After two positive steps in the right direction for Georgia State – a 20-9 win over Charlotte two weeks ago and a tough loss but encouraging performance last Saturday at Auburn – they head into Sun Belt play. And the Panthers will be met with one of their biggest in-conference tests right out of the gate, in the form of a visit from perennial Sun Belt power Appalachian State. Both teams will want to start off conference play 1-0, something App State has done every season they’ve been in the Sun Belt except their first in 2014. Georgia State will also be looking for its first win against the Mountaineers in their eighth attempt. For their part, App State will be eager to start a new streak of conference championships, having won four straight from 2016-19 until Coastal Carolina and Louisiana shared the spoils last season, and they know they’ll get tested on the road by a Georgia State team that gave them everything they could handle in a 17-13 Mountaineers win in 2020.
For both offenses, it starts with the run game. Appalachian State has never rushed for less than 200 yards per game as a member of the FBS, and while their 2021 numbers early in the season (205.75 ypg through their first four games) fall slightly behind the pace they’ve set in recent seasons, it’s still the part of the offense that gets a heavy emphasis. Behind an experienced offensive line, led in the middle by center Baer Hunter, the two-headed beast of Camerun Peoples and Nate Noel are a threat to break off a long run on any down. Peoples has 8 of the Mountaineers’ 10 rushing touchdowns so far in 2021 and Noel has yet to get off the mark this season, but Noel is actually the leading rusher with 437 yards. After holding an Auburn offense that came into last Saturday averaging well over 300 rushing yards per game to just 166, the Georgia State defense has certainly proven capable of stopping big rushing attacks. The likes of linebackers Blake Carroll and Jordan Veneziale will need to bring the same A-game they brought against an SEC foe this week to take control in the trenches against an offense that doesn’t relinquish that control very often.
The Georgia State offense has been slow to get firing at the start of 2021, but the first half against Auburn was the most inspiring step they’ve taken yet, with 219 yards on the ground – 107 of which came on two long Tucker Gregg runs – and 24 points scored. Quarterback Darren Grainger is going to enter his third straight game as starter – he’s both the reason the offense has gotten out of the mud and could still be the provider of so much more to help them find yet another gear. His willingness and, indeed, eagerness to run the ball himself has added a needed layer to the running game, as has more consistent play up front by the offensive line the last two games. Appalachian State’s defense has been their usual sturdy self in defending the run, holding opponents to 112.5 rushing ypg and 3.69 yards per carry this season, though impressive fronts haven’t stopped Coach Elliott and Coach Glenn from dialing up the run early and often in the past. It’ll be no surprise when they look to get it going once more on Saturday.
Much as each team prides themselves on running the football, the passing game might actually be where the difference lies in this game. Chase Brice has transferred in from Duke to nicely fill the shoes of recent standout Mountaineer quarterbacks such as Zac Thomas and Taylor Lamb. The advantage he adds over his predecessors is his arm talent – and he’s not afraid to use it. With two all-conference wideouts in Thomas Hennigan and Corey Sutton, not to mention slot receivers Malik Williams and Jalen Virgil, Brice has targets he can rely on, on any down, in any situation, and the Panthers defense are going to have to be ready. Specifically, the starting corners Quavian White and Bryquice Brown will draw some tough assignments, possibly being left on islands with Hennigan and Sutton. If Georgia State is loading up in the box to stop the vaunted Mountaineer rushing attack, they’re going to have to be alert to a play-action pass down the field meant to catch them napping.
On the other side, Georgia State is looking for a little more consistency from Grainger and the passing game. He’s managed exactly a 50% completion percentage in each of his starts and a hair over 100 yards, which is neither efficient nor explosive enough. WR Sam Pinckney’s snap count has been only slowly climbing as he continues to recover from a hamstring injury and Cornelius McCoy’s status for Saturday is unknown, as he is suffering from a hamstring injury of his own, but Ja’Cyais Credle, Jamari Thrash, Terrance Dixon and tight end Roger Carter have stepped up in recent weeks and shown they can be reliable options for Grainger. Whether it’s with a short passing game, as in the 2nd quarter against Auburn, or with some downfield shots that were working so well against Charlotte, offensive coordinator Brad Glenn is going to have to help Darren find another level of comfort passing the ball. Try as they might, the Panthers are not going to be able to beat Appalachian State solely on the back on running the football. They’ll need some chunk plays throwing it to keep the Mountaineers honest.
Kickoff on Saturday from Center Parc Stadium is at 2pm Eastern and you can see the action on ESPN+.