Appalachian State quarterback Zac Thomas vowed that the Mountaineers would bounce back after getting upset three weeks ago by rival Georgia Southern, a loss that threatened to tarnish an otherwise memorable season.
And bounce back they have.
The No 23 Mountaineers (9-1) have won back-to-back games over South Carolina and Georgia State to put themselves back in the driver’s seat to win a fourth straight Sun Belt Conference championship. The Mountaineers got some help when Troy upended Georgia Southern, which nullified the Eagles’ head-to-head tiebreaker.
Now it’s a matter of beating Texas State (3-7), a 30-point underdog, on Saturday and Troy the following week to reach the championship game.
Thomas, who is 19-3 as App State’s starting QB, has sparked the turnaround, throwing for 361 yards and scoring six touchdowns in the last two weeks — including a career-high four TD passes last week against Georgia State — helping the Mountaineers regain sole possession of first place in the Sun Belt’s Eastern Division.
Coach Eli Drinkwitz said Thomas’ ability to put the negative behind him is a huge plus. Last week Thomas threw an early interception, ran to the sideline and told everyone “Hey, that’s on me. We’re going to get it back.”
Thomas went on to throw four TDs and the Mountaineers routed Georgia State, 56-27.
“I was extremely proud of Zac,” Drinkwitz said. “And the next drive, he stepped up and made a big-time throw on an in-cut with pressure and then handled tempo well. I think his best attribute is his competitive nature. I don’t necessarily think it has to be him running the football that gets him going. I think it’s just when he positively affects the game."
Some other things to watch Saturday between the Bobcats and Mountaineers:
HEAR THAT, COACH
Drinkwitz is hoping he can stay out of the line of fire Saturday after getting run over by Mountaineers offensive lineman Noah Hannon last week on the sideline. The injury left Drinkwitz with a laceration behind his ear that required 12 stitches.
“I’m fine now and all is well. But for the record, I did finish the game,” Drinkwitz joked. “They did not do a concussion test, and I was proud of the toughness that I displayed in that moment."
Drinkwitz joked that he would have liked to have received a hand from Hannon after getting knocked around, but said “he looked up and saw that it was me when he ran over and he turned and ran right back. Didn’t even offer to help me up. I think he knew, ‘Oh crap, I’m going to be in trouble.’”
Texas State is a 30-point underdog coming into the game after losing 63-27 loss at home to Troy last weekend, its fourth loss in five games. The Bobcats are managing just 18.7 points per game and quarterback Gresch Jensen is questionable to play on Saturday due to a concussion. Tyler Vitt, who has thrown 12 interceptions, will get the start if the Jensen can’t go.
The Bobcats will play a 3-3 stack defense employing a “rover” over them middle, a scheme similar to what Iowa State uses. That is not a look that the Mountaineers have seen this season and could potentially cause some problems, Drinkwitz said. “Normally, when you’re talking to your quarterback about identifying coverages, you’re identifying it based off the weak safety rotation,” Drinkwitz said. “Now there’s not necessarily a weak safety rotation because there’s a middle-field safety.”
The Mountaineers will get defensive lineman Elijah Diarrassouba back after missing last week’s game with a knee injury. That should be a big boost to the Appalachian State defense, especially against at pass-oriented offense in Texas State. The Mountaineers are 21st in the nation in scoring defense at 19.9 points per game allowed.
Drinkwitz praised the team’s 17-member senior class, which will be honored before kickoff. That includes five players from the 2015 class who have won four bowl games and three Sun Belt Conference championships.
“Extremely proud of this group of men,” Drinkwitz said. “To deal with the change that they’ve dealt with, not only from helping this university transition from I-AA to FBS program, but also to deal with the coaching change. These guys are to be commended. Not only are they great football players and have been championship-level players, they’ve also done an excellent job in the classroom.”