South Carolina will continue its trend of taking on non-conference opponents from the Carolinas when the Gamecocks host the Mountaineers of Appalachian State in Columbia on Saturday night. Appalachian State (7-1, 4-1 Sun Belt) has had plenty of time to stew over its first loss of the season, a 24-21 home defeat at the hands of Georgia Southern last Thursday, while South Carolina (4-5, 3-4 SEC) avoided another letdown by handily dispatching Vanderbilt 24-7 on Saturday.
The Mountaineers happened to run into a momentum-filled Georgia Southern team at the worst time, as the Eagles' win over Appalachian State was their fourth straight. After giving up at least 31 points per game between Weeks 2-4, the Mountaineers surrendered a total of just 17 in the next three weeks before allowing 24 to Georgia Southern. The Gamecocks haven’t been very streaky in either direction in 2019, having neither won nor lost more than two consecutive games this season. After a humbling 20-point loss at Tennessee two weeks ago, the Gamecocks rebounded and took care of Vanderbilt at home by a 24-7 margin.
With both teams plenty familiar with playing non-conference games against teams from the Carolinas, it would stand to reason that they’ve seen a lot of each other. Well, that’s partially correct. Saturday will mark the 10th all-time meeting between Appalachian State and South Carolina — the Gamecocks are 8-1 against the Mountaineers — but the first since 1988, a 35-9 South Carolina home win.
Appalachian State at South Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 9 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: South Carolina -6
When Appalachian State Has the Ball
The Mountaineers managed just 21 points against Georgia Southern, their second-lowest point total of the season. This time, the low output came back to bite them, as the highest-scoring offense in the Sun Belt was held well under its previous season average of 41 points per game (which since has fallen to 38.5). Quarterback Zac Thomas passed for all three of Appalachian State’s touchdowns, completing 25 of his 51 passes for 271 yards while rushing for 37 more.
Even with Thomas, the run game struggled, totaling just 152 yards on the ground, well below its previous average of over 240 yards rushing per game. Darrynton Evans, the ever-dangerous running back who is among the top 30 in rushing yards and also is tied for the FBS lead with five kickoff returns for touchdowns, was largely held in check but will look to get back to his previous form. On the receiving side, Corey Sutton grabbed two touchdowns and Malik Williams one more, but each had at least six receptions. Nothing epitomizes Thomas’ ability to distribute the ball better than the fact that all of his top three receivers — Sutton, Williams and Thomas Hennigan — enter this week averaging fewer than 60 yards receiving per game.
Saturday’s win over Vanderbilt was a return to normalcy for this South Carolina defense. In each of the Gamecocks’ four wins in 2019 — including against now-No. 6 Georgia — they’ve held the opponent to 17 or fewer points. The Commodores mustered only a single touchdown — which came in the first quarter — and just 189 yards of offense, an effort the Gamecocks will hope to replicate against this potent Appalachian State offense.
When South Carolina Has the Ball
Ryan Hilinski continues to air it out in his freshman season, moving into the top 20 in the FBS with 21.5 completions per game in 2019. The yards and touchdowns don’t rank as highly, but his game against Vanderbilt was a very solid bounce-back after a mediocre game against Tennessee. Hilinski was 24-for-31 for 235 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Vanderbilt, likely helping to build some confidence for the remainder of his freshman season.
Speaking of rebounds, South Carolina’s ground game needed one after getting shut down against Tennessee, and the group delivered. Deshaun Fenwick led the way with 102 yards on 18 carries, with Tavien Feaster adding 53 and Kevin Harris 20 more with a touchdown. The Gamecocks still average nearly 185 yards rushing per game, which they’ll look to meet or surpass to provide some offensive balance given the inexperience of Hilinski leading the passing attack.
It’s been a tale of two seasons for the Appalachian State defense, which allowed at least 31 points in three of its first four games before allowing just 17 total over the next three. Saturday against Georgia Southern, however, the Mountaineers allowed more than a touchdown for the first time since giving up 37 to Coastal Carolina in a 56-37 win on Sept. 28. Despite the porous early-season defense, Appalachian State enters ranked in the top 30 nationally in both scoring defense and total defense, signaling that perhaps last week’s game was more an anomaly than anything else.
Despite South Carolina coming off a win and Appalachian State its first loss of 2019, Appalachian State has had little trouble scoring on just about anyone they’ve played. That’ll be a good test against a South Carolina team that, when it’s found success, has been primarily led by its defense.
Prediction: Appalachian State 34, South Carolina 23
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
(Top photo courtesy of App State Athletics)