The rivalry was built on battles for the SoCon title and FCS national championships.
Now, bowl eligibility and the inside track to a Sun Belt championship are on the line when Appalachian State plays host to Georgia Southern at 7:30 p.m. Thursday (ESPNU) at Kidd Brewer Stadium in one of the Mountaineers’ most anticipated games since the halcyon days of Armanti Edwards.
“It’s pretty much, right now, everything,” defensive end Ronald Blair said. “This one’s got a little more juice to it; we know this has huge implications moving forward.’
More than 25,000 fans are expected for the nationally televised game, which will feature the Mountaineers’ (5-1, 2-0) ninth-ranked defense against the Eagles’ (5-1, 3-0) top-ranked rushing attack, which averages 399 yards per game.
The game has been circled by App State fans and players since Georgia Southern’s 34-14 victory last season. It was another chapter in a heated rivalry where there’s no love lost but plenty of respect.
“We know they’re a good football team, and we know they play good football,” linebacker John Law said. “We respect them, but we definitely don’t like them.”
GSU still runs its familiar option rushing attack but has also mixed in more power and perimeter looks, continuing to evolve each week.
“It’s a big challenge for our guys to come out and play a great game; you have to be fundamentally sound, you have to be in your gaps, all that,” coach Scott Satterfield of App State said. “They do a great job of trying to manipulate the defense, and they’ve got a lot of speed. All their backs, all their quarterbacks can run. Even guys they’re bringing off the bench can run.”
Matt Breida leads the way with 875 yards and 11 touchdowns on 85 carries, with four more players having carried 45 times or more, for at least 270 yards, including quarterback Kevin Ellison at 330 yards and five touchdowns.
According to defensive coordinator Nate Woody, it’s not just what GSU runs — it’s how they run it that’s different.
“They have different blocking schemes on the perimeter, different formations to where the same block doesn’t come at you two times in a row,” he said.
Last season in Statesboro, the Eagles’ rushing attack was unstoppable, rolling up 408 yards — 151 of which by Ellison.
With the game out of reach, Law said he had no problem reminding the Mountaineers defense of the big day.
“The only thing I can remember is him, talking trash as he was sliding late in the game, telling us how he was beating us, and that’s what kind of stuck with me,” Law said. “I don’t ever want to have that feeling, I don’t want someone talking to me in a helpless position because at that point, the game was over and there was nothing we could do, and he was still rubbing it in.”
This time around, the Mountaineers feel like they’re more well-prepared to combat the Eagles’ meticulous attack.
“You’ve got to be disciplined, disciplined, disciplined,” Blair said. “You can’t be out there trying to be Superman; you’ve got to make sure you take care of your job, take care of your gap and responsibility. You can’t worry about anybody else’s job.”
There’s extra motivation for Blair, a native of Georgia, this week. Coming out of Greene County High School, he was recruited by the Eagles.
“It was like a really big mess going on with the recruiting situation, I told them I wanted to come to App and they got angry at me a little bit. It kind of ended like that,” he said. “Every time I play them, I try to bring a little bit extra to the table.
“I love playing against them; it’s another type of playing field, it’s a different speed of the game.”
In reviewing film, Satterfield noticed that the Eagles have often forced teams into trying to be Superman on offense, too. Because of GSU’s ability to build a lead and possess the ball, opponents have abandoned their identities
“What ends up happening, teams get behind, they get out of their game plan, they start throwing it all over the place,” Satterfield said. “We’ve got to stay within our game plan, we’ve got to run the football, find ways to run the football, then when we get opportunities, we’ve got to take shots downfield.”
That’s something the Mountaineers have done well over the past two weeks, particularly in Saturday’s 59-14 victory over Louisiana-Monroe, when App State passed for 275 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 379 yards and five touchdowns.
Over the past two weeks, quarterback Taylor Lamb has completed 12 passes for 20 or more yards, after completing just eight such passes over the first four weeks.
Coach Willie Fritz said the Mountaineers are unlike any opponent the Eagles have seen since a season-opening loss to West Virginia.
“They’re an excellent football team. Offensively, they can run the ball inside, they can run it outside,” Fritz said. “They do a really good job throwing it, taking shots downfield. It’s a little bit different of an opponent than we’ve played so far, with their ability to do both.”
The Winston-Salem Journal is a news partner of the Observer. For more Appalachian State coverage go to journalnow.com/sports/asu/