BOONE, NC—Appalachian State fans have been pointing towards Saturday's "Black Saturday" matchup with Georgia Southern since the No. 1 Mountaineers dropped a 21-14 overtime decision in Statesboro on Nov. 6, 2010. ASU is 3-1 against the Eagles in Black Saturday matchups since the revival of the tradition in 2002.
It's a tradition that began at ASU in the late 1980s and extended into the early '90s. The only loss by the Black and Gold on Black Saturday was a 38-35 setback in 2007.
Saturday's matchup between the two Southern Conference juggernauts certainly has the potential to be a classic.
It will mark the 27th all-time meeting between the two schools, with ASU holding a slim 13-12-1 edge in the series.
This matchup has seen some great games, sans the 2004 and 2009 meetings between the two. In '04, the second-ranked Eagles walloped the Black and Gold in Statesboro, handing Appalachian State its worst loss in Statesboro in series history, as GSU posted a 54-7 win on that particular afternoon.
ASU, however, would return the favor in 2009, rolling up 702 yards of total offense en route to a 52-16 win over the visiting Eagles before a sellout crowd at "The Rock" in the previous Black Saturday showdown between the two.
Those two games, however, have been an exception to the rule as a whole in the 26 previous meetings. Five of the last eight meetings between the two have been classics, including four of the past five, with two needing overtime to decide things.
Saturday's meeting between the two will mark the first between the two foes as top-five ranked foes since 2001, when the Eagles took a 27-18 win against Appalachian. Interestingly enough, the last top-ranked team to visit The Rock was Georgia Southern in 1999, which is also the last time ASU defeated a national No. 1-ranked team.
The Mountaineers were one-point winners (17-16) on that afternoon, buoyed by an opportunistic defense that turned Eagle turnovers into points, as well as a key blocked punt on special teams. Ironically, the Apps won the game without an offensive TD. It was in similar fashion to the SoCon opener for the Apps this season against Chattanooga.
The offense that the ASU defense will face Saturday is not unlike that Eagle offense of 12 years ago, which was led by Greg Hill under center, while sophomore fullback Adrian N. Peterson was the man toting the rock before better than 19,000 on hand that day. That win snapped a 15-game league winning streak for Georgia Southern and the goalposts came down at The Rock.
ASU also has broken a streak in a loss.
In the 2001 meeting between the two FCS titans, the Mountaineers ended Adrian Peterson's streak of 100-yard rushing performances at 51 games. Peterson finished with 19 carries for 71 yards in the GSU win. It was the first time the talented fullback had ever been held below the century mark, and marked only one of two times in his career that he failed to reach 100 yards in a game.
GSU knows about ending streaks in this series, too, as its last couple of victories over the Apps have been streak-breakers. In the 21-14 win in Statesboro last season, the Eagles snapped ASU's 26-game league winning streak, while the 38-35 win by the Eagles in Boone snapped ASU's 30-game winning streak at The Rock, which dated back to the 2002 playoffs.
With a win Saturday, GSU could go a long way toward thwarting another streak, as it would likely end any real possibility of an unprecedented seventh-consecutive league crown for ASU.
ASU comes into the matchup playing some of its best football of the season, especially on offense under the direction of sophomore Jamal Jackson (45-of-71 passing, 650 yds., 6 TDs, 2 INTs/31 rush att., 160 yds., 5 TDs, 5.2 YPC).
It didn't appear that would be the case just about three weeks ago, as Appalachian State was struggling to find its footing as a football team. For the first time since the 2003 season, Appalachian State lacked an identity offensively. The Mountaineers were struggling to establish any sort of momentum and cadence offensively through the first four weeks of the season.
The Mountaineers have since rallied on the offensive side of the football, buoyed by a new starter under center. Jackson has led the Apps to back-to-back 500-yard offensive outputs in leading the Mountaineers to wins over The Citadel (49-42) and Samford (35-17).
Jackson was inserted into the ASU lineup after DeAndre Presley (68-of-112 passing, 761 yds., 4 TDs, 4 INTs/54 rush att., 151 yds., 4 TDs, 2.8 YPC), who was a Payton Award finalist last season, was injured in the Mountaineers' loss at Wofford.
Jackson came in and the rest has been history.
The Atlanta, GA native, now a sophomore, gave Presley a fierce battle for the starting job prior to the 2010 campaign after the departure of Armanti Edwards. Meanwhile, Presley has found a new home on the defensive side of the football, in the Appalachian State secondary.
Jackson, who has a stronger arm than Presley but probably doesn't match him in speed, leads an Appalachian State offense that enters Saturday's matchup against the top-ranked Eagles ranking third in the SoCon in scoring offense (32.0 PPG), fourth in total offense (400.9 YPG), fourth in rushing offense (199.3 YPG) and sixth in passing offense (201.6 YPG).
He comes into Saturday's matchup with the Eagles off of a career-best passing performance in the win over Samford, as he connected on 19-of-30 passes for a career-high 290 yards and a couple of TDs. Jackson also has been a threat to run on occasion in his first two weeks leading the charge.
Another factor on offense could be the SoCon's top wideout and most difficult defensive assignment for opposing coaching staffs to deal with, ASU NFL prospect Brian Quick. With 2,937 career receiving yards, Quick needs just 187 more receiving yards to surpass Rick Beasley's (1978-80) school milestone of 3,124 receiving yards.
