Defensive Problems Are A Concern For App State After 0-2 Start.

John Hooper@soconjohn22Correspondent IISeptember 14, 2009

Defensive Problems Are A Concern For App State After 0-2 Start.


It’s way too early to start hitting the panic button if you’re an Appalachian State football fan, however, after surrendering 522 yards to McNeese State in a loss to the Cowboys Saturday afternoon, the Mountaineers are off to an 0-2 start for the first time since the 2003 season.


That season, the Mountaineers were able end up forging a 7-4 season, and actually finished the ‘03 season as one of the hottest teams in the FCS, and some people were surprised the Mountaineers didn’t make the playoffs after reeling off seven wins in the final nine games. The difference between that ‘03 team and this current edition of the Mountaineers is that ‘03 team was nowhere to be found in the preseason polls and were widely regarded as a team that overachieved.

The ‘09 Mountaineers were a unanimous No.1 to start the ‘09 season and have quickly gone from a national title favorite to a team with plenty of work to do just to make the playoffs. Luckily for Appalachian State, the two losses were both non-conference defeats and the goal of winning a SoCon championship, which the Mountaineers set as a primary focus prior to every campaign, is still intact, with the Mountaineers having an off week before welcoming Samford to Kidd Brewer Stadium for the SoCon opener.

Much work has to be done in the off-week to get the Mountaineers ready to face a running back with perhaps more talent than McNeese State’s Toddrick Pendland, in Samford senior running back Chris Evans.

The Mountaineers have only started the season 0-2 and made the FCS one time in the history of the program, which the Black and Gold accomplished back during the 1992 season, when Appalachian State opened the season with a couple of FBS losses to NC State (35-10) and Wake Forest (10-7), finishing 7-4 and second place in the SoCon.

The problem with that scenario being feasable once again is because the Mountaineers losses occurred against FBS opponents and losses in conference play that season came at home to Furman (16-13) and a 25-0 loss at home to the Bulldogs. Two factors played significantly into the Apps getting into the playoffs in ‘92. First the Mountaineers won their final four games of the season, which included a win at eventual national champion Marshall, 37-34.

The Mountaineers probably wouldn’t get in to the post-season with a 7-4 mark this season, due in part to what appears to be a lack of overall conference strength. That means the Mountaineers need to do something they have never done-finishing better than 7-4 after an 0-2 start.

That’s what makes the SoCon opener on Sept. 26 against Samford of utmost importance. The numbers are truly staggering on the defensive side of the ball and probably numbers not seen on the defensive side of the ball to begin a season since the 2004 campaign. Through two games so far this season, the Mountaineers are yielding 421.0 YPG. and 34.5 PPG. The good news is, the Mountaineers probably won’t face two offenses this strong in back-to-back games the rest of the season.

But if 2004 proves anything, the Mountaineers can’t rely on a superb offense and a pourous defense to make the post-season. In the first season to the spread offense, the Mountaineers had a prolific attack, finishing the season 17th nationally in total offense (425.5 YPG.), 19th in scoring offense (33.3 PPG.) and fifth in passing offense (322.6 YPG.).

The problem that season on offense was a running game that lacked an identity (102.9 YPG/104th in FCS) and a defense that showed the same signs of struggling to stop anyone early in the season. In fact, the ‘04 defense was often criticized for being undersized and not physical enough. Those two combined characteristics combined with a very young defense that returned only four players from one of the best units in the SoCon from the preceding season.

Those three warning signs led to Appalachian State fielding one of the worst defenses in school history, finishing the ‘04 campaign surrendering 400.7 YPG. and 32.5 PPG. The Mountaineers also lost Corey Lynch in the second game of the season when he suffered a broken arm in the second game of the season, on a rare punt return late in a win over Eastern Kentucky.

The biggest concern this season was the fact that the Mountaineers return nine starters on defense, including two players that entered the season as Buck Buchanan Award candidates, in safety Mark LeGree and middle linebacker and reigning SoCon Defensive Player of the Year, linebacker Jacque Roman.

The problem that has stood out in the two games to open the season on the defensive side of the football for the Black and Gold, has been the defensive line. The Mountaineers have quite frankly been pushed around by O-Lines from East Carolina and McNeese State. The thing about McNeese State that really disheartening is the fact that the Cowboys had to replace four starters along their offensive line, three of which were All-Southland performers, entering the ‘09 season and that was thought to be a source of real concern for the Cowboys entering the ‘09 season.

Through two games, the Mountaineers’ lack of consistency has been the source of the defensive struggles for the Apps. Both ECU and McNeese State had inordinate time to pass the ball in the opening two ballgames, but the Mountaineers have had a good pass-rush at times in the first two games, racking up four sacks in the opening two contests.

The problem is lack of performance from the defensive end positions. Through the opening two contests, Jabari Fletcher and Lanston Tanyi have struggled to really get going this season. Teams have been able to exploit some confusion in the secondary as well, which was no clearer than McNeese State’s second TD of the day, when the Cowboys were able to get the speedy Pendland matched up against a slower linebacker D.J. Smith, and Pendland was able to turn an underthrown pass into a 31-yard scoring reception, adjusting to the ball, while Smith failed to look back for the ball.

While this won’t end up like the ‘04 season on the defensive side of the ball, the Mountaineers have road games left at Elon, Wofford and Furman, and another tough game straight-ahead at The Rock against a Samford team capable of making its own run at the post-season in ‘09. The Mountaineers were able to get a 35-24 win in Birmingham last season, but it was a game that the took one of the best performances in a single quarter for the season, as the Mountaineers were able to explode for 21 unanswered second-quarter points to take control of the game and get the 11-point victory.

The Bulldogs won’t offer the Mountaineers defense the challenge that McNeese State did, however, the Bulldogs will bring one of the top defenses in the SoCon and FCS to The Rock on Sept. 26. If the Mountaineers can rectify some things on the defensive side of the ball, they should be able to get a season-momentum altering win over the Bulldogs. One thing you can bet the house on though, is head coach Pat Sullivan will look to get the ball to Evans in space much like McNeese State did with Pendland on Saturday afternoon. That will include using some of the latest trend to hit the pro and college football worlds, in the "the Wildcat offense", using Evans at QB to get him the ball in as man situations as possible. The Mountaineers also saw this used with some effectiveness in their home win over Furman last season.

Appalachian’s offense wasn’t the problem Saturday, and 493 yards of offense, coupled with 35 points, have been winning formulas close to 100-percent of the time at The Rock. The last time the Mountaineers produced that kind of day and came up on the losing end of a game, was a 38-35 loss to Georgia Southern in 2007.

If any team can set a new standard by finishing better than 7-4 after an 0-2 start, there’s no question that this Appalachian State team is better-suited to do that than any previous Appalachian State team. After all, this is still the best team in the SoCon, and until a stat-padding Elon team proves otherwise, Appalachian State is still the most dangerous team in the SoCon. And if they find the right defensive ingredients during the off-week, they could quickly perch themselves back atop the "team-to-beat" category in the FCS. There’s plenty of work to be done, however, and Samford might be the game many look to, when finding a defining moment in Appalachian State’s fourth national-title winning season. We’ll know the answer to that in question about 12 days.



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