Warhawks up next

Appalachian State receiver Thomas Hennigan catches a pass and runs with it against Coastal Carolina in 2019.

Multiple storylines grace the Saturday, Nov. 21, matchup of the only remaining undefeated Sun Belt Conference contenders when 15th ranked Coastal Carolina hosts perennial favorite Appalachian State in Conway, S.C. Game time is set for noon, nationally televised on ESPN2.

If history means anything, the Mountaineers can boast of a 6-0 record against the Chanticleers, including a 3-0 mark since both teams began competing in the Sun Belt Conference.

But history may not mean a thing in 2020. Coastal Carolina has been improving every year and earlier this season defeated a Power 5-level team in the Big-12 Conference’s Kansas University on Sept. 12, 38-23. Of common opponents they share with App State, CCU defeated Campbell, 43-21 (Sept. 18), defeated Arkansas State, 52-23 (Oct. 3), and defeated Georgia State, 51-0 (Oct. 31).

Of those wins over common opponents, all of whom also fell to the Mountaineers, the Coastal win over Georgia State looms large because at 51-0 it was a proverbial shellacking of a team that took the High Country’s favorite sons to the precipice of their first 2020 SBC loss this past weekend. The Panthers led App State until midway in the 4th quarter, which was when the Mountaineer offense found enough “mojo” to match what was an otherwise fine performance by their defensive counterparts.

Without question, Saturday’s tilt in Conway may be the biggest challenge of the 2020 season for either team this year, even counting the Chanticleers’ non-conference win at Kansas and App State’s non-conference loss at Marshall which, ironically, is tied at No.15 in the Associated Press media poll. Appalachian State received votes in both the media and coaches polls, but because of its loss to the Thundering Herd in Week 2 has dropped out of the Top 25 rankings.

Who is better?

In many of the Sun Belt Conference statistical categories, both App State and Coastal Carolina are “top three” in team performance and often in some order of 1-2:

  • SCORING OFFENSE: No. 1 Coastal 36.2 yards per game, No.2 App State 32.8
  • SCORING DEFENSE: No. 1 Coastal 14.0 points allowed per game, No.2 App State 15.0
  • TOTAL OFFENSE: No. 2 Coastal 462.0 yards per game, No.3 App State 434.2
  • TOTAL DEFENSE: No. 1 Coastal 291.6 yards allowed per game, No.2 App State 327.5
  • RUSHING OFFENSE: No. 2 App State 255.5 yards rushing per game, No.4 Coastal 209.0
  • RUSHING DEFENSE: No. 2 Coastal 112.0 rushing yards allowed per game, No.3 App State 126.0
  • PASS OFFENSE: No. 5 Coastal 253.0 passing yards per game, No.9 App State 178.8
  • PASS DEFENSE: No. 2 Coastal 179.6 passing yards allowed per game, No.5 App State 201.5
  • PASS EFFICIENCY: No. 1 Coastal 175.2, No.2 App State 161.1
  • PASS DEFENSE EFFICIENCY: No. 1 App State 92.8, No.4 Coastal 118.4
  • KICKOFF RETURNS: No. 1 App State 24.7 average return, No.6 Coastal 18.3
  • PUNT RETURN AVG.: No. 1 App State 12.8, No.3 Coastal 11.6
  • PUNTING, NET YARDS AVG.: No. 1 App State 42.5, No.8 Coastal 35.7
  • SACKS BY: No.2 Coastal 15/103 yards, No.3 App State 14/106
  • SACKS AGAINST: TIE @ No. 2, Coastal and App have each allowed 6
  • 3rd DOWN CONVERSIONS: No. 1 App State 53.4%, Coastal 50.7%
  • 4th DOWN CONVERSIONS: No. 1 Coastal 75.0%, No.2 App State 71.4%
  • TIME OF POSSESSION, AVG: No. 1 Coastal 36:31, No.3 App State 32:25
  • TURNOVER MARGIN, TOTAL: No. 1 App State +4, No.3 Coastal +1

A win, but disappointment

In a Nov. 16 press conference, Appalachian head coach Shawn Clark was frank when he said that any kind of win is a good win, because it is tough to win an FBS level college football game, but the Mountaineers have a lot of work to do in all three phases of the game based on the coaching staff’s watching tape of their performance against Georgia State. “And it begins with the offensive line. ... We had a ‘come to Jesus’ meeting with them today,” he said.

In the same presser, all-Sun Belt center Noah Hannon said, “I watched the tape as soon as I could after the game and would have told myself the same things they told us today.”

