BOONE, N.C. —
Sun Belt champion Appalachian State (10-2) will face Conference USA runner-up Middle Tennessee (8-5) tonight in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.
The game, which will be available on ESPN and ESPN Radio, will be played in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome
at 8 p.m. CT (9 p.m. ET).
To break down the bowl showdown, we'll look at how the App State defense matches up with Middle Tennessee's offense and how the App State offense matches up with Middle Tennessee's defense.
App State Defense vs. Middle Tennessee Offense
The Mountaineers have one of the nation's top defenses. Middle Tennessee counters with one of the nation's most productive quarterbacks in left-handed senior Brent Stockstill
, who is No. 1 among active FBS quarterbacks with 105 career touchdown passes and No. 2 with 12,165 career passing yards.
"They use a lot of unique formations, ideas, and do a lot of stuff that will make you prepare all week long," interim App State head coach Mark Ivey
said. "They use a lot of schemes that are putting people in different positions where it's not your normal defensive alignment that you can use. It creates a lot of preparation, creates a lot of things the kids have to think about, memorize and get comfortable with."
App State has allowed less than 20 points in all 10 wins this year, and discarding a non-offensive TD by Coastal Carolina, has given up 10.2 points per game in those 10 wins.
The Mountaineers rank in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense (No. 6, 15.7 points), total defense (No. 6, 279.3 yards), passing defense (No. 3, 148.1 yards), passing efficiency defense (No. 2, 98.01), yards allowed per pass attempt (No. 2, 5.3), defensive three-and-out percentage (No. 3, 42.4), third-down conversion percentage (No. 5, 30.0) and first downs allowed (No. 4, 184).
Those numbers are the byproduct of strong play at every level, from a rotation of linemen who apply pressure and handle their responsibilities, to the linebackers who fit correctly and make stops, all the way back to the "Legion of Boone" secondary that has provided blanket coverage and helped the Mountaineers intercept 15 passes.
App State's top four tacklers are starting linebackers Akeem Davis-Gaither
, Anthony Flory
, Jordan Fehr
and Noel Cook
, with Davis-Gaither, Flory and Fehr all ranking among the top four in tackles by Sun Belt players from bowl-bound teams. Dale Jones
, who has coached the inside linebackers and served as the co-defensive coordinator during his 23rd season with the program, will act as the defensive coordinator for Ivey during the bowl game. Jones filled that role at App State from 2010-12.
, who is arguably the best run-fitter in the world if you're arguing with me, has been a mainstay here for 23 years and does a great job with the defense," Ivey said.
Middle Tennessee's Stockstill
, whose father, Rick, is the Blue Raiders' head coach, has thrown 28 touchdown passes, tossed just eight interceptions, completed 70.5 percent of his passes and averaged 247.2 yards through the air per game for an offense that scores 29.2 points per game. Leading receiver Ty Lee (5-foot-9, 178 pounds) has 67 catches for 828 yards and seven touchdowns, and the team's top rusher is Chaton Mobley with 47.3 yards per game.
Eight different Middle Tennessee receivers have a catch of at least 43 yards this season, and App State's defense has allowed just nine plays of 30-plus yards, including two passes of at least 43 yards. With interceptions by Tae Hayes
and Josh Thomas
in the Sun Belt title game, the Mountaineers have 71 picks in the last four seasons, a total that is one behind first-place San Diego State's mark in the same span of time.
App State Offense vs. Middle Tennessee Defense
The Mountaineers have one of the nation's most explosive, big-play offenses. Consider that they rank in the top 15 nationally in several categories, including:
Evans is No. 3 with five runs of 50-plus yards and No. 4 with 15 runs of 20-plus yards
* Zac Thomas
is No. 11 with 10 rushing touchdowns from the quarterback position, including scores of 35 and 25 yards in the Sun Belt Championship Game to go along with TD runs of 62 and 54 yards earlier in the season
* App State is No. 11 at 5.72 yards per rush, part of why the Mountaineers are No. 15 at 241.0 rushing yards per game
* Leading receiver Corey Sutton
is No. 15 at 19.3 yards per reception, highlighted by nine receptions of at least 30 yards
Averaging 36.7 points and 429.6 yards of offense per game, the Mountaineers will have co-offensive coordinator Shawn Clark
calling the plays against a Middle Tennessee defense that gives up an average 25.3 points and 372.9 yards, including 213.1 through the air.
"You definitely get some looks that are out of the ordinary," offensive tackle Victor Johnson
said. "They blitz a lot, go zero coverage (with no deep safety), so if we can pick it up, that can be a big play."
The Blue Raiders are opportunistic with four defensive touchdowns (sixth-best nationally) and a plus-six turnover margin in the past seven games. Middle Tennessee scored 60 points off turnovers and allowed only 11 during its eight-game league schedule, as it forced 13 turnovers in the last five league games.
The top playmaker
on that side of the ball is senior safety Wesley Bush, who ranks third nationally with six interceptions, including touchdown returns of 75 yards against UTEP and 37 yards against Old Dominion. Strong safety Reed Blankenship leads the team with 101 tackles, while linebacker DQ Thomas has accounted for 8.0 of the team's 36 sacks and 14.5 of its 89 tackles for loss. The defensive line is coached by Tommy West, who worked at App State as a receivers and tight ends coach from 1980-81.
The run game has continued to be productive for App State, which has a 1,000-yard back for the seventh straight season even though Evans didn't become the primary back until the fifth game, and Thomas has 11 total touchdowns (seven passing) with no interceptions since returning to the lineup four games ago. They'll attempt to continue their award-winning play against a defense that allowed 21.1 points per game aside from losses to SEC opponents Vanderbilt (35-7), Georgia (49-7) and Kentucky (34-23).