Football, Game 4: The Citadel vs. Appalachian State

It’s time for the games that matter to begin.  League play, SoCon style.  First up for the Bulldogs:  Appalachian State, winner of three of the last four FCS championships and four-time defending conference champs.  Basically, the league opener is as big a challenge as The Citadel will have for the rest of the season.

This will be the 38th clash on the gridiron between the two schools.  Appy leads the all-time series 26-11; the Mountaineers are 10-8 in 18 previous trips to Johnson Hagood Stadium.    Appalachian has won 14 of the last 15 games in the series, with the one Bulldog victory coming in 2003, shortly before the Mountaineers began their run of conference and national titles.

That 2003 victory (24-21) is one of only two times in that 15-game stretch in which The Citadel held Appalachian State to fewer than 25 points; the other exception came in 2001, when the Mountaineers slipped past the Bulldogs 8-6.  In the thirteen other games played since 1994, Appalachian State has averaged 41.5 points per game.  The last four meetings have resulted in Appy point totals of 45, 42, 45, and 47.

Perhaps the most curious thing about the history of the series between the two schools is that prior to 1972, there was no history.  The Citadel and Appalachian State had never played each other in football until Appy joined the Southern Conference in 1971.  The two schools then began the series in 1972, and have met every year since.

The never-and-then-always aspect of the series is not particularly surprising when juxtaposed against the backdrop of the Southern Conference, a way station of a league since its founding in 1921.  Schools have come and gone, and sometimes come back (hello again, Davidson).  The conference has routinely featured schools that in many cases don’t have much in common.  The Citadel and Appalachian State, fellow members of the SoCon for four decades, make for a good example of this phenomenon.

Appalachian State University has origins dating back to 1899, and would eventually become a four-year college in 1929.  It was at that time a teachers’ college, designed to educate future instructors in northwest North Carolina.  By the late 1920s the school was also fielding a football team and playing similar two- and four-year institutions like High Point and Lenoir-Rhyne.

In the 1950s the school began to become more of a regional institution, with multiple degree programs.  By the 1970s the undergraduate enrollment had increased to over 9,000 (today it has 14,500 undergrad students).  As the school increased in size, the department of athletics left the Division II Carolinas Conference and moved up to Division I, joining the Southern Conference (essentially replacing George Washington, which had left the SoCon in 1970).

Appalachian State’s institutional history is not unlike that of fellow conference member Georgia Southern.  The two schools were both originally founded to educate teachers.  Appalachian State’s undergraduate enrollment began to increase before Georgia Southern’s did, and as a result Appy has about 20,000 more living alumni (95,000 to 75,000).  The two schools have the largest alumni bases in the SoCon (by a considerable margin) and also enroll the most students (ditto).

Georgia Southern’s fan base includes a sizable (and vocal) contingent of supporters who want the school to move to FBS status in football.  I wrote about this a few weeks ago; it doesn’t seem like a particularly good idea to me, and the GSU administration appears to oppose making the move.

Appalachian State, on the other hand, does not seem to have a significant (or at least loud) base of fans wanting to test the FBS waters.  This is probably wise.  While Appy does have the largest alumni base in the SoCon, it would not compare well to most FBS schools, at least in the southeast.  Only one of the ACC/SEC schools (Wake Forest) has a smaller alumni base, and eight of the twelve C-USA schools have more living alums.

The population base around the school isn’t that large, and the area’s average household income is less than that of the markets for every school in the Southern Conference except Georgia Southern.

My sense is that most Appy fans are very happy with their football program’s position in the NCAA universe right now.  Given the past two decades, who can blame them?

Jerry Moore has been the coach of the Mountaineers for the past 21 seasons (counting this one), but the run of success Appy has been on really began with the previous coach, Sparky Woods.  Woods would preside over the Mountaineers’ first two SoCon titles (in 1986 and 1987).  He was also the coach when Appalachian State started beating The Citadel on a regular basis; after losing his first game against the Bulldogs, Woods won four straight games in the series to close out his career in Boone.

Of course, as all fans of The Citadel know, Woods faced the Bulldogs on one other occasion as a head coach, in 1990.  Woods had taken the South Carolina job following the death of Joe Morrison.  In his second year in Columbia, the Gamecocks would lose to The Citadel 38-35.  I will never forget watching his coach’s show the next day; he looked like he had been embalmed.  Woods is now the head coach of VMI; he will get another crack at the Bulldogs next season.

Moore had once been the head coach of North Texas (where his record was mediocre) and Texas Tech (where his record was abysmal).  After two years out of coaching, he got a break when Ken Hatfield invited him to join the coaching staff at Arkansas, first on a volunteer basis and then as a salaried assistant.  Moore spent five years in Fayetteville before being offered the job in Boone after Woods left.  He decided to take another shot at being a head coach.  It would prove to be a good move for him and for Appalachian State’s football program.

Moore would win a SoCon title of his own at Appy in 1991, but then hit a brief rough patch that included his only losing season with the Mountaineers in 1993.  During that stretch Appalachian State would lose three straight games to The Citadel (which was fielding some of its best teams at the time, including the 1992 SoCon championship squad).

That is the only period in the series to date in which The Citadel has won three consecutive games.  In the 1992 season, the Bulldogs beat the Mountaineers in Boone 25-0, one of only three victories by The Citadel in Boone and the only time Appalachian State has ever been shut out by The Citadel.

