Appalachian State can take one more step – perhaps its biggest – toward its first Sun Belt Conference football title under the lights, in front of a national audience Thursday night.
For the second time in three weeks, the Mountaineers will play host to what feels like a conference championship game as Arkansas State visits Kidd Brewer Stadium at 7:30 p.m. (ESPNU) with first place on the line.
The winner will control its destiny for the Sun Belt crown, with the Mountaineers (7-1, 4-0) facing three teams that have a combined record of 9-13. The Red Wolves’ (5-3, 4-0) remaining opponents are 4-19.
Linebacker John Law insists the Mountaineers have paid little attention to the standings this week as the game marks just the second time two Sun Belt teams have met at 4-0 in November.
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“Doesn’t matter. We we want to beat everybody, win every game,” he said. “If you get caught looking at the standings and start feeling like you’re better or up there or have arrived, that’s when teams can sneak and beat you.”
Appalachian State is also the first team in Sun Belt history to own a 7-1 record. Despite that, coach Scott Satterfield has had the attention of his team this week after Troy nearly left Boone with a victory last weekend. The Trojans used a fast pace and efficient-passing offense to compile 450 yards – a season high – on Appalachian State’s defense.
The Mountaineers won 44-41 in three overtimes, thanks to strong special teams play, but Troy might have laid out a blueprint for Arkansas State, which can move at a similar tempo but with a heavier emphasis on the run.
“They went fast and caught us off guard several times, so we’ve certainly got to get prepared for that tempo,” Satterfield said. “I think any time you get that on film, teams are going to look at that and say, ‘Hey, let’s rev up the tempo.’ We’re certainly going to have to work on that.”
Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson took note of how effectively Troy used the hurry-up.
“Tempo is definitely important to us, and we’d like to change it up throughout the game,” Anderson said. “We’d like to think we can get the first first down and then produce some tempo, and I’d like to think that’s going to cause them some trouble.
“But that’s something they’ve seen and they know that we are that kind of system too, so they’ll be prepared for it.”
The difference, however, is Troy’s offense relies more heavily on quick timing routes and screen passes. Arkansas State leans on the run, averaging 224 yards on the ground – 16th in the nation.
Both times Appalachian State allowed more than 13 points this season were the only times the Mountaineers have allowed more than 200 passing yards.
Passing hasn’t been a strength of the Red Wolves, who average 185 yards (104th overall), but they did make progress last week as quarterback Fredi Knighten had his best game this season. He was 21 of 29 for 224 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions, and he ran for 54 yards.
It was Knighten’s third game back following a groin injury, and Satterfield said the Mountaineers will have to respect his arm, too.
“He does so many good things with his legs, and he’s able to get some good runs. What they’re going to do is isolate some guys, so they’re going to get some one-on-one matchups,” Satterfield said. “I think he’s certainly capable of playing a good game, and we’ve got to take away one aspect. Hopefully, we take away their running game.”
Offensively, the Mountaineers will look to rebound from an uneven performance that featured an uncharacteristic three sacks and seven penalties that put Appalachian State in tough spots at key times.
“There were times we didn’t play very well, I think we left some plays out on the field the other night, especially offensively, that we could take advantage of that we didn’t,” Satterfield said.
Still, junior running back Marcus Cox ran for 140 yards on 30 carries, moving into fifth place all-time in rushing (3,582) at Appalachian State. At 917 yards, Cox will look to surpass the 1,000-yard mark for the third straight year.
Last season in Jonesboro, Ark., Cox torched the Red Wolves for 240 yards on a career-high 40 carries.
This year, Arkansas State is improved on defense, allowing an average of just 150 rushing yards and forcing 16 interceptions.
“They can create pressure with their defensive line, and their linebackers can run,” Satterfield said.
The Winston-Salem Journal is a news partner of the Observer. For more Appalachian State coverage go to http://www.journalnow.com/sports/asu.