A full slate of college football bowl games on Saturday starts with a meeting between Appalachian State and WKU in the RoofClaim.com Boca Raton Bowl. This matchup between the Hilltoppers and Mountaineers could be one of the better pre-Christmas bowl games, as the two teams combined for an 18-8 record and won their respective divisions for a trip to a conference title game.
WKU’s hopes of a Conference USA title fell short in a 49-41 loss to UTSA on Dec. 3, but an 8-5 record in 2021 represents a significant step forward for the program. Last year, the Hilltoppers slumped to 5-7 behind a struggling offense (19.0 points a game), which prompted major changes by coach Tyson Helton. The biggest overhaul came on offense, as Zach Kittley was hired from FCS Houston Baptist to be the Hilltoppers’ new offensive coordinator. Transitioning to Kittley’s high-powered passing scheme was eased by the arrival of a couple of HBU transfers, including quarterback Bailey Zappe and receiver Jerreth Sterns. The duo helped the Hilltoppers average 43.1 points per game and helped the team rebound after a 1-4 start to win seven in a row before the loss at UTSA. WKU was a handful of plays away from 10 wins, as Helton’s team lost by three to Army, by two to Indiana, and by one score in both meetings versus UTSA.
Appalachian State is one of the nation’s top Group of 5 programs, winning at least nine games in each of the last seven years. After a 9-3 mark last season and a second-place finish in the Sun Belt East, coach Shawn Clark’s team returned to the top of the division this fall. The Mountaineers nearly defeated Miami (25-23) in early September and suffered a blowout loss to Louisiana (41-13) on Oct. 12 before reeling off six wins in a row, including a crucial 30-27 victory over Coastal Carolina. Clark’s squad lost to Louisiana 24-16 in the Sun Belt title game, but a win over WKU could put Appalachian State in a good spot to potentially finish in the top 25 of the final poll.
Appalachian State and WKU have never met at the FBS level. The Mountaineers are 4-1 against the Hilltoppers in all-time matchups. Appalachian State has won six bowl games in a row, while the Hilltoppers have lost two out of their last three postseason games.
RoofClaim.com Boca Raton Bowl: Appalachian State (10-3) vs. WKU (8-5)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 18 at 11 a.m. ET
Where: FAU Stadium (Boca Raton, Fla.)
Spread: Appalachian State -3
When Appalachian State Has the Ball
Considering the firepower on WKU’s sideline, the best defense for Appalachian State could be a good offense. The Mountaineers may not have the flash of WKU’s offense, but this unit is more than capable of keeping pace. Under first-year coordinator Frank Ponce, Appalachian State ranks second in the Sun Belt in yards per play (6.2), first in plays of 40-plus yards (18), and second in scoring (34.2 ppg).
Controlling the line of scrimmage will be crucial to Appalachian State’s hopes of a victory. The ground attack is led by three lineman that earned All-Sun Belt honors, including Cooper Hodges and Baer Hunter on the first team. That duo was crucial to the play up front, as this unit gave up only 13 sacks all year and cleared the way for rushers to average 4.7 yards per carry. Nate Noel (1,076 yards) and Camerun Peoples (825 and 14 TDs) will handle the bulk of the work on the ground for Ponce and face a favorable matchup against a WKU front giving up 161.3 rushing yards a game. Getting into a back-and-forth shootout with the Hilltoppers is probably not in Appalachian State’s best interest, so a run-heavy plan that controls the time of possession and wears down WKU’s front should be deployed.
Duke transfer (and former Clemson signal-caller) Chase Brice was solid in his Appalachian State debut this year, throwing for 3,020 yards and 23 touchdowns to 10 picks. The senior connected on 61.9 percent of his throws and also led all Sun Belt quarterbacks with 23 completions of 30-plus yards. Brice won’t have top receiver Corey Sutton (61 catches) due to injury, but the Mountaineers are not lacking for options here. Malik Williams (51) and Thomas Hennigan (55) will team with Jalen Virgil (12) and Christian Horn (four) and tight ends Christian Wells (eight) and Henry Pearson (nine) to pick up the slack in the passing game.
WKU’s defense gave up at least 33 points in four of its first five games but played better down the stretch. The Hilltoppers limited seven of their last eight opponents to 21 points or less, with UTSA (49) the only team scoring over that threshold. For the season, WKU held opposing offenses to 5.46 yards a snap and 23.6 points a game. However, the Hilltoppers had trouble getting off the field on third downs and in the red zone, ranking 12th in C-USA in both categories. In a game where timely stops are going to matter, WKU has to create havoc plays and find ways to get off the field on third downs to get the ball back to its offense.
When WKU Has the Ball
Fireworks. The arrival of Kittley, Zappe and Sterns fueled a major jump in production after the Hilltoppers averaged only 4.6 yards a snap last fall. Behind a high-powered passing game and quick tempo (around 75 plays a contest), WKU enters the bowl season averaging 7.1 yards per play and 43.1 points a game.
With Zappe at the controls, it’s no surprise this unit does most of its damage through the air. WKU leads the nation by averaging 434.6 passing yards a game and throws the ball on 67 percent of its snaps. Zappe is on a record-setting pace entering the Boca Raton Bowl with 5,545 passing yards and 56 touchdowns to only 11 interceptions. With a huge game against Appalachian State, Zappe has a chance to finish as the FBS' all-time single-season passing leader (5,833 yards, B.J. Symons) and most touchdown passes in a year (60, Joe Burrow).
Zappe doesn’t lack for playmakers on the outside, so the depth and coverage ability of Appalachian State’s secondary – rated No. 1 in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense – will be tested. Sterns has been the clear No. 1 receiver, grabbing 137 receptions for 1,718 yards and 14 scores. Mitchell Tinsley (80 rec., 1,299 yds.) is another tough threat for Appalachian State to account for, while Daewood Davis (41) and Malachi Corley (71) headline the next wave of playmakers on the outside. Zappe and his receivers will hit on big plays (17 of 40-plus in 2021), but this offense also leads the nation in most plays of 10-plus yards (265). WKU doesn’t run it much (average 25 carries a game), but Adam Cofield (373 rushing yards) and Noah Whittington (467) will contribute as pass catchers.
Slowing down WKU’s offense has been a tough assignment for every team on its schedule. The Hilltoppers have scored at least 31 points in every game and posted 41 or more in each of the last six contests. This offense also paces Conference USA in third-down conversions and red-zone efficiency. Appalachian State does have a good counter punch on defense, however. The Mountaineers allowed just two opponents to reach 30 or more points, finished first in the Sun Belt in fewest yards per play allowed, second in scoring defense (19.3 ppg), and first in third-down stops. WKU’s offensive line has been rock solid all year, but Appalachian State’s pass rush (36 sacks) can win some battles to disrupt the timing of Zappe.
In the seven previous editions of the Boca Raton Bowl, every game was decided by 15 or more points. The contrasting styles and overall play of WKU and Appalachian State suggests this one should reverse that trend of blowouts. The Mountaineers want to slow this game down, lean on the run and limit the amount of defensive snaps they have to face against the high-powered offense on the other sideline. WKU wants to push the tempo and let Zappe light up the scoreboard, forcing Appalachian State to get a little out of its comfort zone on offense. An x-factor to watch will be the turnover battle. The Mountaineers were minus-one in the regular season, while the Hilltoppers were plus-eight. Both teams are likely to win some battles, with a couple of timely stops likely to decide this one in the second half.
Prediction: Appalachian State 38, WKU 34
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