Photo by Gerald Castillo
Countdown to Kickoff: Texas State hikes to play App State
Appalachian State was dominant in 2018.
The Mountaineers had two losses all season. The team fell 45-38 in overtime at No. 10 Penn State in its season opener on Sept. 1, 2018, and 34-14 at Georgia Southern on Oct. 25, 2018, against the Eagles’ triple option offense — one of the toughest to prepare for in the Sun Belt.
Aside from those two games, App State flattened everyone in its path, with an average margin of 21.6 points. Texas State was no match when it squared off with the team on Nov. 10, 2018, losing 38-7 inside Bobcat Stadium. The Mountaineers finished the season 11-2, with wins at the Sun Belt Conference Championship Game and the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.
Former head coach Scott Satterfield left for Louisville in the offseason, and Appalachian State brought in former NC State offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz to replace him. Despite the change, the Mountaineers are still expected to be one of the top teams in the league this year. The team was picked first place in the East Division in the 2019 Preseason Coaches Poll with 46 points and seven first-place votes and was predicted to repeat as conference champions.
“In all, 12 of Drinkwitz’s 14 seasons as a coach took place in Sun Belt states,” Bill Connelly said in his preview of App State on SB Nation. “He’s shared a state with App for the last three. The draw makes a lot of sense. But (man), is the bar high.”
The Mountaineers had a high-powered run game last year that ranked 14th in the NCAA with 240.4 rushing yards per game. Their top two running backs return in juniors Darrynton Evans (179 carries, 1,187 yards, seven touchdowns) and Marcus Williams Jr. (122 carries, 561 yards, four touchdowns).
Junior quarterback Zac Thomas added another 504 yards and 10 scores with his legs on 92 attempts. But Drinkwitz’s offenses have historically been pass-heavy, and the head coach might rely more on Thomas’ arm this year. Thomas missed most of one game and sat out another due to injury, but still threw for 2,039 yards and 21 touchdowns while being intercepted six times.
Seven of the team’s top eight pass-catchers from last year are back, including junior wide receivers Corey Sutton (44 receptions, 773 yards, 10 touchdowns), Thomas Henningan (29 receptions, 327 yards, one touchdown) and Malik Williams (23 receptions, 257 yards, three touchdowns). The offense could benefit from a seasoned offensive line as well.
“Left tackle Victor Johnson was first-team all-conference, center Noah Hannon was second-team, left guard Ryan Neuzil was honorable mention, and two other returnees have starting experience,” Connelly said. “In all, these five have combined for 96 career starts.”
Appalachian State’s defense was one of the toughest in country, ranking sixth in total yards (279) and points (15.7) allowed. The team only gave up 148.1 passing yards per game, third-fewest in the country. Senior defensive backs Josh Thomas and Desmond Franklin will look to maintain the no-fly zone after combining for eight interceptions and seven pass deflections.
Leading tackler Akeem Davis-Gaither will continue to patrol the field. The senior linebackers registered 103 stops last year and tipped seven passes, tied for most on the team. Fellow senior linebackers Jordan Fehr and Noel Cook combined for 10 sacks last year and also return to continue hunting quarterbacks.
“Sometimes you find symmetry where you don’t expect to. In 2018, Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson attempted to turn around a flailing defense by replacing defensive coordinator Ted Roof with former Appalachian State coordinator Nate Woody. It backfired,” Connelly said. “Now Roof, who is somehow only 55 years old despite having lived many football lives, takes over as App State DC. This is his 11th coordinator or co-coordinator gig.”
SB Nation ranks App State as the No. 31 team in the country, ahead of Texas State at No. 102. It gives the Mountaineers a 90 percent chance to beat the Bobcats when the teams meet in Boone, North Carolina on Nov. 23, predicting the hosts win by 21.7 points. It also projects Appalachian State to finish the regular season at 9-3.