Photo Credit: Mark Mitchell of The Watauga Democrat
Appalachian State’s Defense
Appalachian State has seen only two defenses that statistically rank better than the one they’ll line up against in Saturday’s quarterfinal and one of those was when the Mountaineers squared off with the nation’s top defense three weeks ago at Elon.
The Spiders, who bring a Top 15 defense into Saturday’s matchup themselves, will be without Lawrence Sidbury, Jr. and Sherman Logan at the two respective defensive end positions this season, however, the defense the Spiders will field in Saturday’s matchup against the Mountaineers is not far from being as talented as the one the Spiders fielded in last season’s 33-13 win in Boone.
In the Spiders’ 20-point victory at The Rock last season, the Richmond ‘Stonewall’ defense took full advantage of facing a hobbled Armanti Edwards, who was nursing both a knee and a hip injury. Logan and Sidbury wrecked havoc on Edwards all afternoon, limiting running lanes and putting extreme pressure on him in passing situations. That undoubtedly led to Edwards’ five interception afternoon. The Spiders also had a linebacker, speedy Patrick Weldon, spy Edwards all afternoon. By the time the snowy day came to an end, Weldon had put his stamp on the game with 12 tackles, four tackles-for-loss and a sack.
The Spiders yielded 362 yards to the Mountaineers, but held ASU to just 13 points, intercepted Edwards five times and held him to just three rushing yards, although that last stat had more to do with his injuries than the Richmond defensive performance. Nevertheless, it was one of the best performances any FCS team has been able to do in defending the Payton Award winner.
With Sidbury and Logan gone from the defensive line, the only two real question marks for Richmond entering the 2009 season on the defensive side of the football was the defensive line. So far this season, head coach Mike London has had a resounding response to those question marks from the outset of the campaign from defensive tackles Martin Parker and Parker Miles.
All Parker has done this season is garner a spot on the FCS Buck Buchanan Award ballot as a finalist for the award, putting up some impressive numbers along the way. The 6-3, 283-pound junior has good size and athleticism and went unnoticed last season, due in large part to the performances by both Logan and Sidbury. In 12 starts this season, Parker has amassed 71 tackles, a team-best 15.5 tackles-for-loss, 6.5 sacks, eight quarterback hurries and a couple of forced fumbles.
Parker will team with Parker Miles at defensive tackle for the Spiders, forming one of the top interior defensive line’s of any team in the FCS. Miles is another physical presence on the defensive interior for the Spiders, and like Parker, Miles provides an athletic presence to the defensive line. Miles comes into Saturday’s game with 44 tackles, four tackles-for-loss, two interceptions, three pass break-ups, 1.5 sacks and a blocked kick.
Coming into the season, both Nicholas Battle and Pierre Turner had some unimaginable shoes to fill coming into the season, having to replace two defensive ends like Sherman Logan and Lawrence Sidbury, Jr., but both players have acquitted themselves well this season on the Spider defense. Turner, a 6-2, 260-pound defensive end is one of the more athletic players on the defensive side of the football for the Spiders, possessing good speed, quickness and power coming off the line for the Spiders. This season, Turner has managed to rack up 24 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, half-a-sack, five quarterback hurries and a couple of fumble recoveries.
Nicholas Battle returned to the starting lineup for the Spiders in last Saturday’s win over Elon, after having to sit out the final two games of the season with an injury. Battle, a 6-4, 250-pound senior, is an athletic, rangy defensive end. He was named CAA Defensive Player of the Week back on Sept. 21 for his efforts in the 47-0 win over Hofstra. In total this season, Battle has accounted for 27 tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss, 3.5 sacks, six quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and a blocked kick.
Much like the Appalachian State defense, the strongest component of the Spiders’ defensive unit this season has been the linebacking corps. Leading the elite unit this season has been First-Team All-CAA selection Collin McConaghy at middle linebacker. McConaghy has three double-digit tackle performances this season and is a physical, sure tackling presence in the middle of the Spiders defense. So far in ‘09, McConaghy has led the Spider defense in tackles, amassing 89 total stops on the season. In addition to those 89 tackles, McConaghy has also contributed 4.5 tackles-for-loss, half-a-sack, an interception, six quarterback hurries and a forced fumble.
