X

30-Year-Old Tussling: Appalachian State Set to Renew Rivalry with East Carolina

John Hooper@soconjohn22Correspondent IISeptember 1, 2009

After a 30-year hiatus, Appalachian State will renew its rivalry with former Southern Conference rival East Carolina in a game many around the Old North State have awaited with high expectations since the announcement the two would play in the winter.

Expectations come from the fact that both programs have seen an overnight surge in rising to new levels in their respective football traditions. For Appalachian State, anxious to wash the bitter taste from its mouth left by a FCS quarterfinal loss to Richmond in '08, it’s an expectation that was realized in 2005.

The Mountaineer football program had always been a football program that was good and trips to the playoffs were that of second-nature to head coach Jerry Moore and staff, however, making that rather large step from good to great isn’t one that comes overnight.

In fact, it was an Appalachian team in '05 that was coming off a 6-5 season that forged all the way to the school’s first national title and catapulted the program to new, unprecedented heights. Three titles and a win over Michigan later, the Mountaineers expect to win every time they take the field, and they expect to do it in style.

When Appalachian State took the field against Michigan to open the '07 season, Appalachian State play-by-play broadcaster David Jackson summed it up best when he said, "Quite simply put, Jerry Moore and Appalachian State have never boarded a plane or taken a bus to lose a football game."

That will be the same approach that this 2009 edition—many of which were a part of the win in Ann Arbor—of the Mountaineer football team will have as its mentality on Saturday afternoon when they take the Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium turf to take on the Pirates.

Helping back up those expectations when the Mountaineers take the turf against the Pirates on Saturday afternoon will be 18 returning starters and a collection of talent that could be the most talented of the three previous teams that have brought home national titles for the Mountaineers.

Reigning Walter Payton Award-winner Armanti Edwards returns to his stead as the team's starting signal-caller, which is a pretty amazing story when you consider he is coming back from a severe cut on his foot after an offseason accident cutting grass just prior to the start of fall camp.

Edwards is the most decorated player in Appalachian State Football history and is poised to have a strong senior season. Edwards passed for 2,902 yards, 30 TDs, and nine INTs last fall, while also leading the team in rushing yardage by completing the campaign with 941 yards and 11 TDs on 193 attempts (4.9 YPC).

Expectations have become something of a watchword in Greenville, NC as well, especially under fifth-year head coach Skip Holtz, who came to ECU after serving as offensive coordinator at the University of South Carolina.

The nation took notice of the Pirates from the inception of the ‘08 season, as the Pirates shocked eventual ACC and Orange Bowl champion Virginia Tech, 27-22.

It took Holtz just four seasons as the boss to lead the Pirates to a Conference USA title and a berth in the Liberty Bowl against the Kentucky Wildcats. Unfortunately for Holtz and staff, despite exceeding even the high expectations of the fan base in Greenville, NC, the Pirates were 25-19 losers to the Kentucky Wildcats in the Liberty Bowl after leading virtually the entire game.

Holtz hopes to help the Pirates close the deal this fall, aided by the return of 19 starters (eight on offense, eight on defense, three specialists), including talented signal-caller Patrick Pinkney. Pinkney, who, like his counterpart Edwards, is a candidate for the Johnny Unitas "Golden Arm" Award, is coming off his most prolific season in the Purple and Gold, connecting on 223-of-363 passes for 2,675 yards, 13 TDs, and seven interceptions.

Pinkney will have all five starters returning in front of him along the ECU offensive line—a front that helped the Pirates average 23.4 PPG and 340 yards of total offense last fall. The Pirates are just one of 12 FBS teams in the nation to return all five starters along the offensive line for the '09 season, which has combined for a total of 91 starts.

The Pirates have a talented tailback tandem returning to run behind those five behemoths Saturday afternoon in Norman Whitley and Jonathan Williams. Whitley is the team's leading returning ball carrier after concluding the '08 season with 698 yards and four TDs on 142 carries (4.9 YPC). Williams was ECU’s third-leading rusher last fall, completing the '08 campaign with 380 yards and five TDs on 75 attempts (5.1 YPC).