  • October 3rd, Note Number 1:  That 1992 game is also the only time the two schools have met on October 3rd — that is, until this Saturday.  Hmm…
  • October 3rd, Note Number 2:  On October 3rd, 1970, Appalachian State hosted Elon in the first football game in the Carolinas to be contested on artificial turf.

Moore’s Mountaineers would finish 4th in the league in 1993.  That season and the 1996 campaign are the only two seasons during Moore’s tenure in which Appy has finished lower than third place in the conference (and in between the Mountaineers would win another league title in 1995).  Since 1997, Appalachian State has five first-place finishes (two of those were shared titles), six second place finishes, and one third-place finish (in 2004).

After that third-place finish in 2004, the Mountaineers would win three straight FCS titles.  Breaking through in the postseason had proven to be very difficult for Appy, which would finally win the national championship in its 13th appearance in the I-AA playoffs.

The Mountaineers had never managed to get past the semifinals prior to 2005, but after getting by Furman in the semis, Appalachian State defeated Northern Iowa for the first of its three national crowns.  The change in postseason fortunes was attributed in part to a change in offensive philosophy, from a power-I formation to a spread look.

Last season Appalachian State averaged 37.3 points per game and 463.6 yards of total offense per game.  Its defense was decent but not spectacular (allowing 21.6 PPG and 334 yards per contest).  Appalachian committed 28 turnovers on offense, with 18 of those being lost fumbles (Appy recovered 12 of its own fumbles, so it put the ball on the ground 30 times in all in 13 games).

The Mountaineer defense intercepted 19 passes and recovered 8 fumbles, so Appalachian State had a turnover margin for the season of -1.  The fact that the Mountaineers could win the SoCon despite a negative turnover margin is a testament to just how explosive on offense Appy really was (averaging almost seven yards per play).

Appalachian State is 1-2 so far this season, losing to East Carolina 29-24 (after trailing 29-7, with its backup quarterback) and McNeese State 40-35 (with McNeese scoring five points in the final four seconds).  In its SoCon opener, Appy beat Samford 20-7, scoring the first 20 points of the game and keeping the Birmingham Bulldogs off the scoreboard until midway through the fourth quarter.  The games against McNeese State and Samford were played in Boone, with Appalachian State traveling to Greenville, NC, for the game against ECU.

(Incidentally, despite losing to the Pirates, the Mountaineers still lead the all-time series between the two schools, 19-11, a factoid that I found a little surprising.  Most of those wins over ECU came during the 1930s and mid-to-late 1950s.)

Appalachian State played East Carolina without its starting quarterback, Armanti Edwards, who was still recovering from a much-chronicled attack by a lawnmower.  His backup, Travaris Cadet, acquitted himself fairly well against the Pirates in the loss.  Edwards was back against McNeese State and so was the Appy offense (493 total yards), but the Mountaineer defense couldn’t contain the Cowboys’ offense (522 total yards), and Appy eventually lost a last-team-with-the-ball-wins type of shootout.

The game against Samford was played in a steady downpour, which apparently favored the defenses.  The Mountaineer D rose to the occasion and limited Samford to 188 yards of total offense (Appy’s O had 366 total yards).

For The Citadel to pull the upset on Saturday, it needs to control Armanti Edwards.  Not stop him, but control him.  In his three previous games against the Bulldogs, he has been completely uncontrollable, rolling up 317.7 yards per game of total offense; Edwards has been responsible for 12 TDs in the three contests.  That can’t happen again if The Citadel has any hope of winning the game.

Whether the Bulldogs are capable defensively of slowing down Edwards and company is debatable.  The results from the game against Presbyterian were not encouraging in this respect.  Previously run-challenged PC piled up 200+ yards rushing against The Citadel.  Appalachian State could have a field day.

On the bright side, I think The Citadel’s offense is capable of moving the ball against a good but not great Mountaineer defense.  The keys will be to A) control the ball, keeping Edwards and his friends off the field as much as possible, and B) put points on the board when in scoring position.  It will be important to score touchdowns in the “red zone” on Saturday.  Of course, you could say that about any Saturday.

The Citadel’s offensive line must protect Bart Blanchard.  Appalachian State had three sacks against Samford (after not having any in its first two games).  This is also a game that, for the Bulldogs to prevail, will likely require a special performance by Andre Roberts.  He’s certainly up to the challenge.

The Bulldogs cannot afford major special teams snafus.  Missing PATs and other misadventures in the kicking game will be fatal against a team like Appalachian State, which can and almost certainly will take advantage of any mistake.

I think this will be a fairly high-scoring game.  For The Citadel to win, I think the offense/special teams must score at least 30 points, because unless the defense creates a multitude of Appy turnovers, I believe the Mountaineers are going to score at a clip similar to what they have done in recent meetings.  It may well be that 30 points will not be enough for the Bulldogs.  Would 40 be enough?

I’m not overly optimistic about The Citadel’s chances on Saturday afternoon.  However, I’ll be there, part of what (if the weather holds up) promises to be a good crowd, cheering on the Bulldogs and hoping for the best.  They’ve got a chance against the Mountaineers.  I’m not sure you could have said that in the last few meetings.

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