Another CAA First-Team all-league selection and All-America candidate is Eric McBride, who is one of several linebackers on the defensive side of the ball for the Spiders that runs extremely well. In last season’s victory at The Rock, McBride was in on 10 tackles for the Spiders. Last season, McBride was Richmond’s leading tackler, completing the ‘08 season with 108 tackles. This season, McBride has managed to total 84 tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and four pass break-ups.
Completing the trio of talented linebackers for the Spiders entering Saturday’s contest is junior linebacker Patrick Weldon, who had such an impressive performance against the Apps last season. Weldon, who possesses tremendous speed, is one of the most active players on the defensive side of the ball for the Spiders. Earlier this year in a 21-20 loss to Villanova, Weldon had a 70-yard interception return for a score, displaying his overall athleticism. The 6-0, 219-pound junior has compiled 81 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, two interceptions, four pass break-ups and a sack.
Last year, a large part of Richmond’s success on the defensive side of the football was the ability to turn teams over with a talented secondary. When the dust settled on the 2008 campaign, the Spiders defense had managed to tie an FCS record with 30 interceptions. That helped the Spiders complete the campaign tied for the national lead in turnover margin (+24.0). In their four playoff games last season, the Spiders picked off nine passes in the post-season, which of course included picking off Edwards five times in the Richmond win in Boone last fall.
The leader of the secondary last season was Justin Rogers at cornerback, who led the Spiders with seven interceptions in ‘08. Rogers, a 5-10, 181-pound junior hasn’t enjoyed quite that same success this season, however, he did manage to garner First-Team All-CAA honors for the third-straight season and is also dangerous as a kick returner with his track speed. Rogers was responsible for one of the five interceptions the Spiders had against the Mountaineers last season. In all, Rogers has contributed 29 tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss, eight pass break-ups, three interceptions and a fumble recovery this season.
Set to draw the start at the other cornerback position for the Spiders on Saturday afternoon is another veteran cornerback in Seth Williams. The 5-11, 185-pound senior is best remembered by App fans for his three interceptions of Edwards in last year’s 33-13 Spiders win in Boone. Williams is another speedy, athletic presence in the secondary for Richmond. He’s an experienced player that takes plenty of chances on the defensive side of the football for the Spiders, especially in pass coverage. Coming into Saturday’s quarterfinal matchup, Williams has posted 51 tackles, a tackle-for-loss and an interception.
The starting duo at the respective safety positions for Saturday’s game are a pair of talented, experienced seniors in Michael Ireland at strong safety and Derek Hatcher at free safety. Ireland is a player that also had an interception in last year’s 33-13 win over the Mountaineers in the ‘08 FCS quarterfinals. In an impressive 34-12 win over No.14 Massachusetts earlier this season, Ireland had a 91-yard interception return for a score, which accounted for the second-longest interception return in Richmond history. Ireland is an extremely physical player and is isn’t scared to come up and lay the lumber. In 11 starts this season, Ireland has produced 44 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, broken up four passes and is tied for the team lead with three interceptions.
Hatcher is in his third season as a starter, is also an accomplished player in the return game for the Spiders, garnering First-Team All-CAA recognition as a punt returner. In a victory over Maine earlier this season, he took a punt back 90 yards for a score for his second punt return for a score in his career. As the starter at free safety this season, Hatcher has 20 tackles, an interception, a fumble recovery and a forced fumble this fall.
Overall, the Richmond defense enters Saturday’s matchup with the Mountaineers, ranking 14th nationally in total defense (278.6 YPG.), seventh in scoring defense (14.7 PPG.), third in rushing defense (66.5 YPG.) and 84th in pass defense (212.0 YPG.).