The leading options in the passing game will be Dwayne Harris and Jamar Bryant. Harris is the the Pirates' leading returning receiver, having hauled in 58 passes for 654 yards and a TD last fall (11.3 YPR). Bryant’s speed could give the Mountaineers secondary issues Saturday and he will be Pinkney’s main big play target. Bryant caught 19 passes for 216 yards and three TDs (11.4 YPR) last season.

The real key matchup in this season opener could be in the trenches, and how a seasoned Appalachian State offensive line, which returns three starters from a year ago, handles what should be one of the top defensive lines in all of college football in '09. That defensive line for the Pirates will be anchored by All-American and Bronco Nagurski Award hopeful defensive end C.J. Wilson.

Wilson is possibly the most domineering defensive end in the nation heading into the '09 season, coming off a season in which he had 18.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. Jay Ross and Linval Joseph return on the defensive interior for ECU and will both vie for All-CUSA honors this fall.

The massive 322-pound nose guard Joseph completed the '08 season with 43 tackles, eight TFLs, and 2.5 sacks, while Ross produced 48 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, and five sacks. The top returning linebacker is Nick Johnson, who is the team’s leading returning tackler after amassing 102 tackles, 10 TFLs, and a couple of interceptions last season.

All-American candidate Van Eskridge headlines two returning starters in the secondary at free safety. Eskridge is coming off an impressive '08 season in which he was the team’s third-leading tackler, racking up 97 stops, while tying for the team standard with four interceptions. Eskridge is the catalyst and field general of this ECU defense entering the '09 season.

The 2009 season brings more than expectations for both Appalachian State and ECU, especially with both programs now sporting championship success. The word for both now becomes "entitlement," as both fan bases and coaching staffs no longer expect to win, they feel they are entitled to victory and national attention, and with wins over Michigan and Virginia Tech the past two seasons, who can argue with that notion?

Extra Notes:

In a game expected to be close, the x-factor for Saturday’s contest could be special teams. Appalachian State will forever be remembered for blocking two field goals to upend the Wolverines two years ago, while ECU’s win over Virgnia Tech last season was ironic, as the Pirates blocked a punt and returned it for a score late in the contest to garner the 27-22 win in Charlotte. Virginia Tech has long been known for its prowess in changing games in the special teams department.

 

Skip Holtz is no stranger to the FCS level of football. Prior to taking the offensive coordinator’s role at South Carolina under his father Lou Holtz, Skip Holtz helped lead the University of Connecticut to national prowess on the then-Division I-AA stage, leading the Huskies to the I-AA quarterfinals in 1998 before suffering a season-ending loss at Georgia Southern, 52-30.

In four seasons at the helm of the Connecticut football program, Holtz helped lay the groundwork for current boss Randy Edsell, helping usher in the school’s current success and provide a smooth transition to the FBS level. He produced a 34-23 record as the head coach, including a 10-win season in 1998.

This will mark the 30th all-time meeting between the Pirates and Mountaineers, with the Mountaineers holding a comfortable 19-10 advantage. The Mountaineers and Pirates used to be Southern Conference rivals until the Pirates left the nation’s fifth-oldest conference in 1976.

Despite trailing the series by a substantial margin, the Pirates have won four-straight in the series, with ASU’s last win over the Pirates coming in 1975. The Apps actually hold a 10-7 advantage over Pirates in Greenville.

 

The Mountaineers hold a 7-36-1 record all-time against FBS opponents. Six of seven of ASU’s FBS victories have come against Wake Forest, with the only exception of course being ASU’s 34-32 win over No. 5 Michigan to open the 2007 campaign. The lone tie the Mountaineers have against an FBS opponent was also against Wake Forest.

Under the direction of Jerry Moore (1989-present), the Mountaineers have claimed six of those seven victories. The Mountaineers are a respectable 6-21-1 against FBS teams from the Old North State.

🚨 SPORTS NEWS ➡️ YOUR INBOX

The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.