Time and Date: Saturday, September 19 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Location: Joan C. Edwards Stadium — Huntington, WV
Spread: Appalachian State (-4.5)
ESPN FPI: Appalachian State has 52.3% chance to win
All-time series: Zero meetings as FBS opponents, but Appalachian State leads series 14-8
Last meeting: Marshall 50, Appalachian State (FCS) 17 — August 31, 2002
The spotlight at Joan C. Edwards Stadium in the industrial town of Huntington, WV is as bright as ever. The CBS cameras will be in full operation Saturday afternoon, capturing the first-ever meeting between Marshall and Appalachian State as FBS programs. The former FCS Southern Conference rivals have grown into established programs at college football’s highest level, combining to win 12 out of 13 bowl games since 2009.
Now, in one of the first matchups between 1-0 teams on the 2020 schedule, either the reigning Sun Belt champion or the consistent C-USA stalwart earns a signature win to add to a promising 2020 résumé.
Previewing the Marshall Thundering Herd
Marshall is no stranger to the national television spotlight this season. The Thundering Herd participated in the first Saturday game of the college football season, knocking off FCS opponent Eastern Kentucky in a lopsided 59-0 final. With few games to remove eyeballs from Marshall’s Week 1 beatdown, quarterback Grant Wells garnered significant attention in his first collegiate start. The redshirt freshman threw four first half touchdowns to four different targets, dicing the Eastern Kentucky defense in a 307-yard outing. Starting in place for departed transfer Isaiah Green, Wells is off to a promising start with the second-highest passer rating in the FBS.
Wells’ Week 1 performance was particularly comforting for the Thundering Herd because quarterback play was one of the greatest uncertainties entering the season. Marshall already knew it was entering the season with the best running back in the C-USA. Brenden Knox, the conference’s leading rusher and MVP a season ago, commenced his junior season with 85 yards and a touchdown two weeks ago. If Knox isn’t enough, Marshall utilized its extended garbage time in Week 1 to find a viable second option at halfback. Sophomore Knowledge McDaniel rushed for 93 yards on 14 attempts in his backfield debut in Huntington.
The Herd also knew they were equipped with one of the most unique skill position players in the country in Xavier Gaines. Primarily a tight end, Gaines adds versatility to the offense with the ability to line up and excel as a tight end, wide receiver, wildcat quarterback, and more. His sharp hands were on full display in the opener, and he caught three passes for 49 yards — including the first Marshall touchdown of the season. Marshall’s top two pass catchers a season ago were tight ends, so it’s no secret Gaines will remain a focal point in Doc Holliday’s offense. Five tight ends caught a pass in Week 1, but so eight wide receivers.
Wells throws a beautiful deep ball, so speedster Talik Keaton could see an increased role as a premier receiver this season. Along with Keaton, Broc Thompson and Jaron Woodyard were frequently targeted as deep threats, but Marshall has yet to unleash Willie Johnson. Johnson, held to one reception in Week 1, played a unique role in the Thundering Herd offense in 2019 averaging 26.8 yards per catch on 17 receptions and 17.6 yards per rush on eight attempts. Against a stingier Appalachian State defense, Marshall could rely on his unique playmaking skills to bolster the offense.
Defensively, Marshall could not be off to a better start with zero points allowed against Eastern Kentucky. A shutout game against an FCS opponent isn’t always telling, but the Thundering Herd excelled in all areas — winning the turnover battle, recording four tackles in the backfield, and limiting their opponent to 3/14 on critical third and fourth downs. Free safety Nazeeh Johnson specifically stood out with the lone interception of the contest and six tackles in the dominant effort. Defensive end Darius Hodge registered a team-high 7.0 sacks in 2019 and he breezed through the Eastern Kentucky offensive line to record one sack and continuously apply pressure on the opposing quarterback.
