Appalachian State with Thomas Hennigan(Northwest Guilford HS) at WR and Elijah Dirrassouba(Page HS) at DL, and Tre Caldwell, from Southeast Guilford HS, at DB…..
BOONE, N.C. — App State’s much-anticipated return to competition coincides with more history being made by the Mountaineers’ football program.
After a lengthy break, App State opens its league schedule Thursday night with its first regular-season Sun Belt Conference game on the primary ESPN channel. When the Mountaineers (2-1, 0-0) face Arkansas State (3-2, 1-1) at 7:30 p.m. with 2,100 fans in Kidd Brewer Stadium, it will be a meeting of the two programs with the most overall wins and most Sun Belt wins since App State joined the league as an FBS newcomer in 2014.
“I’m just excited to get started,” App State head coach Shawn Clark said. “I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy, and I see a positive in everything we do. I’m excited to play here on primetime ESPN on Thursday night.”
Conference games are ring games for an App State program that has won four straight Sun Belt titles.
With its pass-oriented, two-quarterback offense, Arkansas State has actually played three times since App State’s last game — a 52-21 win against Campbell on Sept. 26.
Due to COVID-19 positive tests and contact tracing, the Mountaineers’ first two scheduled Sun Belt games against Louisiana (Oct. 7) and Georgia Southern (Oct. 14) were postponed until December. The 26 days between games will be the longest stretch in program history, topping several instances of 21-day breaks leading up to postseason appearances, and App State is the only FBS program to have played at least one game this fall season but not already participated in a conference game.
App State returned to practice with roughly a week to prepare for the Red Wolves, who won 59-52 against Georgia State last Thursday.
“I like where we are as a team right now,” Clark said. “We have a bunch of guys who have won a lot of football games around here and know what it takes to be successful. They’ve done that.
“We brought this up to the team, the Tennessee Titans, they were in kind of the same dilemma we were. They go out and have two walk-throughs and one practice and were able to go out, compete and beat the Buffalo Bills on a short week.”
For the first time this season, App State will have fans in the Kidd Brewer Stadium stands.
With the implementation of Governor Roy Cooper’s Executive Order 169, Phase 3 of North Carolina’s eased coronavirus restrictions allows for outdoor venues with 10,000 or more seats to operate at seven percent of seating capacity. Of the 2,100 fans with tickets for Thursday’s game, priority was given to football student-athlete families, App State students and season ticket holders.
A national television audience will be able to watch the Mountaineers play a regular-season game on ESPN for just the third time since their FBS arrival, joining Miami’s visit to Boone in 2016 and App State’s season-opening game at Georgia in 2017.
This time, the Mountaineers welcome a high-scoring Arkansas State team that is averaging 39.8 points and allowing 38.2. With Layne Hatcher (who began his career at Alabama) and Logan Bonner splitting reps — each quarterback averages more than 175.0 passing yards per game — the Red Wolves throw for 384.2 yards per contest and rush for 111.8. Jonathan Adams and Dahu Green have combined for 12 touchdown catches while each averaging more than 100 receiving yards per game.
App State’s defense has been quite stingy against the pass, leading the nation by holding opponents to a completion percentage of 40.5 and posting 7.67 passes defended per game. It ranks No. 2 nationally with a passer rating allowed of 92.62 through three games.
“It’s going to be a great challenge for us on defense,” Clark said. “They’re going to throw the football. We know that. We have to find some way to get pressure on the quarterbacks with a three- or four-man rush, because you have to play in coverage against them.”
The Mountaineers’ offense will match up against an Arkansas State defense that has changed coordinators since the win against Georgia State.
In its last game action, App State’s offensive line and other blockers helped pave the way for a short-handed group to rush for 404 yards, led by 211 yards from Daetrich Harrington. He scored four rushing touchdowns, a total reached by only two other FBS players this season: Alabama running back Najee Harris and Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger (in a four-OT loss).
The Campbell game gave several unsung or unproven players chances to shine. Nearly a month later, experienced standouts will be back, but there will still be opportunities for many of App State’s young players to prove themselves on an even bigger stage.
“As a team, we’ve been doing a pretty good job of keeping our focus and taking the workouts more intense because we’ve known we’re not playing,” cornerback Shaun Jolly said. “Every little piece of motivation we can get, we’re taking advantage of it.”