Back Inside the Numbers: App State at Georgia Southern

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Inside the Numbers: App State at Georgia Southern

By Jim Johnson
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This may be the first season that the Sun Belt hosts a true conference championship, and the winner won’t be crowned for over a month, but the de facto title game will take place on Thursday, in Statesboro.

Appalachian State and Georgia Southern have long been rivals. Two of the greatest, most important programs in the history of Division I-AA/FCS football, many of the bouts they’ve fought have had rippling implications, but since moving up to the FBS, this will be more meaningful than any matchup yet.

This may be the first season that the Sun Belt hosts a true conference championship, and the winner won’t be crowned for over a month, but the de facto title game will take place on Thursday, in Statesboro.

Both of these teams have already beaten the West division favorite, Arkansas State, and with Troy’s regression since losing its starting quarterback, each squad will be favored in all of their remaining games. It’s not a sure thing, but it feels highly likely that whoever wins this contest will go onto win the inaugural Sun Belt Conference Championship.

Anytime anyone mentions Georgia Southern to the casual observer, the first thing that comes to mind is that option attack. Bob DeBesse, a former Willie Fritz assistant, has reestablished the offensive scheme and philosophy that saw the Eagles become the third program to ever win a conference title in their debut year as an FBS program and the first to ever go unbeaten in league play.

Under DeBesse, the offense has come leaps and bounds from what it was a year ago, but not without some inconsistency. So far, their performances have placed in the following percentiles: 48% vs South Carolina State, 64% vs UMass, 30% at Clemson, 90% vs Arkansas State, 64% vs South Alabama, 11% at Texas State, and 78% at New Mexico State.

Still, overall, the run game has been steady, ranking 34th in marginal efficiency and 41st in marginal explosiveness, behind an offensive line that ranks 20th in standard down line yards per carry, 43rd in percentage of stops allowed at or behind the line of scrimmage, and 19th in percentage of 5+ yard carries.

Leading rusher Wesley Fields is actually the only Georgia Southern ball carrier to gain at least five yards on less than half of his attempts, which is somewhat to be expected on a larger sample size, but he leads their running backs in highlight yards per opportunity, or yards per carry upon reaching the second level. Quarterback Shai Werts has been the teams best big play runner, by marginal explosiveness, and is actually gaining even more highlight yards per carry than Fields.

There’s no lack of depth among the runners, either. Monteo Garrett has as many rushing scores as Fields, and is tied with him for second in marginal explosiveness. Emerging superstar all-purpose dynamo Wesley Kennedy leads the team in yards per carry and highlight yards per opportunity, and burly freshman Logan Wright is tops in both marginal efficiency and percentage of 5+ yard carries.

Most importantly, they also have a nearly 300 pound defensive lineman, C.J. Wright, who has carried the ball five times at a clip of four yards a pop. I am still yet to see a compelling argument that he is not the best running back in the country.

And, though it’s not heavily relied upon, the passing game has been as explosive as one would expect it to be for a team that runs the ball at the second and third highest rates in college football, respectively, on standard and passing downs. Behind Werts’ improvement as a thrower, the Eagles rank 4th in passing marginal explosiveness.

One of the fascinating intricacies of this specific matchup with App State is that because of Georgia Southern’s offensive identity, one of the Mountaineers’ greatest strengths, their defensive backfield’s coverage ability, is effectively dismissed. Granted, star cornerbacks Clifton Duck and Tae Hayes have both been effective in run support, but still, this totally removes a unit that ranks 18th in pass defense S&P+, 37th in marginal efficiency and 17th in marginal explosiveness allowed. And, more so than the corners who will still be involved, this greatly diminishes the value of safety Desmond Franklin who has blossomed into one of the league’s best at the position.

That being said, even with all of the star power in the secondary, because of a lackluster pass rush, Appalachian State’s run defense has actually been even better than the coverage unit.

Ranking 6th in run defense S&P+, 7th in marginal efficiency and 14th in explosiveness allowed, despite placing a more average 50th in standard down line yards, 63rd in stuff rate, and 42nd in percentage of 5+ yard carries allowed, the main reason for their run stopping prowess has been the playmaking linebacking corps which ranks 22nd in havoc rate.

Akeem Davis-Gaither has been the star of the group, having racked up a team high 7.5 run stuffs, but the wealth has been split pretty evenly amongst the starters. Anthony Flory is right behind him with 6.5 run stuffs, followed by Noel Cook who has 4.5 and leads the four in yards per play allowed, while Jordan Fehr has 4 stuffs to go with the group’s best allowed marginal efficiency and explosiveness ratings.

