After three weeks of the college football season, a bit more intrigue has developed around the game between Appalachian State and North Carolina. The Mountaineers were expected to be one of the best Group of 5 teams in the country this year, and at 2-0 their goals are still achievable. But it is their opponent this week that has surprised many college football experts.
Mack Brown’s Tar Heels made a late charge against Wake Forest last Friday, rallying from a 21-3 fourth-quarter deficit before falling just short. Still, UNC is 2-1 with Power 5 wins over South Carolina and Miami. Clemson looms next week, but Carolina will not be looking past this talented App State team.
This will be the first-ever meeting between the two in-state programs.
Appalachian State at North Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 21 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: ESPN Extra/RSN
Spread: North Carolina -3
When Appalachian State Has the Ball
Mountaineers quarterback Zac Thomas is the reigning Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year, and so far this season he has completed 68 percent of his throws with five touchdowns and no interceptions. He hasn’t run much, but after rushing for over 500 yards in 2018, he is a threat in that respect as well. But the App State quarterback has not been the biggest star on offense so far this fall.
In two games, running back Darrynton Evans has rushed for 333 yards and is averaging over 10 yards per carry. In Week 2 against Charlotte, Evans torched the 49ers for 234 yards and three scores. He was a 1,000-yard back in 2018 and seems to be building off last season’s success. With Thomas throwing and Evans running, balance will be a key for Appalachian State against the Heels.
Carolina has improved its rush defense so far this season, but an injury to corner Patrice Rene has made the Heels a bit vulnerable on the back end. Still, the Heels will be focused on slowing down Evans, and as a result, there may be some openings in the passing game for Mountaineer receivers Thomas Hennigan, Malik Williams, and Jalen Virgil.
When North Carolina Has the Ball
Freshman quarterback Sam Howell had another solid performance against Wake Forest, completing 17-of-28 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns. He has not thrown an interception so far this season and is second in the conference in yards per attempt. Most encouragingly, when the UNC staff has needed him to perform in the fourth quarter of these three close games, Howell has responded exceptionally well.
The Heels do have to get a better performance out of their offensive line. Howell has been sacked 13 times in the three games, and the running game, though solid with backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, could be better. Like every team will do against a true freshman quarterback, App State will try to bring some pressure and mix up coverages to confuse Howell.
But the Mountaineers' defense, which ranked sixth nationally last season, allowed 526 yards and 41 points to Charlotte, which has just five starters back from last year's 116th-ranked offense. The 49ers had 230 yards on the ground and 296 through the air, so Appalachian State was exposed in both facets. Carolina’s versatility on offense — especially with speedy receivers Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown — could present problems for the App State defense.
Appalachian State is used to facing Power 5 opponents each and every year. But going up against the state's biggest brand for the first time will be a big deal. On Saturday, the Mountaineers should have some success moving the football against the Heels. Zac Thomas and Darrynton Thomas will ensure that App State scores points. But the team's defensive performance against Charlotte was alarming. North Carolina will have success running and throwing, with Howell having another efficient game. A Carolina win will push the Heels to 3-1 and sets up a big showdown with mighty Clemson next Saturday in Chapel Hill.
Prediction: North Carolina 38, Appalachian State 24
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.