically that isn’t a problem. Most years, my two fandoms can coexist peacefully, and I’m able to simultaneously root for my hometown school as well as the university where I spent some formative years after deciding that staying in Chapel Hill would be a little too close to home. This is not one of those years.

Carolina is the only team in this game with any tape for the season, after a 56-24 Week Zero win over an undermanned but game squad from Florida A&M. Appalachian State has had an extra week of work leading into Saturday’s game, which may mean more time to prepare, but also could result in some early yips for a Mountaineer team playing their first live snaps of the season. The circumstances of the game are hard to overlook, as it will be the Tar Heels first-ever trip up 421 North to visit the beautiful Appalachian State campus and very possibly the single biggest event that has been hosted at Kidd Brewer Stadium. The in-state nature of the game means that the vast majority of App State fans and students are familiar with their Power 5 neighbors to the east, and we’ve all heard that familiarity breeds contempt.

Both teams have undergone some changes since the last meeting, a 34-31 disappointment for the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill. There are new quarterbacks on each side, and other key players from that 2019 game have moved on to the next stage of their careers. Let’s take a look at what is new for the home team first.

The Appalachian State Mountaineers return a good amount of experience from a 2021 squad that notched 10 wins last season but ended on a disappointing note with a loss to Louisiana in the Sun Belt Championship game followed by the first bowl loss in program history. The offense is once again led by sixth-year super-super-senior Chase Brice, who wasn’t in Boone in 2019 but did see action against the Tar Heels as the quarterback for Duke in 2020 and is coming off the best year of his career in 2021 for the Mountaineers. Returning to protect the longtime quarterback are four of the five starters from last year’s offensive line group, and with him in the backfield are a familiar thunder-and-lightning pair of running backs that accounted for 2,089 yards last season in Camerun Peoples and Nate Noel. A large question mark for the Appalachian State offense will be who will step up to replace a very good departing group of receivers, as Thomas Hennigan, Jalen Virgil, Corey Sutton, and Malik Williams (all of whom signed with NFL teams as free agents after the draft this year).

Paramount in the minds of the Tar Heel defense against this sturdy offense will be stopping the run. The identity of Appalachian State football is to pound the ball to open up passing opportunities, and the running back room is deep beyond just Peoples and Noel. The run game and the offensive line that loves to facilitate it are major strengths for the team from Boone, and allowing any back to eclipse 100 yards rushing is likely a bad sign for the Carolina defense. The passing game is a bit more of a guessing game on both sides of the ball; Appalachian State will be breaking in a number of new faces at receiver, but the Carolina secondary is thin and only became that much more thin with the injury to Tony Grimes (who may or may not be available on Saturday). As important as stopping the run is, Brice is also a quarterback who has proven he can sling the ball in the Appalachian State system by breaking numerous single-season records in last year’s campaign. Carolina’s defensive interior winning the battle at the line of scrimmage and stuffing the run will be vital, but I’d still give the slightest edge to the Mountaineer attack in this matchup.

The Carolina offense looked very good in spots against the Rattlers of Florida A&M last weekend, not least of which was a brilliant start for the Tar Heels’ redshirt freshman quarterback, Drake Maye. The availability of Josh Downs is still up in the air, though, and even though the Heels spread the ball around liberally in the first game of the season, the loss of the undisputed WR1 would still sting. The Mountaineer defense also has a few questions to answer, though, after losing star linebacker D’Marco Jackson (drafted in the fifth round by the New Orleans Saints) and interior linemen Demetrius Taylor and Caleb Spurlin. Taylor, especially, should stick out in the minds of Tar Heel faithful; in 2019, he recorded a career day against Carolina with two and a half sacks, two forced fumbles (one of which he returned for a touchdown), and an interception. The Appalachian State defensive line has notable holes to fill, but the Mountaineers benefit from a strong next-man-up mentality and return some experience in nose tackle Jordon Earle and edge rusher Hansky Paillant. Look for Earle to be a load in the middle and try to stuff running attempts; if Tar Heel backs can get into the second level of the defense, the inexperience of the Mountaineer secondary may be an advantage for the blue and white. Similarly, App State has a slight lack of experience in the defensive backs room, except for Steven Jones, Jr., an All-American cornerback who tallied five interceptions last season. This inexperience may make it more easy for Maye to carve the App State defense up in the passing game. Throwing away from Jones will certainly be in the best interest of Maye and the Carolina offense, as other Mountaineer defensive backs may still be adjusting to the App State system or the speed of the college game. I think this side of the contest will also be close, but I’d give a small advantage to the Carolina attack provided Maye continues to impress and his line is able to keep him upright.

I’m afraid this game will be a shootout, and a close one at that. An experienced Mountaineer offense attempting to establish the run against a Tar Heels defense that looked suspect at times in last week’s game versus a Carolina offense with a newcomer under center that looked incredible in last week’s game against an App State defense with questions to answer in their first game of the year... I feel a nailbiter coming on, and I quit biting my fingernails a full decade ago. Add to that the atmosphere of a very hostile road crowd, and we should have a really good game to watch on Saturday. In the end, when I put my light-blue glasses on, I think Carolina’s shiny new quarterback will find enough weapons in the passing game to barely edge the Mountaineers in a tight one, 42-38.