By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
BOONE, N.C. — Appalachian State and Arkansas State will be meeting for only the second time on Thursday night when the Red Wolves come to Kidd Brewer Stadium for a 7:30 p.m. game that should decide the Sun Belt Conference football championship and will be televised nationally on ESPNU.
Despite the team’s short rivalry history, the animosity between the sides is already starting to run deeper than the fact that the two programs share the same abbreviation, ASU.
Arkansas State players and fans are still feeling the sting of last year’s 37-32 home loss to the Mountaineers last season and have issued a series of bulletin-board material in the run-up to Thursday’s game that has been less than respectful to Appalachian.
And the stakes for the game can only add to the tension.
Appalachian (7-1 overall, 4-0 in league) and Arkansas State (5-3, 4-0) are the last two teams standing undefeated in conference play and Thursday’s contest will mark only the second time that two undefeated clubs have met this late in the season to settle the Sun Belt race.
On Nov. 16, 2002, North Texas held off New Mexico State 38-27 on its way to the Sun Belt title and a 24-19 win over Cincinnati in the New Orleans Bowl.
Should the Mountaineers win on Thursday, they have a manageable schedule with Idaho on the road, Louisiana-Lafayette at home and a game at South Alabama the rest of the way — three middle-of-the-pack conference opponents.
But App State must rebound after nearly stubbing its toe to Troy last Saturday, the Mountaineers recovering in time for a 44-41 triple-overtime victory at Kidd Brewer Stadium. It was the longest game in the facility’s history and was the first home overtime victory ever for Appalachian.
The Mountaineers gave up a season-high 450 yards of total offense to the 2-6 Trojans and their injury-battered offensive line — missing sophomore tackle Beau Nunn due to an ankle injury believed to be season-ending — was riddled by three sacks and numerous penalties.
“Everyone in the country is dealing with injuries when you get to this point in the season,” said Appalachian coach Scott Satterfield. “Whoever is healthy enough to play, they’d better be ready to play.”
On top of that, both Appalachian and Arkansas State are dealing with a short week of preparation.
“We don’t have a choice,” Satterfield added. “We’ve got to to roll, we’ve got to go. We’re playing for a championship. That’s our mindset.”
Appalachian still ranks eighth nationally in points allowed per game (15.6) and is 12th in total defense (298.6 yards per contest), but Arkansas State supporters were bragging that they can exploit the Sun Belt’s top defense in the same way that Troy did.
Arkansas State has grown accustom to Sun Belt titles and bowl appearances, winning, or sharing in three conference championships from 2011-13 and making four straight bowl appearances.
But last year’s loss to the Mountaineers — where the Red Wolves blew a 20-6 first-half lead — knocked Arkansas State out of contention for the league crown and Appalachian State has the chance to duplicate that feat again this season.
Arkansas State is also coming off a scare, rallying at home from a 34-27 deficit to Georgia State before winning 48-34.
The Red Wolves return the All-Sun Belt first-team quarterback in Fredi Knighten and the dual-threat signal-caller has led his team to an average of 35.8 points per game (30th nationally), with J.J. McKissic as his favorite target at wide receiver.
McKissic entered the season as the leader in the nation in career receptions, with 237 — the most in Arkansas State history. But the Red Wolves have struggled in the passing game this season with only an average of 185 passing yards per game (104th nationally).
Arkansas State is 16th best in rushing (224 yards per contest), but is averaging nearly 50 yards per game less than the time-consuming Appalachian run attack.
The Red Wolves haven’t been helped statistically by losing non-conference games to USC, Missouri and Toledo. The lone non-conference win for Arkansas State was a 70-7 blowout of a poor Football Championship Subdivision squad, Missouri State.
Balance has been the key for the Mountaineers on offense as they attempt to win their seventh consecutive game and their 13th of the past 14 dating back to the middle of last season. The only loss during that time was a 41-10 defeat to No. 1 Clemson.
Appalachian is one of only four teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision to be ranked in the top 25 nationally on both total offense (23rd at 475.8 yards per game) and total defense (12th, allowing 298.6 yards a contest).
Throwing the statistics aside, the Mountaineers know what is at stake in this game.
“It doesn’t matter who the hero is as long as you get the victory,” said running back Marcus Cox. “We know our season comes down to this. There is a lot on our plate.”