Mountaineers look to stake claim as NC’s best team

Appalachian State’s trip to Chapel Hill gives first-year coach Eliah Drinkwitz an opportunity to face veteran Mack Brown

Appalachian State defensive back Shaun Jolly (3) celebrates with teammates after an interception against Charlotte (Allison Lee Isley / The Winston-Salem Journal via AP)

Football coaches are prone to exaggeration, especially when discussing the merits of an upcoming opponent. But in the case of North Carolina’s Mack Brown this week, his comments about Appalachian State might just be right on the money.

“When you start looking at App State, look at what their seniors accomplished the last few years. It’s the best in our state,” Brown said Monday at his regular weekly press conference. “App State’s good enough they could be in the ACC. They’re that talented.”

The Mountaineers have compiled a 19-9 record with three Sun Belt Conference championships over the past three seasons. Even though they’ve transitioned from the leadership of Scott Satterfield to new coach Eliah Drinkwitz, they don’t appear to have missed a beat this year.

Their veteran offense is averaging 49 points per game in its first two outings — wins against East Tennessee State and Charlotte — and with a week off to prepare for their first trip to Kenan Stadium since 1940, the Mountaineers are poised to take advantage of this opportunity to raise their stature among the state’s seven FBS programs.

It’s an important game for App State on a number of levels, not the least of which is bragging rights on one of its highest-profile rivals. That’s why Drinkwitz is doing his best to try and dial down the hype surrounding it.

“This is a great game for us as far as a program and an opportunity to play an ACC opponent at their place, so obviously that’s a lot of fun,” the former NC State offensive coordinator said. “But at the end of the day, it’s one of 12 opportunities to play the game. For our team, our mindset, every day is as important as the next day and every game is as important as the next game.”

That might be the case in the context of the Mountaineers’ effort to win another Sun Belt title, but this game has implications far beyond things such as bowl bids, conference standings and potential votes in the national polls.

This is an opportunity for the little brother to get the best of his older, bigger and more respected older sibling.

The matchup has taken on even greater significance because of the Tar Heels’ early resurgence under Brown, their own new/old coach. Even with last Friday’s loss at Wake Forest, UNC is off to a better than expected start at 2-1 in Brown’s return to Chapel Hill, with wins against South Carolina and ACC Coastal foe Miami.

Despite both teams having first-year coaches and the 68-year-old Brown having not even been born the last time the schools played in football, there’s still plenty of familiarity between the programs.

Drinkwitz, in particular, should have a thorough knowledge of UNC’s personnel from having game-planned against them — and beaten them — in all three of his seasons with the Wolfpack.

“I don’t know if that helps any. I just have a great respect for the players they have,” Drinkwitz said. “They played us as tough as anybody last year, took us to overtime.

“But obviously they’ve got a new energy, a new scheme and they’re using those players in a lot of different ways. … I don’t know if it helps other than to understand how good of football players they are and exactly how big of a challenge it is for us to go play and compete against them.”

One thing the Mountaineers have going for them is that they’re coming off an open date that has given them an extra week to prepare for the Tar Heels.

“Anytime you get a chance to practice, you get a leg up,” Drinkwitz said. “You get to repeat some days, so we had the base game plan in Thursday and we were able to take (UNC’s) Friday night game, digest it on Saturday and finalize some game plan stuff for yesterday’s practice. And you feel like you’ve got extra rep.

“Ultimately, Saturday will be a tell in whether or not it paid off for us. But I felt good about it. It was good. Our guys had great attitudes and it was enjoyable to be on the football field.”

App State will also get a boost from the return of star wide receiver Corey Sutton, who led the Sun Belt with 10 touchdown catches a year ago. Sutton has been suspended for the first two games after his arrest for marijuana possession this summer.

His presence on the field will give the Mountaineers’ yet another offensive weapon for the Tar Heels to try and stop, along with quarterback Zac Thomas, last year’s Sun Belt Player of the Year, and 1,000-yard rusher Darrynton Evans.

“I think we’ll see this weekend how much we learned from last weekend,” UNC’s Brown said. “Appalachian State’s got really good players that are going to come in with high energy.”