By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
CLEMSON, S.C. — For years, Appalachian State served as a darling among college football upstarts — a byproduct of the Mountaineers’ 34-32 victory in 2007 against the Associated Press No. 5-ranked Michigan Wolverines.
But as App State heads into Saturday’s 12:30 p.m. game at Clemson, the Mountaineers have moved into another realm.
As a full-fledged member of the Football Bowl Subdivision for the first time, ASU will go into a big-time game with something it has never had before.
The Mountaineers (1-0) will line up with 85 scholarship players — the same as the Atlantic Coast Conference Tigers.
Even with that numerical stalemate, though, Appalachian will face maybe its biggest challenge since that incredible afternoon in Ann Arbor, Michigan — facing a Clemson squad (1-0) that is currently ranked 12th in the AP poll and is practically a consensus favorite to win the Atlantic Coast Conference title this fall.
Since that day, eight years ago, against Michigan, App State has suffered blowout losses to LSU, Florida, Virginia Tech and Michigan.
App State hasn’t played at Clemson since a 1997 season-opening encounter, when the Mountaineers made the No. 11-ranked Tigers scuffle for a 23-12 victory. ASU is 0-4 lifetime against Clemson.
“They are really talented,” said Appalachian coach Scott Satterfield in one of the biggest understatements of the year. “Their defense is one of the best in the country.”
And that is after the Tigers graduated seven starters off of a unit that “ranked in the top 10 of 11 different statistical categories last year,” Satterfield explained. “They had guys who weren’t even starters last year that are playing in the NFL right now.”
Under coach Dabo Sweeney, Clemson has returned to a place where it doesn’t rebuild, it just reloads with talent.
Those big-time defeats don’t concern one of the Mountaineer seniors, however.
“I feel like we are more prepared,” said cornerback Doug Middleton, who like many of those Clemson products is an NFL prospect in his own right.
Middleton is also looking forward to playing in one more college football mecca, before more than 80,000 fans on Saturday.
“Anytime you go into a place like Death Valley, it gets you pumped up,” said Middleton.
While App State jumped out of the gate with a 49-0 victory over a Football Championship Subdivision opponent, Howard, last Saturday in its home opener, Clemson was routing an old Mountaineer rival, Wofford, in Death Valley.
Wofford is normally an FCS opponent that drives larger school crazy, with its disciplined, wingbone option offense. But last weekend, Clemson barely yawned on its way to a 49-10 victory over the Terriers, piling up 533 yards of total offense along the way.
Wayne Gallman sliced up the Wofford defense for 92 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries as the Tigers rolled up 22 yards on the ground and added 311 through the air.
About the only blip for the Tigers was the loss of star wide receiver Mike Williams, who fractured a neck vertebra when his head hit a goalpost after a touchdown reception. Clemson doesn’t have a timetable yet for his return.
But Satterfield noted that Clemson is so deep at the receiver position that Williams’ absence won’t be large one for the Tigers.
Ray McCloud and Artavis Scott combined for 14 receptions and 155 yards last week.
Of bigger concern to Satterfield and the ASU defense is Clemson quarterback DeShaun Watson, the preseason ACC offensive player of the year, who has the ability to pierce opponents with his strong arm and his quick feet.
Watson completed 18-of-22 passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns before taking an early exit in the blowout win over Wofford. He rushed just twice for 22 yards, but really didn’t have to use his speedy wheels against the Terriers.
“We’ve got to get pressure on the quarterback,” Satterfield said. “If you don’t get pressure, he will pick you apart.”
Watson will be facing off with one of his best friends when he lines up against App State sophomore outside linebacker Devan Stringer.
Stringer’s presence in the Mountaineer lineup could make for an inspirational boost for Appalachian.
Stringer and his family are mourning the death of his 11-day-old daughter Noelle Marie on Monday morning. Stringer practiced all week and is expected to be in the starting lineup on Saturday.
The ASU team supported Stringer and his family on Thursday in an emotional memorial service for his daughter.
This game will have to be about more than emotion if Appalachian expects to pull off another seismic upset.
“We’ve just got to focus on us,” said ASU quarterback Taylor Lamb, who watched a lot of Clemson football as a kid, growing up in nearby Greenville, S.C. while his dad, Bobby, coached at Furman.
Lamb noted that his great-grandpa played baseball at Clemson and his mother is also a Clemson alumnus.
Lamb passed for 209 yards and three TDs in the season opener, completing 16-of-21 attempts after one 17-yard scoring toss to Simms McElfresh was changed to a lateral and rushing yardage after a film review on Sunday.
Sweeney told reporters during a teleconference on Sunday that Lamb “is a scrappy, little quarterback.”
While the passing game will be important, Appalachian will need to establish its running attack, like always, to succeed.
The Mountaineers rushed for 392 yards against Howard, including a 105-yard effort from junior tailback Marcus Cox that included a career-long, 68-yard touchdown scamper.
“Our offensive line needs to play big,” Satterfield said of the key to the running game.
Middleton, however, thinks that the defensive effort is just as important.
“We have to help our offense,” Middleton explained. “If we don’t do our job, it’s going to be a long day.”