College Sports

For 22 Mountaineers, Thursday’s game at rival Georgia Southern has special meaning

Appalachian State defensive back Alex Gray (right) is one of 22 players on the Mountaineers’ roster who are from Georgia. Thursday night, Appalachian State will play at rival Georgia Southern in a Sun Belt Conference game that will be televised on ESPNU.
Appalachian State defensive back Alex Gray (right) is one of 22 players on the Mountaineers’ roster who are from Georgia. Thursday night, Appalachian State will play at rival Georgia Southern in a Sun Belt Conference game that will be televised on ESPNU.

From the Southern Conference to the Sun Belt, the Appalachian State-Georgia Southern football rivalry supersedes family and friendship.

More than positioning in the Sun Belt title chase will be at stake when visiting Appalachian State (5-2, 3-0) plays the Eagles (4-3, 3-1) at 7:30 p.m. Thursday on ESPNU. There are also bragging rights involved with Georgia serving as the home state for 22 of the Mountaineers' players.

Starting safety Alex Gray acknowledged participating in good-natured trash talk with his sister, who graduated from Georgia Southern in 2009. Another senior, starting center Parker Collins, attended high school 90 miles from Statesboro, Ga., in North Augusta, S.C., and committed to the Eagles before switching to Appalachian State.

Collins still has friends at Georgia Southern, but there's no love lost between people associated with the two programs.

"It's definitely a genuine hate for each other," Collins said.

Adversaries while competing for conference and national titles as Southern Conference counterparts, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern made the FCS-to-FBS transition in 2014. They'll be playing a Thursday night game on ESPNU for the third consecutive season.

Short weeks dictated by TV appeal are the new norm in this rivalry. The health of each team falls under a stronger microscope, as running back Marcus Cox and linebacker John Law are expected to return from injuries with Appalachian State playing in the senior captains’ home state of Georgia, but the physical components to the matchup take a backseat given the Eagles' identity as a spread option team.

After preparing for and playing against Idaho quarterback Matt Linehan, who threw for 476 yards in the game prior to the Vandals' recent appearance in Boone, the Mountaineers didn’t have a full week to devise a plan for slowing down a Georgia Southern offense that runs 75 percent of the time.

"This week, for us, it's a big-time mental week," Appalachian State coach Scott Satterfield said. "It's not a physical week. Everything we're doing is all mental."

The Eagles have a proud tradition as a triple-option program, and first-year coach Tyson Summers repeatedly says that his shotgun-based option offense adheres to the culture of Georgia Southern football. That said, with Summers’ two-quarterback system, the Eagles have run the ball on only 66.7 percent of their plays in the last three games.

Four players — two quarterbacks and two running backs — average between 58.4 and 49.4 rushing yards for a team that ranks 10th nationally at 263.9 per game. Kevin Ellison and Favian Upshaw are dual-threat senior quarterbacks, although pass-oriented freshman Seth Shuman played for the first time Saturday with Upshaw sidelined by an injury.

Georgia Southern has six touchdown throws of at least 30 yards this season — Appalachian has three — and Satterfield said defensive backs likely face the toughest challenge in staying disciplined against the deception of an option attack.

"As a linebacker, you can bite on a play-action fake and it might not cost you as much, but one false step in the secondary, it's a touchdown," Gray said. "We're going from a team that passed the ball almost every down to a team that's going to primarily run the ball, even on fourth downs.

"It's going to be an adjustment for us, and we're going to have to be really sharp."

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