By Mike Holloway
College Sports Journal
Editor's Note: See more of Holloway's work and the original version of this column at: http://appstatecentral.com/content/mikes-preview-and-prediction-illinois-state-redbirds
BOONE, N.C. — Following two consecutive Saturdays without a game, a well-rested Appalachian team (8-3, 6-2 SoCon) is in preparation to host the Illinois State Redbirds (8-3, 5-3 MVFC) for a second round playoff contest at Kidd Brewer Stadium.
Both teams were at-large selections to the field and received first round byes.
Recent history provides some conflicting expectations for this game, as the Mountaineers are 4-0 all-time against the Missouri Valley Football Conference with all of the games being played in the postseason.
However, ASU has also lost their last two playoff games by an average margin of 20 points.
Behind fourth year head coach Brock Spack, ISU is making its fourth playoff appearance all-time and first since 2006.
Jerry Moore and ASU are in the field for the eighth consecutive season and the 20th time in Appalachian history.
The Redbirds will bring a physical, veteran team to The Rock that will not be intimidated by the environment.
Although the Mountaineers traditionally have one of the biggest home-field advantages in the FCS, ISU has played its best football away from home, as evidenced by their perfect 5-0 road record in the regular season.
Included in those five road victories are a win over Northern Iowa at the UNI Dome and a convincing 31-14 triumph over FBS Eastern Michigan.
The Illinois State offense is led by senior quarterback Matt Brown, a four-year starter who was recently voted the 2012 MVFC Offensive Player of the Year.
Brown is also the MVFC's all-time career leader in passing yards after finishing the regular season with 2,676 passing yards and 20 touchdowns against 10 interceptions while completing 62.7% of his passes.
His favorite target is fellow senior wide receiver Tyrone Walker, who enters this weekend with 71 receptions for 995 yards and 10 touchdowns.
He will be flanked by a pair of sophomore receivers in Lechein Neblett and Donovan Harden, each of whom went for over 500 yards and are more than capable of taking the pressure off of Walker.
The Redbirds will likely rely heavily on the pass to keep their offense on the field, as they average 247 passing yards per game and just 136 rushing yards.
Along with a talented group of skill position players, ISU has the benefit of an excellent offensive line that has surrendered just 10 sacks all season.
The starters on the Illinois State offensive line are as big as any group the Mountaineers have faced this season with an average size of 6-5, 316 pounds.
If ASU is able to penetrate the front line, bringing Brown to the ground is another challenge as he is a big, strong kid himself at 6-4 and 230 pounds.
While he is not typically a threat to make big plays with his legs, Brown will use his size to gain tough yards, particularly near the goal line.
As a team, the Redbirds are one of the most efficient red zone teams in the country, scoring on 90% (38-42) of their red zone possessions with 76% (32-42) resulting in touchdowns.
Much of that is attributed to Brown's ability to score both through the air or on the ground at close distance.
Despite of only having 113 rushing yards, his six rushing touchdowns are second only to starting tailback Darrelynn Dunn.
Dunn, another prominent senior on the ISU offense, has rushed for 850 yards and 12 touchdowns this season and is a physical, downhill runner who will use his 6-1, 220-pound frame to wear down opposing defenders.
However, Dunn has averaged just 3.8 yards per carry and is not known as a home run hitter in the backfield.
When the Mountaineer defense is on the field, they are a unit that will go as far as senior All-Americans Jeremy Kimbrough and Demetrius McCray take them.
McCray will draw the assignment on Tyrone Walker for much of the afternoon and his ability to limit Walker's production and force Brown to check down to his second and third options could be one of several factors that determine the outcome.
As the quarterback of the defense from his middle linebacker position, Kimbrough will be asked to do more than any other ASU defender, which is nothing new to him.
Along with ensuring that his teammates are properly aligned, the ability of Kimbrough and fellow senior linebacker Brandon Grier to get into the backfield and take some pressure off of the defensive front will be of the utmost importance.
If Brown is afforded the time to sit comfortably in the pocket, he has the ability to pick apart the ASU secondary and make it a long day for the Mountaineers.
With two full weeks to prepare for an unfamilar opponent, defensive coordinator Dale Jones should have the luxury of mixing up his blitz packages to allow Ronald Blair, Deuce Robinson, Kimbrough and Grier to utilize their pass rushing skills and attempt to keep Brown on his heels.
When Appalachian has the ball, ISU will present a stiff challenge for the high-powered Mountaineer offense.
While ASU averaged 467 yards of offense per game (286 passing, 181 rushing), the Redbirds' defense surrendered only 311 yards per game (176 passing, 135 rushing).
The Illinois State defensive efficiency is fueled in large part by an incredible ability to rush the passer, notching 35 sacks and 62 quarterback hurries as a team.
ASU quarterback Jamal Jackson put together an excellent junior campaign, completing 65.1% of his passes and amassing 2,905 passing yards with 19 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions, along with 334 rushing yards and 5 more touchdowns on the ground.
Jackson has performed very well down the stretch throwing five touchdowns and no interceptions over the final three games.
That ball security and accuracy will have to continue on Saturday if the Mountaineers hope to escape with a victory.