Up front, while the defensive line has been closer to the middle of the pack, nationally, it has hardly been a detriment. Rarely will any one Mountaineer d-lineman’s raw numbers stand out among a crowd, simply due to often those guys rotate, but on a play by play basis, Demetrius Taylor and Jermaine McDaniel are both allowing negative yardage, on average, while Chris Willis and Caleb Spurlin are one and two in marginal explosiveness.

The numerical and schematic matchups within the Georgia Southern-App State matchup present some unique questions.

App’s defense hasn’t really been bent, much less broken, this season. While not making a ton of plays in opposing backfields, it is winning on standard downs, keeping opponents off schedule and forcing them into uncomfortable passing downs, in which they get much more conservative and protect the sticks. How does that translate against a team for whom all downs are run downs?

Georgia Southern often wears defenses down, but will they be able to do so against a team that rotates defensive linemen to the extent that App State does?

Scott Satterfield’s group has gotten by without a ton of playmaking, ranking just 63rd as a unit in havoc rate. Georgia Southern, correspondingly, ranks third in havoc rate allowed. Is that sustainable?

Will Georgia Southern be able to take advantage of App State’s early down aggressiveness, which no one else really has? Not unlike Arkansas State, App flies to the ball, ranking 103rd in percentage of solo tackles. More often than not, that’s a good thing. However, that game against A-State was Georgia Southern’s highest percentile offensive performance of the season so far.

The unit that answers those questions favorably holds the edge.

All in all, Georgia Southern’s offense ranks 54th in S&P+, 73rd in marginal efficiency and 55th in marginal explosiveness, 28th in drive finishing (points per scoring opportunity), 64th in percentage of 20+ yard plays, and 54th in points per drive, excluding garbage time and clock kills.

On the flipside, App State’s defense ranks 22nd in S&P+, 13th in marginal efficiency and 9th in explosiveness allowed, 27th in drive finishing, 4th in percentage of 20+ yard plays, and 15th in points per drive allowed.

The option is known as the great equalizer, and justifiably so, but App has traditionally handled Georgia Southern’s offense well, relative to the Eagles’ average annual performance since joining the FBS. Even so, this offense at its best is as good as it has been in years. At a certain point, it’s almost more a matter of which offense shows up on Thursday.

If the good one does, a shootout may be in the cards, because as solid as Satterfield and company’s defense has performed, the offense has largely matched it.

Stylistically, App and Southern’s offenses are somewhat divergent, but philosophically, many of the same tenets are held, as the latter ranks 18th in standard down run rate. It can’t be overstated what a blow the loss of star running back Jalin Moore was to this team, not only from a production standpoint, but from a leadership perspective. In his stead, though, Darrynton Evans has performed admirably, and even offers a level of menace at the second level beyond what even Moore could provide.

Still, for what Evans adds in the explosiveness column, he gives up as far as efficiency, compared to Moore, gaining at least five yards on 5% fewer carries.

Behind an offensive line that ranks just 48th in standard down line yards per carry, 70th in percentage of 5+ yard carries blocked for, and 83rd in stops allowed at or behind the line of scrimmage, App State ranks only 86th in marginal efficiency, but 3rd in marginal explosiveness.

It really helps matters that quarterback Zac Thomas is able to contribute to the extent that he has. His six touchdowns are tied with more for the team lead, and though he doesn’t lead any other individual category, he’s amongst the top of the team charts in nearly all of them.

Even so, he’s doing most of his damage through the air. With him behind center, App State ranks 29th in passing S&P+, 8th in marginal efficiency and 50th in explosiveness, and the protection has been much better than the run blocking, ranking 16th in allowed sack rate.

Obviously, the receiving corps, too, has been more efficient than explosive, and all four the most targeted options are at least at the national average in marginal efficiency. With the exception of Corey Sutton, the other three are notably above the mean, but even though Sutton has been more hit or miss than his counterparts, he has emerged as arguably the top big play receiver in the conference. As far as combined efficiency and explosiveness, the surprise standout has been senior Dominique Heath. Alongside the trio of sophomores: Sutton Thomas Hennigan, and Malik Williams, Appalachian State’s passing attack is one of the most effective in the game.

