2020 Game 7 Preview: Appalachian State
DE Hardrick Willis lunges for a tackle in Georgia State’s 2019 loss to Appalachian State. The Panthers look to break a 6-0 all-time App State record in the matchup. Photo: Jordan Crawford for THERSdayNight.com
After winning their prototypical get-right game last time out against winless ULM, the difficulty surges back up for Georgia State (3-3, 2-3 in Sun Belt) as they head on the road for a Sun Belt East showdown with a team they’ve failed to beat in six times of asking, Appalachian State (5-1, 3-0 in Sun Belt). After winning six straight to erase a 1-5 start in their first FBS season in 2014, the Mountaineers haven’t looked back, going bowling – and winning the bowl game – each season they’ve been eligible. Since the Sun Belt split into divisions ahead of the 2018 season, App State has won the East Division each time and beaten Louisiana in the Sun Belt Championship each season. Simply put, they’re the class of the Sun Belt and a team Georgia State has specifically struggled to unlock. And putting the Panthers’ past struggles against the Mountaineers aside, App State has been prolific against everyone at home since joining the FBS ranks, tallying a 34-6 record at Kidd Brewer Stadium – AKA “The Rock” – in that time.
All this is to say that Georgia State will have their hands full and then some. The one positive they have is that the formula to overcome being 17.5-point underdogs this Saturday is simple enough. However, it’s definitely easier said than done. Under offensive coordinator Brad Glenn, the Panthers have honed in on head coach Shawn Elliott’s desired identity as a team who runs the ball early and often and makes the other team stop that. After a rare off-game against Coastal, racking up less than 100 rushing yards for the first time since Coach Glenn came to Atlanta, the Georgia State ground game got back on track last week against ULM to the tune of 263 yards and a healthy 5.37 average yards per carry. That is the type of effort the Panthers will need running the football against App State or they won’t be able to hang.
The problem in this simple equation comes in the form of App State’s defense, which resembles Coastal’s defensive unit far more than it does ULM’s. The Mountaineers come into this game allowing an average of 138 yards rushing, good for 4th in the conference and a hair off of Coastal’s 134.7 rushing ypg allowed (For reference, ULM are now allowing a conference-worst 258). If the Panthers offense haven’t learned whatever lessons there were to be gained from their tough loss to the Chanticleers and they can’t get their run game going from the jump, it’s going to be a long afternoon in Boone. The Georgia State offensive line will be tested by an active Mountaineer front seven. Junior linebacker Trey Cobb leads the team with 7 tackles for loss and senior defensive end Demetrius Taylor (3 sacks in 2020) will be a handful off the edge.
The other part of the equation for a Georgia State win is a good, clean day for freshman quarterback Quad Brown. Quad will need to replicate the poise he brought in his Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Week-winning performance against ULM last Saturday even if not the output. But the task is greater this week against the best cornerback tandem in the conference in Shemar Jean-Charles and junior Shaun Jolly, a Georgia native who terrorized the Panthers in last season’s matchup in Atlanta with two interceptions. Those two will make Quad’s life difficult on Saturday and he’ll have to avoid major mistakes in his decision-making against an App State team who leads the FBS in interceptions since 2015 (97).
App State share one very common goal with Georgia State on offense – they pride themselves on their running game and they want to make you stop it. In much the same way Georgia State is going to need to establish the run on offense, they will have to stop the Mountaineers – the Sun Belt’s leading rushing team – from controlling the game on the ground. The App offensive line is one of the best, if not the best, units in the conference and they’ll look to run it down the throat of Georgia State all day. The Panthers defense actually boasts the second-best rush defense in the conference (120.5 ypg allowed), but this will be a tough test. They will need an answer to not let the App State run game grind them down 5 to 7 yards at a time. While leading rusher Daetrich Harrington is an injury doubt for Saturday’s game, backups Marcus Williams Jr and Camerun Peoples are more than able to carry the load in his absence. And starting QB Zac Thomas is no slouch himself, with 239 rushing yards and two scores on the year.
The one opening for Georgia State on defense may come down to App’s ability to close out drives. On the season, the Mountaineers are just 20-29 on red zone trips, which is 8th (of 10 teams) in the Sun Belt. The Panthers have to avoid the big play, or at least prevent the big play becoming a big touchdown, and make them earn it. For their faults this season, the Georgia State defense has excelled at getting to the quarterback (20 sacks in six games) and capitalizing on mistakes (a Sun Belt-leading 12 forced turnovers). Even if App State has some success running the ball and putting drives together, the Panthers defense will have to be able to stand up where it counts and get the big plays. An Ant Lane interception in the end zone changed the whole complexion of Georgia State’s win at Troy earlier this season. They might need to rely on a similar game-changing play to pull off the upset.
A win on Saturday would take the team one win away from a second straight winning season and it would give Coach Elliott bragging rights over his former teammate at App State, Mountaineers head coach Shawn Clark. But most importantly, a win would give Georgia State an air of legitimacy by earning then a bonafide signature Sun Belt road win. A tall task awaits the Panthers in the mountains of Boone, North Carolina, but the easy wins aren’t the games that take a program to the next level. The action kicks off from The Rock at 2:30pm EST and can be viewed online on ESPN+.