Offensive tackles Kendall Lamm and Will Corbin will have their work cut out for them on the edges as they try to stay in front of defensive ends Colton Underwood and Nate Palmer.
Underwood enters play with 89 tackles, eight quarterback hurries, 18 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks while Palmer racked up 59 tackles, 26 quarterback hurries, 13 tackles for loss and six sacks.
With excellent pass rushers coming off the edges, tight end Drew Bailey's ability as a blocker could be of added importance in buying Jackson time in the pocket to get the ball to his stable of play makers.
One of the most dangerous weapons at his disposal is senior tailback Steven Miller, who earned all-conference recognition for his outstanding 2012 campaign. Miller has rushed for 1,307 yards and 11 touchdowns while also serving as a receiving threat out of the backfield with 367 receiving yards and another four scores.
The Redbirds will rely heavily on senior middle linebacker Mike Zimmer to keep an eye on Miller throughout the game.
Zimmer is a consistent playmaker in the middle of the ISU defense and leads the team with 109 tackles to go with 4.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss.
ISU's top priority in the passing game will be to limit the production of redshirt freshman Sean Price, who has been phenomenal in his first season in the black and gold.
Price leads the Mountaineers with 68 receptions, 1,029 yards and 8 touchdown receptions in spite of missing two games early in the season.
With a 6-5, 210-pound frame and excellent speed, he creates a physical mismatch for nearly any cornerback at this level.
Considering the size being given up by ISU corners Mike Banks (5-7, 180) and Dominic Clarke (5-10, 195), the Mountaineers will have to find a way to get Price involved and take advantage of those match-ups.
The ISU secondary is an opportunistic group, having intercepted 15 passes on the season.
Senior free safety Ben Ericksen leads the way with seven interceptions and one pass break-up.
Ericksen is a ball hawk with great instincts and closing speed who Jackson must remain aware of, particularly when going over the middle.
As talented as the Redbirds' secondary is, there is not a more deep or talented group of wide receivers in the country than the one they will face on Saturday. Price steals the headlines but is one of four receivers who have caught at least 30 passes.
Juniors Andrew Peacock (68 receptions, 716 yards, three TDs) and Tony Washington (38 receptions, 460 yards, three TDs) provide sure-handed veterans in the slot who are lethal in the open field.
True freshman Malachi Jones (30 receptions, 309 yards, one TD) has come on strong late in the season and is another physical wide receiver who can make plays in traffic.
Special teams could also play a role in this game, as ISU sophomore kicker Nick Aussieker has had his struggles.
While he is 8-10 on field goal attempts, he has missed three extra points and of his 59 kickoffs, only 19 have gone for touchbacks.
In contrast, Sam Martin has booted 40 touchbacks on 66 kickoff attempts.
With Tony Washington fully healthy and expected to field kickoffs and punts for the first time since his touchdown return against Wofford, he should have an opportunity to make plays and help dictate field position.
ISU punter Patrick Wright averages a respectable 40.1 yards per punt but the Redbirds have given up two punt return touchdowns and had another two punts blocked.
Sam Martin has been excellent with an average of 45.5 yards per punt but ASU special teams have not been without their woes as well, giving up a kick return touchdown and also having a punt blocked which was run in for a score.
In a game between two teams who are very different yet quite evenly matched, it is entirely possible that a big play in the kicking game could swing momentum and play a role in this contest.
The healthy return of Tony Washington, who has averaged 28.4 yards per kick return including a 99-yard score, bodes well for Appalachian.
As is typically the case, winning the battle up front on both sides of the ball will very likely determine who is able to impose their style of play in this game and control the tempo.
A fast-paced, high scoring affair would favor the Mountaineers while the Redbirds would like nothing more than to grind out a low-scoring affair and wear down the ASU defenders in the second half.
It will be very important for Appalachian to utilize short routes to the receivers and some swing passes to Steven Miller out of the backfield early to allow the offense to settle in while not requiring the front line to hold blocks for an extended period against an aggressive ISU front.
If Jackson and the Mountaineers can find early success in doing so, it will effectively use the Redbirds' aggression against them and prevent their talented defensive line from pinning their ears back.
Offensive coordinator Scott Satterfield has his work cut out for him, but if he can set the ISU defense up early, it should allow for opportunities down the field to Sean Price as the game wears on.
Defensively, ASU has to get strong play in the middle out of Stephen Burns and Thomas Bronson.
In the first postseason test for both freshman nose tackles, how they respond and absord blockers will determine how much freedom the linebackers have to fly around the field and make plays.
Demetrius McCray has established himself as an elite FCS cornerback and Troy Sanders provides a steady hand at strong safety but the defensive backs around them must rise to the occassion.
Jamill Lott has been a pleasant surprise at corner and Patrick Blalock has improved throughout the season but is still prone to giving up big plays, which cannot happen in the playoffs.
Saturday's contest provides one of the more interesting opening round match-ups in recent years given the contrasting styles of these two teams.
Both squads have high caliber talent and the winner could very easily be poised for a deep run in the postseason.
In a game that could go either way, I like the Mountaineers to pull out a narrow victory in front of the home crowd and rid themselves of the sour taste of last season's playoff exit.