By Mike Holloway
College Sports Journal
Editor's Note: This is a preview of Saturday's Appalachian State-Furman game. Besides being one of the hottest rivalries in the Football Championship Subdivision, it is a contest that also has major implications on the Southern Conference championship race and the FCS playoff picture. To see more of Holloway's work, go to http://appstatecentral.com/
BOONE, N.C. — Fresh off of their biggest win of the season, Appalachian (7-3, 5-2 SoCon) returns home to face traditional Southern Conference rival Furman (3-6, 2-4 SoCon) on Black Saturday in Boone.
ASU can clinch a share of the Southern Conference title with a win and could also clinch the league's automatic bid to the playoffs, if either Tennessee-Chattanooga beats Wofford, or Samford downs Elon on Saturday.
While the Mountaineers will be playing their 11th game in as many weeks, the Paladins are coming off of a bye which followed a 31-17 victory at Elon.
Furman is the only football program in the Southern Conference that owns a winning record all-time against Appalachian, leading the series by a count of 22-17-3.
In his first season at the helm, Bruce Fowler led the Paladins to an upset win over ASU in Greenville as the Paladins rode their defense to a 20-10 triumph in 2011.
Coincidentally, that contest also immediately followed a Mountaineers' victory over top-ranked Georgia Southern. The defeat ended ASU's hopes of a record seventh consecutive conference title.
If Appalachian hopes to avoid the same fate this time around, it all begins with stopping Jerodis Williams and the Furman ground game.
Through nine games, Williams has rushed for 1,008 yards and 10 touchdowns while averaging a healthy 6.0 yards per carry.
Back-up tailback Hank McCloud, who has also chipped in with 383 yards and 5 touchdowns, gives the Paladins a formidable 1-2 punch in the backfield.
As they prepare to slow down Williams and the Paladins on the ground, the Mountaineers hope to see weakside linebacker Brandon Grier return to the line-up for Senior Day.
Grier has missed the past two games with a knee injury suffered against Wofford but the coaches are optimistic that he will take the field on Saturday.
Although the extent of his possible playing time is unknown, there is quality depth behind him as junior Karl Anderson has performed at a high level in his absence.
Anderson has tallied 30 tackles in the last three weeks, including tying for a game-high 10 last week, while flanking middle linebacker Jeremy Kimbrough, the quarterback of the ASU defense.
Kimbrough, who tied for the team tackle lead with Anderson and strong safety Troy Sanders against Georgia Southern, provides a steadying force in the second level and leads the team with 111 tackles, along with 8 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and an interception.
Sanders was one of College Sports Journal's national players of the week on defense, with 10 tackles, six solo stops, a game-high two tackles for loss and the interception with 53 seconds left that sealed ASU's victory over Georgia Southern.
Moving the ball through the air has been more difficult for the Paladins, who enter the game averaging a respectable 211.7 passing yards per game but have not eclipsed 200 yards or scored a passing touchdown since playing Western Carolina on September 29.
Freshman Reese Hannon will lead the Furman offense after supplanting injured senior Dakota Derrick as the starter in week two against Coastal Carolina.
Hannon came out of the gates strong, passing for 255 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions against the Chanticleers. However, he has thrown only two touchdowns to five interceptions in the seven subsequent games.
Senior Will King has been Hannon's favorite target, leading the team with 34 receptions, 541 yards and 3 touchdowns.
All-American tight end Colin Anderson, who had a breakout junior campaign in 2011 with 696 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, has been the recipient of constant defensive attention which has lead to a significant statistical decline.
Despite being third on the team with 396 receiving yards, the 6-4, 237-pound senior has yet to find the end zone in 2012.
King, Anderson and the Paladin receivers will face off with an ASU secondary anchored by All-American senior cornerback Demetrius McCray, one of the premier cover corners in the FCS.
McCray has 46 tackles on the season and leads the team with 3 interceptions, 4 pass break-ups and 7 passes defended.
Fellow senior and reigning Southern Conference defensive player of the week Sanders provides a hard-hitting, physical presence at the strong safety position. Sanders is second on the team with with 65 tackles with 5.5 tackles for loss and 2 interceptions.
Defensively, Furman's primary challenge will be containing quarterback Jamal Jackson and his deep, talented stable of receivers.
Despite of missing the final three quarters against Western Carolina with a knee injury and wearing a brace last weekend, Jackson finished with a career-high 383 passing yards against a Georgia Southern defense who was previously surrendering just 148 yards per game through the air.
Leading the charge once again was freshman Sean Price, whose dominant performance earned him Southern Conference offensive player of the week and freshman of the week honors.
Price caught 7 passes for 231 yards and a key second quarter touchdown. His yardage output was an Appalachian freshman record and the highest by any freshman in the FCS this season, breaking his own mark of 142 yards set the prior week at Western Carolina.
Despite missing two games, Price leads the team with 58 receptions, 914 yards and 8 touchdowns.
At 6-5 and 210 pounds, Price creates a physical mismatch against a pair of 5-10 starting cornerbacks for the Paladins.
Although Price is the most imposing big play threat in the passing game, juniors Andrew Peacock (57 receptions, 586 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Tony Washington (32 receptions, 423 yards, 3 touchdowns) also provide dangerous weapons in the slot.
True freshman Malachi Jones, who picked up his first career touchdown last week, has also been a steady contributor with 28 catches for 296 yards.
Senior tailback Steven Miller has set the tone all season on the ground for Appalachian after projected starter and fellow senior Rod Chisholm went down with a hand injury in the season opener against East Carolina.
While Miller's ability in the open field was well-known coming into the season, his ability to run between the tackles and endure the physical toll of an every down running back has allowed him to cement himself as the feature back in the ASU spread attack.
Miller enters the regular season finale with 1,137 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns to go with 351 receiving yards and 4 touchdown catches.
As always, the battles in the trenches will go a long way in determining the outcome and the young Appalachian offensive line will have to put forth another solid effort.
If they are able to provide Jackson with time in the pocket, it will be a long day for the Furman secondary.
It starts with containing the weakside defensive end rotation of junior Shawn Boone and senior Ricky Lang, who have both shown the ability to rush the passer. Lang leads the Paladins with 6 tackles for loss and 5 sacks, while Boone is just behind him with 5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
Furman's offensive front consists of two freshmen, one sophomore and two juniors, anchored by left tackle Dakota Derrick.
The 6-4, 291 pound junior was a first-team all Southern Conference preseason selection and should see a healthy dose of sophomore defensive end Ronald Blair.
Blair enters the contest with 57 tackles, 3 sacks and a team leading 8.5 tackles for loss. He is coming off of a very strong game against Georgia Southern as he racked up 9 tackles and notched a key quarterback hurry that forced the game-ending interception.
It would be easy to look at Furman's 3-6 overall record and expect that Appalachian will roll over them after disposing of the nation's top-ranked team on their own field.
However, the Paladins are a talented team that has 3 losses by a combined 8 points, including heartbreaking 3-point defeats to Wofford and Samford.
They also have the benefit of the rest and extra preparation that comes with a bye week, while ASU is in desperate need of some time off to lick their wounds.
Both sides understand the history of this rivlary and must be prepared to battle for 60 minutes.
The sting of last season's loss in Greenville is fresh in the minds of this Appalachian team and with a conference title on the line, they should come out hungry and aggressive in front of another sold-out Black Saturday crowd.
I expect to see a competitive, physical game on Saturday and although Furman got the job done last year, the departures of Chris Forcier and Ryan Steed loom large as they rely on a freshman quarterback to lead the offense in a hostile environment and an unproven secondary to contain possibly the most explosive group of receivers at the FCS level.
It will be no easy task and the Mountaineers must play with focus and emotion but in the end, I believe there will be too many offensive weapons on the home sideline for the Paladins to contain.