Appalachian State’s Offense
Looking at the Appalachian State offense, it’s hard to find any flaws in what the Mountaineers have been able to do once again this season in the Mountaineers’ sixth season running the spread, which includes five-straight league crowns and a stretch of three-consecutive national titles, from 2005-09. However, over the past couple of seasons, the season has taken a toll on the Mountaineers’ field general, Armanti Edwards, and last season it likely cost the Apps a chance at a fourth-straight title, when he suffered a late-season injury against Elon.
Ironically, this season has played out in the same fashion, with Edwards suffering a slight injury to his knee in a 27-10 late-season win against Elon, forcing him to sit out the season finale against Western Carolina once again. In last week’s 20-13 first-round win over SC State, Edwards again looked less than 100-percent and completely out-of-sync, causing many to question the extent of the injury originally reported. Edwards looked eerily similar to the way he looked in last season’s 33-13 loss to the Spiders, throwing a season-high three interceptions against the Bulldogs, while also getting held to a career-low minus-one rushing yards.
It’s probably best to error on the side of precaution, however, and not chalk last week’s rare off performance by Edwards to a conspiracy involving an injury, but rather just the uncommon bad performance by the Walter Payton Award finalist.
Edwards has again captivated the Black and Gold fanbase as well as the national panel of voters, putting up some amazing numbers once again in only 10 games this fall. Coming into Saturday night’s affair, Edwards has completed 208-of-291 passes for 2,722 yards, 11 TDs and six interceptions, while rushing for 574 yards and a team-leading 16 TDs on 110 attempts (5.2 YPC.). Earlier this season, Edwards became the first QB in Division I college football history to ever pass for 9,000 yards and rush for 4,000 yards in a college career.
It’s been a tail of two performances for Edwards in his career against the Spiders. As a sophomore in 2007, Edwards had his best game of many breath-taking performances as an All-American quarterback for the Mountaineers in the semifinal win over Richmond. In that contest, Edwards set an NCAA Division I (FBS or FCS) record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a single game, totaling 313 yards and four TDs. In all, Edwards accounted for 495 yards of total offense and had seven TD responsibilities when the Kidd Brewer Stadium scoreboard read zeroes at the end of the night. As a passer, Edwards was able to connect on 14-of-16 passes for 182 yards and three TDs, without throwing an interception.
In stark contrast to that performance, Edwards would like to put last year’s performance against the Spiders out of his mind once and for all this Saturday. In last year’s 33-13 loss, Edwards connected on 26-of-41 passes for 323 yards, with one TD and a career-high five interceptions. Edwards was held three rushing yards on eight attempts, with one TD run in the opening quarter.
Perhaps even more of a concern heading into Saturday’s matchup with the Spiders is the health of leading rusher Devon Moore. Moore, who suffered an injury in the second quarter of Saturday’s game against SC State, reached the 1,000-yard plateau in the final week of the regular-season against Western Carolina. Moore was knocked out for the season early on in the 2008 season in a loss on the road at James Madison, which garnered him a medical redshirt. Moore is the first running back to eclipse the 1,000-yard plateau for the Mountaineers since 2007.
This season, Moore has proven to be effective as both a running presence as well as a presence catching the ball coming out of the backfield for the Apps. As a running threat coming out of the backfield this season, Moore has been strong toting the pigskin for the Mountaineers, as he has rushed for 1,115 yards and 15 TDs on 213 rush attempts (5.2 YPC.). As a receiving option, Moore comes into Saturday’s showdown with 29 receptions for 257 yards (8.9 YPC.)
Set to provide depth at the tailback position on Saturday for the Mountaineers will be a couple of talented, speedy running backs in sophomore Cedric Baker and junior Devin Radford. Baker has seen increased action in the Mountaineer backfield as the season has progressed and has rushed for 233 yards and one TD on 45 attempts (5.2 YPC.) this season. As a receiving option, he has caught five passes for 39 yards.
