By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
BOONE, N.C. — It has been a decade since Jeff Monken has taken a football team up the mountain to Appalachian State and Kidd Brewer Stadium.
“Boy, a lot of things have changed around here,” Monken said, as he watched his Georgia Southern Eagles go through their walk-through on a cold and rainy Friday afternoon in ASU’s indoor practice facility.
He could only hope that the weather forecast of light snow for Friday night will no linger into Saturday afternoon.
Now the head coach of Georgia Southern’s historic Football Championship Subdivision program, Monken was an assistant on Paul Johnson’s staff in 2001 when the No. 1-ranked Eagles beat No. 8 ASU 28-17.
From a historical standpoint, it was the day that Appalachian State’s defense ended Adrian Peterson’s NCAA-record streak of consecutive 100-yard rushing performances.
But while the Mountaineers contained Peterson that day, it couldn’t stop quarterback J.R. Revere as the Eagles rolled to a rare road win in this classic, FCS series.
“The last time I was here, (the Mountaineers) were drawing about 15,000 to their games, they didn’t have that second deck on the visitor’s side, they didn’t have that student section in the end zone and they didn’t have that new press box and support facility,” Monken observed.
When Georgia Southern (7-0 overall, 4-0 in the Southern Conference) takes the field on Saturday, it will be enveloped by a den of noise as Appalachian State (5-2, 3-1) anticipates a record crowd of more than 32,000 fans.
App State set its current record of 31,531 last year against Elon. But that was more like a warm-up concert than this weekend’s headliner event, between the top-ranked Eagles and the No. 5 Mountaineers, who have been ranked in the top-10 nationally for 83 consecutive weeks.
The game is one of two marquee matchups this weekend in FCS play. Northern Iowa, the No. 2-ranked team nationally, travels to No. 4 North Dakota State in a battle of Missouri Valley Football Conference heavyweights on Saturday.
When Monken last came to Boone, he was part of a program that was the defending national champion. Those Eagles would advance on to the NCAA Division I semifinals before being beaten by Southern Conference co-champion Furman.
Georgia Southern had also been ranked No. 1 when it traveled to Kidd Brewer Stadium against No. 11 ASU in 1999, only to be upset 17-16.
That was a particularly frustrating day for Johnson, who had grown up the next county over in Newland, N.C. and had already endured a 24-12 in 1997 in his first year as a head coach.
But while those were milestone defeats for the Georgia Southern program, Monken can look back to a yardstick victory as he prepares his Eagles for Saturday’s challenge.
Georgia Southern was sitting with a mediocre 4-4 record and was a loss away from playoff elimination when Appalachian State journeyed to Statesboro, GA. last year as the No. 1 team in the nation.
When the Mountaineers took a 14-0 first-quarter lead, thoughts of an upset were the farthest thing from Monken’s mind.
But the tenacious Eagles held ASU scoreless the rest of the way, forced the game into overtime and won 21-14 on fullback Robert Brown’s four-yard touchdown run and a fumble recovery by Josh Rowe after a hit on quarterback DeAndre Presley by Darius Eubanks in the extra period.
It was the start of a magical run by the Eagles, who won six consecutive games to reach the NCAA semifinals before losing to Delaware, 27-10.
Since last year’s game against Appalachian State, Georgia Southern has won 13 of 14 games and has reestablished much of the tradition of this storied program, particularly with the return of Johnson’s trademark triple option.
“We are still trying to get better every day,” said Monken. “We are getting the players to believe in our system and are continuing to make progress.”
Monken and his staff have built the program on the shoulders of standout players like defensive tackle Brent Russell — possibly the top defensive player in the country — and quarterback Jaybo Shaw, in his second year after transferring from Johnson’s current program at Georgia Tech.
Monken also singled out his kicking duo of All-American punter Charlie Edwards and place kicker Adrian Mora as key contributors to Georgia Southern’s recent success.
“Adrian has lost 21 pounds since he has been in the program to get himself into great shape,” Monken said. “Charlie is like the quarterback who can throw bullets with his arm, but does he have touch. Charlie has touch when he punts the ball.”
But even with a seasoned group of players on hand for Saturday’s game, Monken knows that his team will face one of its biggest tests of the season.
“Appalachian State has a talented squad and Jerry Moore is one of the top coaches in the country at any level,” Monken said. “If we don’t show some improvement in some areas, we’re in for a very long day.”
Like many FCS observers around the country, Monken said he was stunned with Appalachian State’s move of Presley from quarterback to cornerback and the elevation of Jamal Jackson to starting quarterback two weeks ago.
“I voted for DeAndre as the offensive player of the year in our conference last year and now he is playing cornerback?” Monken moaned. “That shows you how much talent App State has on offense, if they can move an athlete as good as Presley to defense.”
The winner of Saturday’s game will likely have an inside track to the automatic bid in the Southern Conference and one of the five seeds in the 20-team FCS playoffs.
Appalachian State’s major remaining test is at Furman in eight days, along with games at home against Western Carolina and on the road at Elon.
Georgia Southern faces a back-loaded schedule with remaining games at home against The Citadel, at No. 5 Wofford — currently tied with Appalachian Statein second place , a game behind the Eagles — and at Alabama, the No. 2-ranked team in the FBS polls.
But Monken will keep his mind on Saturday’s challenge for now, as well he should.
Appalachian State holds a thin 13-12-1 edge over Georgia Southern in the all-time series, but the rivalry is split right down the middle during the 20 games played in the modern era of GSU football, with each team winning three times on the road in the past 24 years.
Two of the past five games have gone to overtime, both in Statesboro, with ASU winning in double OT in 2006 and losing last year. And throwing a pair of blowout wins by Georgia Southern (54-7 in Statesboro in 2004) and Appalachian State (52-16 in 2009), the average victory margin in the series has been eight points since the Eagles joined the Southern Conference in 1993.
Georgia Southern will also be trying to weald a potential death blow to Appalachian State’s hopes of a record-breaking seventh-consecutive Southern Conference title. The Eagles (1997-2002) watched the Mountaineers (2005-2010) match their mark of six straight league championships last season.
This pair of FCS heavyweights have combined for 19 regular-season SoCon crowns and nine national championships since 1985 and ASU has won 30 of its past 32 league games.
Georgia Southern’s strength, as always with the triple option, is its rushing attack. The Eagles are averaging an FCS-leading 369 yards and are beating teams by an average of 26 points per game by putting up 45 points on a typical Saturday.
Only Lehigh, with its dynamic passing attack, has generated more offense than GSU’s 487 yards per contest.
The Eagle defense is 36th in FCS in yardage allowed (338 yards per game), but is 15th in points given up (19.0). GSU has been tougher against the run (13th at 101 yards) than the pass (92nd at 237 yards).
ASU has been porous at times against running teams (90th at 177 yards), but has been better, ranking-wise, against the pass (33rd at 192 yards).
The Mountaineers have allowed 25.3 points per game (57th in FCS), but if you take out the 66 points piled up by BCS powerhouse Virginia Tech in the season opener, App State would move near the top-10 in scoring defense at 18.5.
Appalachian State’s attack is 22nd in rushing (199 yards), 65th in passing (202 yards) and 27th in scoring (32 points per game).
The Mountaineers have been helped by the fact they have seen option teams from Wofford and The Citadel in the past month, but that also is helpful for Georgia Southern as the Eagles make their game plan.
“It helps a lot when you see a team go up against another option team, even if we don’t do everything the same way,” said Monken.