Eli Drinkwitz picked up the Appalachian State Mountaineers right where Scott Satterfield left them. The first-time, first-year head coach has guided the Mountaineers to a 7-0 record, including a 4-0 mark in the Sun Belt Conference, after beating South Alabama 30-3 last week. App State has won 13 straight games, and the last loss? A 34-14 defeat at the hands of the Georgia Southern Eagles in October 2018.
Georgia Southern started this year slowly but has won three in a row following last week’s 41-7 victory over New Mexico State. Now 4-3 overall and 2-1 in conference play, the Eagles have an opportunity to take control of the East Division with a victory over their top rival.
Georgia Southern at Appalachian State
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 31, at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Appalachian State -15.5
When Georgia Southern Has the Ball
Part of the blame for the Eagles’ 1-3 start goes to injuries, especially the one that cost quarterback Shai Werts most of the first three games of the season. Werts, who had six carries for -7 yards in the season opener against LSU, missed the victory over Maine and the narrow loss to Minnesota. But since his return, Werts has run for 303 yards on 68 carries. Last week, he looked more explosive than he had all season, gaining 67 yards on the ground on only eight carries.
Werts is also a good distributor of the football. Running backs J.D. King, Wesley Kennedy III, Logan Wright, and Matt LaRoche have all gained 267 rushing yards or more this season. And only King — who leads the team with 457 yards on 107 carries and has scored four touchdowns — has appeared in every game. Kennedy, who missed the first four games due to an academic-related suspension, has a team-leading five rushing touchdowns (and a punt return TD as well) in only three appearances. His 312 rushing yards rank second on the team, and his 8.12 yards per carry is best. Last week, Kennedy gained 143 rushing yards and scored twice on only six carries. Wright has missed the last two games with a neck injury and is unlikely to face Appalachian State, so LaRoche (267 yards, 1 TD) will likely be the third back in the rotation.
Georgia Southern ranks No. 7 nationally in rushing offense (259.9 yards per game), and dead last in passing (48.7), so the Mountaineers know what to expect. App State is also well-equipped, having held opponents to 140.1 rushing yards per game and 3.89 yards per carry this year, both of which rank third in the Sun Belt. In conference play, those numbers drop to 118.5 yards allowed per contest and 3.51 yards per attempt.
When Appalachian State Has the Ball
The Mountaineers also rely heavily on the running game. Appalachian State ranks No. 14 nationally in rushing offense (244.1), and No. 9 in yards per carry (5.6). Darrynton Evans has carried the bulk of the load. Evans has gained 722 rushing yards and scored 10 touchdowns this season, and he is one of only three qualified Sun Belt players to average more than 100 rushing yards per game.
Quarterback Zac Thomas is also a capable runner and ranks third behind Evans and backup running back Marcus Williams Jr. (301 yards, 4 TD) with 266 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the ground. Thomas’ presence as a passer gives the Mountaineers a more balanced attack than the Eagles, however. Thomas has completed 66.7 percent of his passes for 1,295 yards (7.6 yards per pass attempt) with 11 touchdowns and only three interceptions.
Thomas Hennigan leads the Mountaineers in every major receiving category, with 33 receptions for 374 yards and four touchdowns, though Malik Williams (29 receptions, 349 yards, 1 TD) and Corey Sutton (22 receptions, 278 yards, 1 TD) are close behind. Sutton may be the most talented of the group, but he missed the first two games of the season due to suspension.
Georgia Southern has played excellent run defense and currently leads the Sun Belt with only 133.0 yards per game allowed on the ground and 3.46 yards per attempt. The Eagles pass defense looked like a major concern early in the season, as LSU, Maine, and Minnesota averaged 315.3 passing yards, but no opponent has surpassed 200 yards through the air since. Over the last four games, opponents have thrown for a total of 519 yards — or 129.8 yards on average.
Appalachian State was ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time in school history when it traveled to Statesboro last season and lost 34-14. Georgia Southern, which is riding a three-game winning streak and is as close to full strength it has been all season, would love to knock the No. 20 Mountaineers out of the national polls again. But App State is the stronger, more balanced team, and has its sights on an undefeated campaign and a New Year’s Six bowl.
While the Mountaineers might be tempted to look past the Eagles to next week’s trip to face South Carolina, Drinkwitz and his team understand there is zero margin for error. We should expect a hotly contested rivalry setting and a close game but for Appalachian State to stay undefeated.
Prediction: Appalachian State 28, Georgia Southern 20
(Top photo by Jay Crain, courtesy of appstatesports.com)