Radford, maybe the fastest player on the team, comes into Saturday’s contest and having seen some quality action in the backfield last season for the Black and Gold in the absence of Moore. He enters Saturday’s affair, having rushed for 59 yards and a TD on 29 rush attempts this fall.
With CoCo Hillary getting injured as the Apps top receiving option,Matt Cline is now the most-reliable target in the Appalachian State passing game. The 5-11, 180-pound native of Thomasville, N.C., made one of the biggest plays of last week’s win over SC State and it wasn’t a pass reception. On a fumble recovery and return for SC State in the third quarter last week, Cline hustled and chased down the SC State defensive lineman and stripped the ball out from behind, allowing the Mountaineers to pounce on the ball and regain possession. That proved to be one of the biggest plays in the game for the Apps and showcased the type of player that Cline is and the kind of personality he brings to the wide receiver position.
Cline enters Saturday’s game with the Spiders as the most sure-handed receiver for the Mountaineers, and he’s a player that possesses deceptive speed. Cline enters Saturday’s contest as the team’s leading receiver, having caught 69 passes for 793 yards and a TD, averaging 11.5 YPR. Cline has also been a threat to run the football on occasion this season, entering Saturday’s contest with 49 yards on six carries (8.2 YPC.)
The best big-play option in the passing game for the Mountaineers has proven to be Brian Quick. At 6-5, Quick’s size will likely give the smaller Spider defensive backs matchup problems yet again in ‘09. Quick was a main option in the game last season and caught a couple of long passes against the Spiders, out-leaping the Spider defenders to come down with the ball on one occasion. Quick had six receptions for 94 yards against the Spiders in ‘08.
Quick was responsible for the game’s only offensive TD last Saturday, as he was able to haul in a 7-yard TD pass from Edwards in the second quarter, in which he leaped in the air and came down with one foot in bounds for the score. With his height and the way the ball was thrown, he was the only player on the field that could have caught the pass. Coming into Saturday’s contest, Quick has caught 49 passes for 819 yards and four TDs (team-leading 16.7 YPR.).
The Mountaineers will throw a wrinkle into Saturday’s contest by starting Travaris Cadet at the wide receiver position. If you remember last season when the Mountaineers met the Spiders in the FCS quarterfinals, Appalachian used CoCo Hillary and DeAndre Presley on the field at the same time in a couple of situations to keep the Spiders defense guessing by having more than one passing threat on the field at the same time.
Look for Cadet to be used some in the zone-read option and could be a threat to throw over the top on an option pitch. Cadet, the Mountaineers’ backup signal-caller, comes into Saturday’s contest as the team’s third-leading rusher, having rushed for 366 yards and three TDs on 70 rush attempts (5.2 YPR.) this fall. Cadet as caught four passes for 21 yards this season.
Rounding out the receiving options for the Mountaineers coming into Saturday night’s showdown is sophomore tight end Ben Jorden. Jorden hasn’t been used quite as much in the passing game this season as he was last fall, however, he’s still a vital part of the Appalachian passing attack. Coming into Saturday’s quarterfinal matchup, Jorden has hauled in 13 passes for 197 yards and a TD (15.2 YPC.). Jorden has deceptive speed and great hands and has a knack for getting behind defenses and making the big catch.
One of the most-improved aspects of the Appalachian State offense this season has been the offensive line, and that unit offers them the opportunity to avenge last year’s 33-13 quarterfinal loss to Richmond. The main reason the Spiders were able to come in and down the Mountaineers on their home turf last season was due in large part to the advantage Richmond’s sizable advantage in experience and talent along the defensive line against a much younger offensive front for the Mountaineers.
This season, however, the Appalachian State offensive front looks like a different unit all together in terms of talent and experience. The three veterans anchor the Appalachian State offensive front in Jacobs Blocking Award winner Mario Acitelli at left tackle, Brett Irvin at center and Pat Mills at left guard. Acitelli is one of the best lineman in the nation and enters Saturday’s contest with the Spiders having started 44 games in his career, including logging 26-consecutive starting nods.
