STATESBORO, Ga. — The modern history of the Appalachian State-Georgia Southern football rivalry started on one of the coldest days in Kidd Brewer Stadium history, with a snow and ice-slicked field helping the top-ranked Mountaineers end the two-year I-AA championship run of the Eagles, 19-0, in the quarterfinals of the playoffs.
There won’t be any ice outside of tailgate and concession-stand beverages when ASU and GSU meet Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. in a packed Paulson Stadium for an annual conflict that has been mostly white-hot in the years that have followed.
For the third straight year, a national television audience will also be watching on ESPNU, as these two Sun Belt Conference newbies battle to establish themselves as league title favorites.
But while Appalachian State (5-2 overall, 3-0 in conference) comes into the contest with the swelling confidence gained from its four-game winning streak, Georgia Southern (4-3, 3-1) has struggled with self-doubt while losing three of the past four games.
ASU coach Scott Satterfield said he expects to see an Eagles’ squad playing with a sense of desperation.
“They know they probably aren’t going to win the Sun Belt with two losses,” Satterfield explained. “They are going to be playing like ‘We’ve got to give a loss to Appalachian.'”
From a talent prospective, GSU is just as talented as it has been and has its typically-strong senior class, but sources close to the program said that the transition of dealing with a third head coach in four years may be taking its toll.
Tyson Summers replaced Willie Fritz after a 9-4 campaign where the Eagles finished third in the Sun Belt and won the GoDaddy Bowl in their first year of bowl eligibility.
Georgia Southern is still running a version of its trademark triple option, this year’s variety out of — mostly — the shotgun formation. However, longtime threats like fullback Matt Brieda (who has been battling shoulder ailments) and quarterback Kevin Ellison haven’t been the big-play breakers they have proven to be in past seasons.
Summers has countered that slowed-down production by putting more emphasis on passing. App State has actually been preparing for three different Eagle quarterbacks this week, seniors Ellison and Favian Upshaw and freshman Seth Shuman.
Satterfield is still worried about GSU’s big-play potential and also its new-found prowess for play-action passing.
“They are a little harder to prepare for,” Satterfield said. “We know they have guys who can run. Your eyes have to be in the right place and above all, you have to tackle.”
But for all of Georgia Southern’s problems, the Eagles have constructed one of their best defenses in years. Led by senior linebacker Ironhead Gallon and particularly strong up the middle, GSU is second only to Appalachian in overall defense.
Of course, the Mountaineers didn’t give up a touchdown until the final play from scrimmage in their first three Sun Belt games and rank 19th nationally in fewest points allowed (18.9 per game).
ASU may be catching the Eagles at the best possible time with a number of starters returning to the lineup after injuries.
“There is a lot less green out there this week,” Satterfield said after Monday’s practice, referring to the jerseys worn by injured players during workouts. “I think we’re in a really good place. This is probably the healthiest we’ve been in five weeks.”
Star tailback Marcus Cox and inside linebacker John Law — the preseason Sun Belt defensive player of the year — are among the players expected to be back in the lineup on Thursday.
For two teams who have long established reputations for running the football, this latest rivalry encounter could come down to who throws and catches the ball better.
And Satterfield has a lot of confidence in that regard with the resurgent passing attack of quarterback Taylor Lamb and his receiving group, led by Shaedon Meadors.
“We have to hit our passes like we did last week,” Satterfield said.