Whether Saturday’s O-line performance was a one-off thing that they can get fixed by Saturday remains to be seen, but Hannon sounded optimistic, pointing out that they have put bad games behind them before and returned to form the next came.

Appalachian State is 47-5 in its last 52 games vs. Sun Belt teams since the school’s jump to the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision. The Mountaineers’ 87 percent winning percentage against league opponents is No. 4 nationally behind only Ohio State (93.2 percent against the Big 10), Clemson (91.7 percent vs. ACC competition); and Alabama (91.5 percent when facing SEC challengers).

Plot thickens

Even if the Mountaineer offensive line shakes off its ills from the Georgia State game and the defense continues to perform at a high level, there are cracks in the so-called armor among the offensive skill players.

The top running back this year, junior Daetrich Harrington, will be out of action indefinitely due to injury, Clark told the media on Monday, so all eyes will be on the highly capable senior Marcus Williams Jr., sophomore Camerun Peoples, and freshman Nate Noel, each of whom has already had 100-plus yard rushing performances in 2020.

Harrington, especially, has had a nose for the end zone. So far in 2020 he leads the Sun Belt with seven rushing TD and rushing yards per game (99.2). He appeared in the six games before Georgia State, rolling up 595 yards on the ground, so his rushing production will be missed.

The receiving corps has been bolstered by the return of senior speedster Jalen Virgil, but he has looked a bit rusty since coming back from injury. Relative newcomers Christen Wells and Christian Horn have picked up slack with impressive performances the last three games. In addition, the Mountaineers have gotten good production from tight ends Henry Pearson and Miller Gibbs. That said, Clark said that senior playmaker Thomas Hennigan is still not 100 percent, but trying to contribute each week.

The biggest question mark, though, may be at quarterback. After senior starter and team captain Zac Thomas was carted off the field midway through the fourth quarter against Georgia State, 5th year senior and career backup Jacob Huesman jumped in to lead the Mountaineers to the game winning TD. After the Mountaineer defense forced a punt, Huesman came back to direct the App State offense to a clock-eating final drive to put the game away, denying the Panthers another offensive opportunity.

During the press conference, Clark was asked what might be different about the game plan should Huesman start at QB if Thomas is unable to go. He replied by saying that they would probably take advantage of Huesman’s running skills with more of a triple option type of rushing attack.

In assessing the Chanticleers, Clark was especially complimentary of the job CCU head coach Jamey Chadwell has done in mentoring his team the past few years. Chadwell previously served as head coach at North Greenville, Delta State, and Charleston Southern before being named offensive coordinator at Coastal Carolina in 2017. When then head coach Joe Moglia took a medical leave of absence in mid-summer of 2017, Chadwell was named interim head coach. Moglia came back as head coach in 2018, but Chadwell was named the full-time head coach of the Chanticleer program in early 2019.

Clark said that he recruited CCU’s starting QB, Grayson MCall, a redshirt freshman from Porter Ridge High School in Indian Trail, N.C., just south of Charlotte. He was rated as three-star, dual-threat recruit after a decorated career at Porter Ridge.

“I recruited him,” said Clark. “I knew he was going to be a very good player.”

In his first year as field general for the Chanticleer offense, McCall currently ranks No. 3 in the Sun Belt for passing average yards per game with 246.8 and No. 1 in pass efficiency at 187.3. App State’s Zac Thomas is No. 8 in passing average (170.5) and No.2 in pass efficiency, behind only McCall, with an efficiency rating of 163.7. McCall has accounted for 290.8 yards per game in total offense (No.2 in the Sun Belt), while Thomas is at No.5 (227.5)

Other offensive threats for the Chanticleers include junior wide receiver Jaivon Heiligh, who ranks No. 3 in the Sun Belt with six receptions per game and No.2 with 96.8 average receiving yards per game. On the ground, senior CCU running back C.J. Marable, a pre-season all-Sun Belt selection in a number of football centric publications, leads the conference with eight TDs this season, so far, in five Sun Belt encounters.

Defensively, CCU has one of the conference’s sack leaders in redshirt senior defensive end Tarron Jackson, who has six (five solo) on the season. App State also has a sack leader in senior defensive lineman Demetrius Taylor, who has 4.5 ( in 2020. Jackson also leads the SBC with 7.5 tackles for loss in five games this season. Junior cornerback D’Jordan Strong of the Chanticleers also is a Sun Belt leader, with three interceptions.

Odds have Appalachian State a four- to six-point underdog for this game between two Sun Belt juggernauts.

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