Show Me My Opponent: Appalachian State

Photo credit: Marvin Gentry (USA Today)

Patience is a lost virtue; one that has slid way past us as we’ve become more and more connected over the last pair of decades. Information comes to us so rapidly and through so many mediums that having to wait for anything feels tedious. In an unrelated event, I am doing a video review of an opponent Tennessee is more than two weeks away from kicking off against. Tom Petty was right: waiting, indeed, is the hardest part.

Anyway, I thought it might be a good idea to give Tennessee fans a video exercise as to what this Appalachian State team is likely to bring to Neyland Stadium on September 1st. As the son of a Michigan graduate, I believe I have a fair reason to warn everyone that underestimating any Appalachian State team is a bad idea. And these Mountaineers make that warning pertinent for a number of reasons: an 11–2 season in 2015, just their second year of FBS football, sprung them to the top of the Group of Five heap much quicker than anyone could have expected, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if they got to 10 or more wins again this season. They have a coach that I’d give up almost anyone for in Scott Satterfield — look for him to be the head of a historically Top 25 program within five years if not three. Pro Football Focus just ranked their offensive line third…in all of college football. You get where I’m heading with this: it’s a much stiffer test for Tennessee than the name would suggest, and what Appalachian State has done since a 1–5 start in 2014 (17–2 since) is simply remarkable.

However, there’s a lot of factors that make Team 120 the obvious and comfortable favorite in Game One: a massive talent gap, a rebuilding defensive line, and past performance suggesting that the Mountaineers’ offensive system may simply not work against speedy, intelligent defenses.

Below is a list of pros and cons I found about Appalachian State’s likely performance against the Vols on September 1st, based on video review of four 2015 games: Clemson, Georgia Southern, Troy, and Ohio.


PROS

The offensive line is aggressive and bruising

I was fascinated by how far and how fast the Mountaineers offensive linemen are encouraged to get downfield. This is an offense that lives for 20+ yard plays (6.15 per game in 2015). Watch left guard Parker Collins (#75) maul his man on a solid Georgia Southern defense above. That’s a true highlight-reel block, and I almost didn’t care that this got called back for some pretty obvious holding by left tackle Davante Harris (graduated).

They run a lot of successful stretch plays from the pistol

The Mountaineer offense runs a ton of these halfback stretch plays, both basic and misdirection/counter types for Marcus Cox (1423 yards, 9 TDs, 5.9 YPC 2015) and backup Jalin Moore (731 yards, 5 TDs, 7.4 YPC 2015). They’re both built like boulders at 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, and I saw several runs where it took three tacklers or more to bring those two down. I don’t anticipate Tennessee having that problem as long as linebackers can get to the outside and cover, but it was a noteworthy and often occurrence. The best thing about this GIF: the two guys who seal off their defenders best (left tackle Harris and center Jesse Chapman) both graduated.

Here’s a less successful one that got bottled up by a five-man Clemson rush, but one you’ll see them roll out at least a couple times:

Because they run this same pistol formation on standard downs seemingly 70–80% of the time, better teams like Clemson can exploit this. But this type of misdirection counter can work very well against a tired defense. Which brings me to…

They’re not fast, but they’re methodical — and with big plays!

It feels like they run the same set of stretches, misdirection counters, and read options so often (App State ran the ball on 66.3% of plays in 2015) that when they actually run pass plays, it’s a little surprising. I loved this play from Taylor Lamb: App State ran it quite often on the plays leading up to this one (13 plays, 10 runs in first two drives). They run the same stretch-to-sideline play, but the offensive line is brilliant here — rapidly sliding to the right to fake the run, drawing in nearly the entire Ohio defense. Then Taylor Lamb, who we’ll talk more about later, uses his solid if unspectacular running skills to drop seven points on a mystified Bobcats defense. With regards to offensive pace, they’re not in Tennessee’s league (83rd v. 24th). If this stays in a similar range, their pace of offensive play calling and execution ranks most closely with Alabama and South Carolina — two games that went under the Vegas total in 2015.

Taylor Lamb’s running abilities

Lamb seems to have a very good football IQ, and I love watching him read the defensive end (#5) here. The end doesn’t hesitate in rushing after Cox, which makes it a little easier for Lamb…but I’ve watched a lot of missed reads over the last few years. Running this isn’t easy, and selling the fake as well as Lamb does here is a skill not easily taught. I like this guy.

More play action

You’ll see the Mountaineers use quite a bit of play action to draw Tennessee’s secondary in. I don’t think Tennessee will fall for it often, but this play is just so good all around: shifting the tight end over, the tight end pulling to the right to block, and then run a route to draw the safety’s attention. The crossing route by the far receiver draws just enough attention to free #83 (Simms McElfresh, graduated, member of 2015 All-Name Team) a solid five yards of open room in the end zone. This is what happens when all goes well.

Fun pass rush, with a caveat

App State had an awesome defensive line last year when they got to the quarterback. Defensive end Ronald Blair (#49, graduated) runs through two Clemson offensive linemen and forces Deshaun Watson to throw with significant pressure on his back foot. It takes what could best be described as a pass resembling the beauty and perfection of Abbey Road or Beethoven’s fifth to score here.

CONS

Ronald Blair is gone

Somehow, this guy fell to the fifth round in the NFL Draft. He had more than double the amount of tackles of the #2 defensive lineman on the roster. He had 7.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss — the three defensive line starters you’ll see on opening night combined for 8.5 and 16.5, respectively. Ronald Blair has real NFL potential and I’m happy that Tennessee won’t have to figure out how to contain him.