Georgia Southern comes into the matchup with a good defense, however, to this point, it hasn't been the same defense that shut down ASU in the final three quarters of last season's matchup, and the unit has been susceptible to the pass this season, but extremely stout against the run.
Defensively, the Eagles enter the matchup ranking fourth in the SoCon and 34th nationally in total defense (337.5 YPG). GSU's strength on the defensive side of the football entering the Black Saturday matchup has been stopping the run this season; they rank 13th in the country against the run, while also leading the SoCon in rushing defense (100.7 YPG).
The Eagles have struggled against the pass this season, ranking last in the SoCon and 94th nationally in pass defense (236.8 YPG). The Eagles also rank 15th nationally and first in the league, allowing a meager 19.0 PPG this season.
Rounding out the major defensive categories for the Eagles, GSU comes into Saturday's game ranking third in the SoCon and 25th nationally in turnover margin (+0.86), while ranking second in the SoCon and second nationally in sacks (2.71 SPG).
When talking about the Eagle defense in 2011, you don't get far into the conversation before bringing up the star-studded defensive line. The reason the Eagles have been so tough to run the football against this season has everything to do with GSU's defensive interior, which is unquestionably the top tandem of defensive tackles in the league. That tandem is led by arguably the nation's best nose tackle, Brent Russell (28 tackles, 8.5 TFLs, 4 sacks, 1 blocked kick, 1 PBU).
Russell is simply a beast in the middle of that GSU defense, and though his numbers this season might not be what they have been in the past, he's starting to get going as the season has progressed after getting off to a bit of a slow start in 2011. Russell enjoyed his top outing of the campaign in the 28-27 win over Chattanooga a few weeks ago, as he posted eight tackles and a couple of TFLs.
Russell also has made a huge impact on special teams this season, providing a huge tide-turning play by blocking a Furman PAT, allowing LaRon Scott (11 career INTs, 2 TDs—tied for the career active lead in SoCon in INTs) to pick up the ball and return the ball for two, turning a potential 7-7 tie football game into a 9-6 GSU lead.
Speaking of Scott, he's the one player that has been a game-changer on special teams and in the secondary this season. It was Scott's second-quarter interception in the end zone of a DeAndre Presley pass that seemingly turned the tide of last season's game. If ASU had scored that TD, it would have given the Apps a 21-0 lead and it would have been extremely difficult for GSU to find its way back.
The real challenge on Saturday will be stopping the nation's top offense. The Mountaineer 3-4 scheme, which is designed to stop triple-option, flexbone type offenses, will have its hands full Saturday. The Eagles rank No. 1 nationally in scoring offense (44.6 PPG), rushing offense (369.7 YPG) and No. 2 in total offense (487.3 YPG).
ASU's defense has been spotty at times this season, and injuries in the secondary have been partly to blame. It is similar to the way the Apps entered the matchup in 2009, which saw the Apps struggling to find an identity on the defensive side of the football. With an off-week to prepare and no player's starting job safe, ASU limited a pass-happy GSU offense to just 151 total yards in the 52-16 rout.
This year's ASU defense comes into the matchup ranking sixth in the SoCon in total defense (369.7 YPG/69th in FCS), seventh in the league in points allowed per game (25.3/57th in FCS), fifth in the SoCon in rushing defense (177.3 YPG/90th in FCS), and seventh in the league in pass defense (192.4 YPG/33rd in FCS).
The Apps lack the star power of a Mark LeGree or a D.J. Smith on the 2011 defense; however, talent is present at each position. Up front, the Apps have the likes of Lanston Tanyi (20 tackles, 2 TFLs), while the linebacking corps has been anchored in the middle by Jeremy Kimbrough (51 tackles, 6 TFLs, 3 sacks). Hard-hitting safety Troy Sanders (47 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 1 FR) stars at safety, where he is having an All-SoCon worthy season.
GSU's offense has an efficient, disciplined leader under center, in senior Jaybo Shaw (35-of-63 passing, 751 yds., 5 TDs, 0 INTs/77 rush att, 224 yds., 7 TDs, 2.9 YPC). The Eagles' most dangerous weapons on offense have been sophomore fullback Robert Brown (91 rush att., 687 yds., 5 TDs, 7.5 YPC), slotbacks Jerrick McKinnon (48 rush att., 382 yds., 7 TDs, 8.0 YPC) and J.J. Wilcox (37 rush att., 355 yds., 4 TDs, 9.6 YPC/3-of-5 passing, 37 yds., 1 TD).
The only two teams that can match GSU's overall speed on offense are Chattanooga, whom the Eagles beat 28-27 in a classic just a couple of weeks ago, and the Mountaineers.
ASU is 1-1 against teams that run their type of offense, yielding an average of about 324 yards on the ground in games against Wofford and The Citadel. The Apps were 28-14 losers on the road to Wofford, while staving off a huge rally by The Citadel to win 49-42 in Charleston a couple of weeks ago.
So who wins this game?
Well, before the season, I would have said Georgia Southern and I did pick them to win the league. However, this is an ASU team that has finally found itself the past couple weeks with impressive wins on the road at The Citadel and a 35-17 homecoming win over Samford last week.
The Apps will get a close victory. The ASU record-breaking, raucous crowd just might make the difference, handing ASU its first win and third all-time over a No. 1 nationally ranked team.
Final Score Prediction: ASU 38, GSU 35