It’s only about three hours. If you drive a twenty-year-old Honda Civic, it will take you approximately ten additional minutes door-to-door to get to Boone than it will take to get back, on account of the mountains that need to be climbed between here and there. It’s a beautiful part of our state, a college town nestled in a valley in North Carolina’s high country, about a half hour drive from the Tennessee border. It’s a pretty easy drive up to the high country, and I ought to know; I made that trip to and from my light blue hometown countless times in my four and a half years as a student at Appalachian State.
My own personal history aside, that town has a history of fielding competitive college football teams, and the latest version of that team is making that familiar drive down the mountain for a Week Two matchup in Chapel Hill. Fresh off the heels of a Week One win over FCS stalwart Gardner-Webb, the Appalachian State team will be looking to repeat the success of their visit in 2019 that saw the Mountaineers headed back to Boone with a 34-31 win and statewide bragging rights. The Tar Heels, conversely, will be looking to build on last year’s result; a 63-61 shootout that ended with the Carolina offense outdueling the team from Boone despite a 40-point fourth quarter from the Mountaineers.
This year, things look a bit different in the high country. Let’s get into it.
Appalachian State’s offense / Carolina’s defense
For the first time in recent memory, App State had a bit of a question mark at quarterback coming into the season. There were two guys who were reportedly neck-and-neck throughout camp, with both apparently looking good enough that it was essentially a toss-up as to who would get the start. In the end, though, it didn’t make much of a difference: Ryan Burger, named the starter right before last week’s game against Gardner-Webb, injured a finger on his throwing hand with a few minutes left in the first half of Saturday’s game. His backup, Joey Aguilar, promptly stepped in and threw a 32-yard touchdown on his first snap to put the Mountaineers up 14-10 going into halftime.
Before being injured, Burger went 7 of 11 for 73 yards and one touchdown. Joey Aguilar finished the game strong, sparking the Mountaineers offense by completing 11 of 13 passes for 174 yards and four touchdowns. Nate Noel, the quick junior running back who should get the lion’s share of the touches in tomorrow’s game, rushed for 115 yards on 24 carries, and Maquel Haywood supplemented Noel’s lightning with some thunder of his own, rushing for 45 yards on 11 attempts. The Mountaineers typically run the ball to pass it, and they like to get their talented linemen going in the ground game to reward them for pass blocking. Aguilar, the starting quarterback this week (as Burger is out for 3-4 weeks with his injured finger) has really good touch on the deep ball, and Appalachian’s fresh-faced group of receivers like to give him plenty of downfield targets. Eight receivers caught passes for the Mountaineers last week; expect once-and-future offensive coordinator Frank Ponce (back at Appalachian for his seventh season after spending last season as the passing game coordinator for Miami) to spread the ball around the field.
This will be a great way to tell if Carolina’s stellar performance in last Saturday’s game was a function of marked improvement in the defensive front or a symptom of deep dysfunction on South Carolina’s offensive line. The Appalachian State offensive line is a proud group, and have two linemen on preseason All-Sun Belt lists in Isaiah Helms (first team) and Damion Daley (second team). They delight in getting after defenders in the run game, but will still be a good measuring stick for the new-look pass rush of the Tar Heels. If the Carolina rushers are even half as productive as they were in last week’s game, the advantage here goes to the Heels.
Carolina’s secondary will have a lot to look at in the passing game, as Aguilar has demonstrated the ability to make throws all over the field, and doesn’t yet have enough tape out to easily identify a favored receiver or route. If the pass rush doesn’t get home, Appalachian’s receivers and the scheme may be enough to even the playing field.
Appalachian State’s defense / Carolina’s offense
We all know what Drake Maye is capable of. Carolina fans know it, Appalachian State fans know it, even the national media is starting to become aware of the amazing things the Tar Heel quarterback can do with the ball in his hands. Defensive coordinator Scot Sloan (no relation; similarly back at Appalachian State for a second stint after a few seasons abroad at another Sun Belt school) certainly knows it as well, and has likely been scheming against the quarterback even before the Gardner-Webb game. The Mountaineers gave up 360 total yards of offense on Saturday against a talented but eventually overmatched Runnin’ Bulldogs squad, forcing two interceptions and a fumble on three consecutive Gardner-Webb drives to salt the game away in the second half. While no defender on the Appalachian State defense tallied a sack in last week’s game, thanks in part to Gardner-Webb’s quick-strike passing attack, the entire defense is well-coached and will swarm to the ball.
The most successful drives against the Mountaineer defense in last week’s game were quick passes interspersed with read option dives, run with pretty marked tempo. The quick passes took pressure off the opposing offensive line, and the balls were caught underneath the App State defensive backs’ pressure to chip away at the field, four to five yards at a time.
I will give the Tar Heel offense the edge in any game this season, courtesy of the man under center. That’s not to say the Mountaineer defense will be pushed around easily; they’re a salty bunch, and will hang tough. Look for Drake Maye to shake off the opening weekend jitters and protect the ball better even against a ball-hawking App State secondary.
Appalachian State special teams were a mixed bag to start the season. They sputtered on their first drive on Saturday after an unsuccessful Michael Hughes field goal attempt from 44 yards. Kicking woes continued throughout the game in less-obvious ways, with at least one kickoff illegally landing out-of-bounds and spotting Gardner-Webb an extra 15 yards. Receiving, though, was another story. Milan Tucker, Preseason First Team All-Sun Belt return man, took the opening kick back 48 yards to start the game and the season on a positive note. Carolina special teams were by-and-large unremarkable in Saturday’s game, which is not to say bad. In most cases, unremarkable is the highest praise someone can give to a special teams unit; handling business quietly and competently. Ryan Coe was 100% on field goals and extra points, the kick and punt coverage were solid, and no glaring mistakes in the receiving phase.
For the field goal percentage alone, give the edge to the Tar Heels here.
Appalachian State plays a tough and unafraid style of football that I am proud to enjoy as an alumni. The tradition of winning football is something that is ingrained in that campus, and the Mountaineers are a tough out in nearly any situation. The second game on the schedule for the Tar Heels is another serious test, and we will all have a much better idea of what this Carolina team is made of after the clock hits zero. If the team from Chapel Hill comes out flat, it very well may be an uphill battle against the stay-ready Mountaineers. If the pass rush is able to continue the dominance displayed in last week’s game, though, and prevent the App State offense from finding its rhythm, Carolina should win this game. I expect a high-scoring game with my alma mater within striking distance until the very end, when Maye closes the book on another 250-yard passing day and British Brooks crosses the 100-yard mark while grinding out the final possession to keep the ball out of the hands of the Mountaineer offense; 52-45, Tar Heels.