Taylor Lamb under pressure is…not great

This is a pretty simple four/delayed-five-man rush by Clemson here. There’s an unprotected defensive end and Lamb freaks. This is a good example of good/bad hand luck: there’s no reason for this GIF to end here and not in the end zone with a Clemson defender celebrating six seconds later. It also doesn’t help that App State’s receivers are pretty pedestrian dudes, and no returnee caught more than 21 balls in 2015.

Lamb short-arms a bad read thanks to Ohio’s defensive line getting involved in a very tight pocket here. This one’s brutal to watch. He’s a good quarterback, but he’s not very efficient (56th of 100 full-time QBs in 2015 in completion percentage) and the aggressive nature of Satterfield and App State’s offense causes him to make some throws he regrets later. This is also a case of looking past TD/INT ratios: Lamb’s ratio is 31/9 and gives him a top 10 QB rating in the nation, but there are some glaring reasons why the Mountaineers ranked 13th in Bill Connelly’s S&P ratings on standard downs and 84th on passing downs. Bob Shoop and the Tennessee defense must be aggressive in shutting down outside lanes on first and second down, forcing Lamb into unwanted third downs. Speaking of…

Aggression and talent can beat a good scheme

I’ve already gone at length above on how good the App State blocking schemes are, but a defensive line of Derek Barnett, Kahlil McKenzie, Shy Tuttle, Corey Vereen, Jonathan Kongbo, Kendal Vickers, and LaTroy Lewis do not give a (EXPLETIVE) what type of blocking patterns you run. I can love the Mountaineer offense as much as I want and still know that several well-designed runs will end exactly like the GIF above.

The defense struggled down the stretch

For the first seven games last year, all of App State’s opponents minus Clemson were subject to a bruising and destructive defense. The Mountaineers allowed 12 points per game including the 41–10 Clemson loss. Whether it was depth or regression to the mean, App State slowed quite a bit down the stretch: opponents averaged 25 PPG against the Mountaineers over the final six games. These weren’t the Western Kentuckys of Group of Five play, they gave up 41 points to Troy, 40 to Arkansas State, and 27 to South Alabama. Look at how an otherwise pedestrian Troy offensive line swallows up App State on the read option here: every lineman is turned in the opposite direction and it takes a great play by a safety 15 yards out to limit this to an eight-yard gain. With someone like Jalen Hurd or Alvin Kamara running, that’s not an eight-yard gain, it’s a touchdown.

Again, they’re really going to miss Ronald Blair

The basic formula for beating/hanging with App State last season was this: the pass rush was hellish to block, but if you could hold them off, the rest of the defense was pretty mediocre. This is a really awful defensive breakdown on a third-and-long play because Ohio withstood the Mountaineer pass rush with ease.

Again: neither you nor I can name a single player on Troy, and they passed all over App State for 310 yards (450 total) and 41 points. When they can’t get to the QB, all bets are off: not only is the receiver who catches the ball very open, there’s an underneath route that would’ve picked up the first down too. The App State DBs are very aggressive with the ball, but off of it tend to get lost in space — athleticism is a severe issue, from what I can tell. It also hurts that the best DB by far, Latrell Gibbs, was ruled ineligible for the 2016 season. Gibbs was pretty darn good, and Tennessee can live with not having this happen:

I tried, but couldn’t come up with any positives about the linebackers

I mean, statistically…they weren’t bad, I guess? They had a lot of tackles, some for loss? They combined for five interceptions? They’re fine in the Sun Belt but they’ll be the third-worst group Tennessee plays this season. I don’t know, plays like this showcase the importance of inherent talent and football IQ: Satterfield is awesome, but I don’t think even he can help his linebackers from getting swallowed in by Watson on this play. (It is indeed a gorgeous play on Clemson’s end, from start to finish.)

No real special teams threat

No GIFs here — just know that the Mountaineers lost literally everyone on returns and on place-kicking. Zach Matics was a reliable kicker (14–17, 5–7 40+ 2015) but he graduated. They’ll likely be running out a freshman kicker to start the season. The only returnee is punter Bentlee Critcher, who is very good and can pin teams deep (43.4 avg, 14 fair catches, 11 punts inside the 20). That’s it, though — don’t expect any game-breaking plays coming from the special teams end for App State. If you care, their standard punt formation looks like this:

Depending on how the punt return team lines up, it can either be a spread punt or one that compacts to the middle of the field like what you see above.

CONCLUSIONS

Like I said up top, I didn’t want to underestimate the Mountaineers at all. They’re woefully understocked talent-wise (109th of 129 in talent composite), but they make that up with some brilliant coaching, beauty in aggression, and a generally smart quarterback and halfback pairing. They have the schemes and smarts to turn this into something similar to the 2015 Bowling Green game with a closer-than-it-should-be final score. However, they’re really going to struggle to keep up defensively. They just aren’t on anything resembling a close level athletically at many positions, and only the ineligible Latrell Gibbs could have defended Tennessee’s receivers consistently. App State now has to replace their two best defensive players from 2015, and replacing them efficiently in the first game is an extreme task to request.

The win isn’t a question for Tennessee; it’s more a question of Tennessee’s ability to cover the Las Vegas spread of 21 points (opened at 23.5). Appalachian State’s pace isn’t comparable to Tennessee (a full seven plays slower per game in 2015) and they’ll likely allow more big plays than they’re used to allowing, simply because Tennessee is the best team they’ll have played since Clemson (probably the best team they’ll play this season, period). I lean towards Tennessee winning this somewhere in the neighborhood of 45–23.