Georgia Southern’s defense, comparatively, presents an interesting challenge. Extremely bend-don’t-break against both the run and the pass, the Eagles may need to be more aggressive to slow down Thomas through the air.

Right now, they rank 73rd in passing marginal efficiency allowed, but led by the studly cornerback duo of Monquavion Brinson and Kindle Vildor, are in the top 20 in marginal explosiveness. Paired with a pass rush that ranks 38th in sack rate, albeit against App’s stellar protection, it may be worth it to dial up a some heavier blitzes and play more press than they have to this point, even at the expense of a few Sutton chunk gains.

The run defense should fair a little batter as currently constituted, given that App State has relied so heavily on big plays in that respect. Georgia Southern is 111th in rushing marginal efficiency allowed, but once more is in the top 25 in explosiveness.

Logan Hunt is currently the only defender on the team with at least six run stuffs, but the recent emergence of inside linebacker Chris Harris could help to bolster the playmaking, as he has already posted five on a much more limited sample size, and is allowing the fewest yards per play of any Southern linebacker. Raymond Johnson is right behind those two as far as marginal efficiency and is allowing the second fewest yards per play, after sophomore defensive lineman Quan Griffin. Still, overall, the d-line and linebacking corps rank 73rd and 95th, respectively, in havoc rate. The secondary, which ranks 23rd in that respect, is the strength of this team and has earned the opportunity to showcase its talents with less of a safety net.

Altogether, App State’s offense ranks 23rd in S&P+, 38th in marginal efficiency and 7th in explosiveness, 23rd in drive finishing, 53rd in percentage of 20+ yard plays, and 11th in points per drive.

Georgia Southern’s defense ranks 91st in S&P+, 98th in marginal efficiency and 12th in explosiveness allowed, 40th in drive finishing, 42nd in percentage of 20+ yard plays allowed, and 33rd in points per drive allowed.

Frankly, the combined metrics don’t loom great for Georgia Southern, but that’s partly a schematic byproduct of being so conservative. It’s not like it’s not ultimately working. And the arguably the biggest reason that it is working is how opportunistic that defense is. Only six teams have forced more turnovers this season, and unlike, say, Kansas or LSU, two of the teams ahead of them who have had incredible turnover luck, Georgia Southern ranks 1st in expected turnover margin. That’s the key, sustainability.

App has been good with respect to offensive turnovers, and are only slightly above their projected margin, but the turnover battle still clearly favors Georgia Southern on paper, and the team that wins that wins the game 73% of the time.

That’s sort of the story for this Georgia Southern turnaround. Whereas App State has been dominant all season, Chad Lunsford’s group has been occasionally dominant but more often has done just enough, made just enough plays to win.

At the end of the day, that’s the name of the game. In the words of Bill Parcells, “you are what your record says you are,” and both of these teams are one loss squads with those losses coming to P5 powers.

It’s also worth mentioning that App State has had its two worst offensive percentile performances of the season in its last two consecutive games. Maybe it’s an aberration, but just maybe Georgia Southern is catching them at the right time.

The special teams battle should also favor Georgia Southern. App State has been perfectly fine on special teams, ranking 43rd in combined special teams S&P+, 53rd in field goal value per kick, 80th in punting, 19th on kickoffs, 51st on punt returns, and 14th on kick returns. However, Georgia Southern has been perfectly elite, at 14th in S&P+, 5th in field goal value per kick, 71st in punting, 78th on kickoffs, 20th on punt returns, and 44th on kick returns.

This is another huge reason for Georgia Southern’s success. They are dominating the field position battle, ranking 2nd in average offensive starting field position and 17th in defensive starting field position. App State is in the top 25 in both, but they don’t want to get into a field position battle with a team that possesses a weapon like Tyler Bass.

If App State shows up and plays to its full potential, while Georgia Southern’s offense turns up on the bad side of the coin flip, this could very well be another multiple score win for the Mountaineers.

However, if the performances minus Jalin Moore are in fact indicative of a trend, Georgia Southern forces a couple of turnovers and wins the field position battle, the magical season in Statesboro may just be getting started.

In any rivalry, things are always apt to get a little weird. It is college football, after all. Factor in an option team against a squad that once looked like an unstoppable juggernaut, but is starting to show cracks in the armor, and a fascinating contest, if nothing else, is almost a guarantee.

And that’ll be about the only guarantee when these two titans of collegiate history take the field on Thursday, effectively with the Sun Belt title on the line.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP