The Georgia Southern football team will be taking on Appalachian State for the first time since beating them last season on Thursday. Ahead of the match, Ethan Joyce, the App State beat reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal, gave his thoughts on the upcoming showdown.
Since the two last faced off, it’s probably obvious the Mountaineers are ready for revenge after GS knocked ASU from their first ranked position. How long do you believe that the Mountaineers have been prepping for this game?
Last year's matchup came up a lot a few weeks ago, when App State cracked into the AP Top 25 again. I know they had loose game plans set up for all their opponents before the season started, but I don't think this game has gotten any extra time. That said, I think the 2018 game taught them a lot, and I think it's helped to shape this team's focus for this season.
The Mountaineers have yet to see a loss this season, what do you attribute to their success on the field? What have they been doing right this season?
For one, I think first-year head coach Eli Drinkwitz has helped this team realize how small the margin of error is from good to great. It also helps that as the team's offensive coordinator, Drinkwitz inherited some supreme talent on that side of the ball. But what's really stood out lately is the defense. They've gone from shaky to strong over the last few weeks, giving up a combined seven points over the last three games.
With that success, the Mountaineers are heavily favored to win the Sun Belt again this year. What are the overall expectations for the team as the rest of the season approaches?
This game with Georgia Southern is the start to a definitive three-game stretch. Next week is South Carolina, and if App State manages to pull out a win there, you're talking serious consideration for the top Group-of-Five spot in the New Year's Six. But the thing is, that G5 school has to be a conference champion, so the Mountaineers have to take care of business the rest of the way. That Georgia State game will be as important as any, as well. So again, these next few games will define how special App State's season can be.
If they continue their trend of success, what would this win over their rival mean to App State?
I do think it would mean a lot, mainly because of last year. You've got a lot of guys in the App State program that were stoked to be part of the first ranked team in school history. Then they came out and had one of the worst performances imaginable, not helped with the losses of quarterback Zac Thomas and inside linebacker Jordan Fehr. But the Mountaineers realize this game is the next step to accomplishing their overall goals: a Sun Belt championship and a bowl game. And if they keep it up, that could be a really big bowl game.
Who is one player that has immensely impressed this season and one that the Eagles need to be ready for?
Shaun Jolly, a starting defensive back for App State. I think Shaun had one of the strongest spring camps, and frankly, he's come into his own this season. He's a smaller guy but is so tenacious. He's grabbed three interceptions this season, and I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up with a few more before the season ends. Can't imagine he'll get a lot of chances to do that against Georgia Southern, but he's been really good.
What do you believe is the Mountaineer’s biggest strength entering this match Thursday? Biggest Weakness?
You know, I think in this matchup, the App State linebackers are going to be an issue. Akeem Davis-Gaither is an absolute stud, and this is one of those games where he could end up with 10-to-15 tackles or something like that. I told someone this the other day, but he might be the best pursuit tackler I've ever seen. He'll play in the NFL, someway, somehow. And as far as weaknesses go, I don't know if there are any that stand out as a glaring issue. Drinkwitz has mentioned the need to protect Thomas better in the pocket, and App State is coming off a ho-hum offensive performance against South Alabama. That'll be what I'm watching.
Finally, what is your game prediction?
So I don't do score predictions because I'm so bad at them, but I do think App State wins this game. Consistency-wise, the Mountaineers have really been clicking lately. Add in the fact that it's at home, and that you've got some guys and probably the urge to right last year's result, and I think it adds up to be too much besides an App State victory.
Kaitlin Sells, The George-Anne Managing Sports Editor, firstname.lastname@example.org