Irvin is maybe the most-improved player along the offensive front and has parlayed that into a second-team all-league selection by the league’s coaches. Irvin’s first start was in 2007 in Appalachian’s historic, 34-32, win over Michigan in 2007 and has started a total of 27 games in his career, including starting 25-straight games at center for ASU.
Mills, a junior, is in his first season as a starter at the left guard position, but has seen action in 32 career games and will be making his 13th start of the ‘09 season and career on Saturday.
Rounding out the starters along the offensive line for Saturday night’s contest with the Spiders will be sophomore right tackle Orrye Frye and sophomore right guard Matt Ruff. Frye is maybe the most versatile offensive lineman for the Apps, having the ability to play both the interior and exterior positions along the offensive front. Frye has started 16 games in his career with the Black and Gold, including making 12-straight starts. He is slated to make his 13th-consecutive start on Saturday.
Ruff rounds out the starters along the offensive line for the Mountaineers and made a crucial fumble recovery on Cline’s forced fumble in last week’s win over SC State. He enters Saturday’s contest having made 24 straight starts for the Mountaineers and is slated to make his 13th-straight start on Saturday. Appalachian State has been able to stay healthy along the offensive front and that is one of the main reasons the Mountaineers have been able to reel off 10-straight wins after starting the season 0-2.
Overall, the Mountaineer offensive front has helped the Appalachian rank eighth nationally in scoring offense (34.4 PPG.), third in total offense (464.2 YPG.), 10th in rushing offense (209.8 YPG.) and 15th in passing offense (254.3 YPG.).
Final Analysis and Prediction
Last year, the Mountaineers ran into a prepared, seasoned Richmond team that came in and handed the Mountaineers a 33-13 loss on its home field. This season, the Mountaineers meet basically the same seasoned Spiders team (17 of 24 starters are seniors) when they travel to Richmond for their first road playoff game since 2001. The difference is the Mountaineers are a more seasoned team themselves entering Saturday’s quarterfinal matchup, especially along the offensive and defensive fronts.
To me, the biggest difference in the Spiders and the Mountaineers last season were in those two areas. Last season, the Mountaineers lacked a real pass-rusher on the offensive line, but enter this season with two in Jabari Fletcher and Lanston Tanyi. Remember, the Apps battled injuries most of the season at defensive end last fall.
Another difference in this season’s matchup is the health of Armanti Edwards, which is far better than it was entering last season’s matchup against the Spiders. Despite struggling last Saturday, Edwards appeared to be as mobile as ever, and on one of his few running opportunities, decided to slide down to avoid injury. Expect him to be near full blast on Saturday in Richmond at City Stadium. One bad omen for Richmond might be the fact that City Stadium is an old converted race track and Edwards will most-assuredly be given the green flag against the Spiders.
One of the interesting wrinkles the Mountaineers have added to the offensive game plan for Saturday’s contest is putting Travaris Cadet, the back-up quarterback, as one of the starting wide receivers for the quarterfinal on Saturday. Now, I don’t profess to know X’s and O’s, but perhaps this move was made to utilize Cadet in the option game and to take advantage of a secondary that takes a lot of chances and jumps routes. Look for Cadet to catch the Spiders napping on at least one occasion on Saturday night and throw over the top.
Richmond presents several problems for the Mountaineers on Saturday evening, and one of those problems is mobile quarterback Eric Ward. Ward was able to expose the Mountaineer defense as a running presence last season and is a player that, though he’s not the game-changer Armanti Edwards is for ASU, is the best dual threat that the Mountaineers have faced this season at the quarterback position.
Another potential problem for the Mountaineers on Saturday is the size that Richmond has along its offensive line. That being said, no team has effectively been able to stop the Mountaineer offense with Edwards healthy this season, and in my opinion, that will again be the difference on Saturday evening in a defensive battle, as Edwards and ASU do enough to prevail.
Final Score: Appalachian State 20, Richmond 17