Chapel Hill, N.C. — OK, I want to make it clear I was not around on the one occasion UNC hosted Appalachian State, way back in 1940. But I have followed Appalachian football since my son went to school there in the late 1990s. During that time App has progressed from perennial Southern Conference power to FCS National Champion to dominant team in the Sunbelt Conference, and that’s an FBS league.
The Mountaineers will play anyone anywhere. Since Appalachian’s one-of-a-kind victory at Michigan in 2007, the program has taken on LSU, Virginia Tech, Florida, Georgia, Michigan again and Clemson. App didn’t win any of those games but memorably took Tennessee to overtime in 2016, and probably should have won that game. Lots of schools try to upgrade from the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly 1AA) to the Football Bowl Subdivision. Few institutions have made the transition as successfully as Appalachian.
This is a season of transition in Boone. For the first time in three decades neither Jerry Moore, the architect of the App program, nor his protégé Scott Satterfield, who both played for and coached under Moore before taking the reins himself (Satterfield went 47-16 at App, all during the upgrade in competition) is at the helm. Enter Eli Drinkwitz, the 36-year-old wonderkid who presided over the offense at NC State along with the quarterback who followed him from Boise State, Ryan Finley.
Drinkwitz, who hails from Arkansas, broke into coaching at Auburn in 2010, the year the Tigers won the national championship. He followed his mentor, Gus Malzahn, to Arkansas State in 2012, then took off for Boise in 2014.
Everyone knows what Auburn did with Cam Newton at quarterback in 2010, with Malzahn calling the shots and Drinkwitz assisting. But check out Arkansas State in 2012. The Red Wolves ranked 23rd in the entire country in rushing with Drinkwitz coaching the running backs. Drinkwitz worked with quarterbacks and became offensive coordinator at Boise in 2014 and 2015. Those offenses ranked ninth nationally in scoring and among the top 15 in total offense. Drinkwitz’s most recent offense at NC State ranked third in the ACC in total offense and scoring offense, while leading the entire league in passing, with 313 yards per game.
When Satterfield left Appalachian to become head coach at Louisville, Drinkwitz jumped at the chance to succeed him. I had the opportunity to spend some time with Drinkwitz, then just a few months into his first head coaching job, at the ACC’s annual Mountain Golf Outing. I asked him what stood out most about his new surroundings in Boone. He didn’t hesitate: “The passion of the fan base.” He also told me about plans to tweak the offense. App State ran the spread under Satterfield, but it was a simpler version. Drinkwitz allowed that he had to be careful not to give his new players “too much too soon” in the transition to his more complex schemes. I asked Drinkwitz about his favorite play call, expecting to hear about some sophisticated pass patterns or even a gadget play. Nope. “Power series,” he said.
After throwing the ball all over the lot at NC State, Drinkwitz is back to running the football this season. Appalachian averages 276 yards per game on the ground, converting a most-impressive 52% of its third downs. Running back Darrynton Evans is the primary threat, averaging a whopping 10 yards per carry and 167 yards per game.
Quarterback Zac Thomas can certainly throw it, completing 68% of his passes with five touchdowns. The Mountaineers average 175 yards per game through the air, but – get this – they have thrown it just 22 times per game. Overall, Appalachian averages 49 points per contest, 14 touchdowns in two weeks.
Granted, these numbers came against East Tennessee and Charlotte, though the 49ers appear to have a program that is up and coming. It is safe to say Appalachian has not faced a defense like North Carolina’s.
Breakdown: App offense vs. UNC defense
Defense may be the surprise story thus far in Chapel Hill this season. After years of ranking near the bottom of the ACC in most defensive categories, the program has seen an uptick in 2019, moving up to ninth in the ACC in total defense and seventh in scoring defense, allowing a respectable 23 points per game. The Tar Heels are still vulnerable to the run, a scary prospect against Appalachian, but co-defensive coordinator Jay Bateman has found schemes that create some big plays defensively. The Tar Heels have three interceptions (4th in ACC), and they average almost three sacks per game. This unit has been particularly good on third down (just 29% of conversions allowed, 4th in ACC) and in the red zone (75% conversion rate tied 3rd in ACC). UNC got steamrolled for about 18 minutes at Wake Forest, but then shut the Deacons out for the next 41 minutes. Only in the final minute did Wake score again, and that was a field goal. No other defense has contained the Deacons’ high-powered attack this season as UNC did for most of three quarters.
App will no doubt be able to run the football against UNC. The question is how long and how well.
It wouldn’t surprise me if App mounts a couple of good drives to start the game. The Drinkwitz offense is something new. Many UNC players remember his teams at NC State, but those teams were more pass-oriented. Most on UNC’s coaching staff have not seen Drinkwitz’s schemes live. There may be some similarities to the Wake Forest offense, though in Appalachian’s version of the spread Zac Thomas does not run like Jamie Newman. (Who does?) But Evans’ numbers in the backfield are better than any Wake Forest running back. Remember that. Thomas’ passing percentage is similar to Newman’s, but, happily for UNC, App does not have big, dynamic receivers like Sage Surratt and Scotty Washington. (Again, who does?)
Still, Appalachian finds ways to move the ball, and the Mountaineers do not turn the ball over. App has punted just eight times in two games. North Carolina must find ways to make App punt the football. Above all, the Tar Heels cannot give up the big play, and note here: Evans has a touchdown run of 87 yards to his credit. UNC may not reach its normal third-down percentage. That would mean stopping Appalachian 71% of the time. But I think to win the Tar Heels will have to get off the field on third down at least 60-65% of the time. Also, they need to continue their stellar play in the red zone. In 12 red zone trips, UNC has allowed just nine scores and only five touchdowns. If the Tar Heels can limit App’s trips to the red zone and then make the Mountaineers kick field goals (App is 0-1 in 2019), I like their chances in this game. But that’s a big if.
Breakdown UNC offense vs. App defense
Going the other direction, the big question is whether UNC can run the football. The Tar Heel ground game was terrific against South Carolina, but has struggled since center Nick Polino got hurt early in the Miami game. The Tar Heels did ultimately gain 144 yards on the ground at Wake Forest, but nearly all of that came in the second half. Given the strength we’ll see from the Appalachian offense, especially in the early going, a slow start from Michael Carter and the Williamses, Javonte and Antonio, could spell trouble for UNC.
The good news for Carolina fans is that App State has allowed 180 yards per game rushing, even against East Tennessee and Charlotte. The Mountaineers allow even more yards through the air, which should help Sam Howell get off to a better start than we saw against Wake. Surprisingly, App allows 409 yards per game in total offense, while gaining 451, that’s a margin of just 42 yards. However, Ted Roof’s defense has allowed just seven touchdowns while giving up all those yards.
UNC has fared well in the red zone, converting all 11 trips inside the 20 yard line, with five touchdowns and six field goals. The Heels, however, will need touchdowns against this high scoring opponent. Also, UNC must get to the red zone with more regularity. That will require a big improvement in third down execution. Through three games, UNC moves the chains only about one time in five. The Tar Heels’ third down conversion rate , a paltry 21%, ranks dead last in the ACC.
I have known Ted Roof since he served as linebacker coach on Barry Wilson’s staff at Duke in 1990. He is a player’s coach. Roof has put together defenses at Massachusetts, Duke (he was DC from 2000-2003), Minnesota, Penn State and Georgia Tech (his alma mater) twice. Roof was the defensive coordinator for Auburn’s 2010 national championship team. That’s where he and Drinkwitz first became acquainted. Small world! UNC’s Tommy Thigpen, who co-coordinates the UNC defense with Bateman, was also on that Auburn staff.
Roof’s defenses are typically well-coached. His players compete hard for him. UNC must match that effort. This can’t be like the first 18 minutes of the Wake Forest game, nor can the Tar Heels afford to start thinking about Clemson’s visit a Saturday hence. UNC has a path to victory: Don’t give up the big play on defense; run the ball effectively on offense. But the path to victory could be obstructed if the Tar Heels don’t play with great intensity. Appalachian will bring it.