Previewing the Appalachian State Mountaineers
Appalachian State is quietly one of the winningest programs in college football. The Mountaineers are owners of four-consecutive Sun Belt titles and five-consecutive bowl victories. Only five teams have a higher winning percentage than Appalachian State in the College Football Playoff era — four of those programs hold multiple CFP berths to their name and the other is Boise State. The coaches come and go, but the winning results remain consistent for Appalachian State. Saturday’s game against Marshall will mark the second game with Shawn Clark acting as the head coach and he aims to sustain his undefeated record.
Like Marshall the Mountaineers are 1-0, albeit facing considerably tougher competition than the Thundering Herd in their opener. Appalachian State knocked off Marshall’s C-USA East rival Charlotte, 35-20, in a Week 2 matchup in Boone, NC. Charlotte led 7-0 and hung within one point of Appalachian State entering the fourth quarter, but then the Mountaineer defense rose to the occasion.
Appalachian State allowed a total of 22 yards in the fourth quarter to Charlotte’s offense. The Mountaineers forced a quick punt, prevented Charlotte from capitalizing on a turnover opportunity in the red zone, and picked off a pass at midfield to prevent their first non-conference loss since Week 1 of 2018.
The Mountaineer defense performed at a high level, allowing the team to win the yardage battle 512-286. Appalachian State made it a focal point to ruin the 49ers’ passing attack and held quarterback Chris Reynolds to an 11/30, 140-yard, and 2-interception showing from the pocket. The secondary was on its A-game with seven pass breakups on top of the pair of interceptions. Appalachian State’s coverage unit against Grant Wells and the Marshall passing attack should be the feature matchup within this highly-anticipated battle.
Offensively, Appalachian State presents a juggernaut of a backfield. The Mountaineers don’t have one feature back — they have three accomplished running backs who evenly split carries in Week 1. Marcus Williams Jr. produced 117 yards on 14 attempts, Camerun Peoples contributed 102 yards on 13 carries, and Daetrich Harrington added 60 on 15. The trio combined for four rushing touchdowns, with Harrington leading the charge with two.
Williams and Harrington contributed effectively behind Darryton Evans during Appalachian State’s 13-1 campaign in 2019, but Peoples is relatively new to the mix. Projected to play a major role in the offense a season ago, he suffered a season-ending injury in the opener last August, but his showing in his return brings an exciting new twist to the running game.
The passing attack is led by three-year starting quarterback Zac Thomas. The senior isn’t a 300-yard per game air raid quarterback, but he is a strong decision maker and often leads with smart, accurate throws. Thomas, 24-3 as a starter, completed 14/21 attempts last Saturday for 204 yards. More than half of those yards were allocated to senior wide receiver Thomas Hennigan, who posted a 120-yard performance on the afternoon. Hennigan is a four-year starter at wide receiver and on track for his best season yet, one year after posting career-highs of 61 receptions and 773 yards.
In terms of Week 3 matchups, this one is as even as it gets. Marshall gets to play host for its second home game of the 2020 season, although with a reduced fan capacity.
Appalachian State showed plenty of vulnerability in its opener, but committing three turnovers provided a major assist to Charlotte and allowed the 49ers to hang around until the final minutes. But the Mountaineers’ defense is one of the most terrifying in the FBS and the concerted effort by the unit in the fourth quarter proved that even in this bizarre season, App State football remains sturdy.
Marshall will attempt to push through with a powerful passing attack, and this will be Grant Wells’ first true test as a starting quarterback. Appalachian State prevented a talented and experienced quarterback in Chris Reynolds from an effective Saturday, and the Mountaineers will look to similarly impose their will on the young talent.
The rushing battle will be a fascinating one to keep eyes fixated on because for one defense, stopping Brenden Knox from attaining 100 yards and controlling the game is no easy task. For the other, there will be a three-headed monster of fresh running backs with different running styles rotating into the game.
This nationally-televised game will come down to the final minutes, but an Appalachian State team that has won 10-straight games away from home triumphs for a valiant road win over Marshall.
Prediction: Appalachian State 27, Marshall 24