App State seeks redemption — and tries to stay perfect — against Sun Belt foe Georgia Southern

A year ago, the Eagles knocked off the ranked Mountaineers after knocking out quarterback Zac Thomas

Quarterback Zac Thomas leads Appalachian State’s high-powered offense, which ranks first in the Sun Belt Conference with 41 points per game. (Brian Blanco / AP Photo)

Almost exactly a year ago, on a Thursday night in Statesboro, Georgia, the Appalachian State football team stepped onto a football field as a ranked team for the first time in its short FBS history.

It left having absorbed a 34-14 beatdown by Sun Belt Conference rival Georgia Southern in a game that saw star quarterback Zac Thomas go down with an injury just three plays after the opening kickoff.

Rarely, if ever, does a team get a chance at a do-over after such a deflating defeat. The Mountaineers will come as close as you can get this Thursday when the Eagles come to Boone for a nationally televised rematch at Kidd Brewer Stadium.

There are some major differences, of course, most notably that Eliah Drinkwitz has taken over for Scott Satterfield as App State’s coach.

But Thomas is back and in command of the Sun Belt’s highest-scoring offense at 41 points per game. The Mountaineers are also ranked once again at No. 20. This time, though, there’s even more on the line than the East Division lead and an inside track to the conference championship game in December.

At 7-0 (4-0 in the conference) with a win against FBS North Carolina to its credit, App State needs to win to stay in contention to earn a spot in one of the prestigious New Year’s Six bowl games.

Not that Drinkwitz is thinking that far ahead.

“For our team, for us this season, it’s a divisional game, in-conference,” Drinkwitz said at his regular weekly press conference Monday. “If we want to get where we want to go, which is to win the Sun Belt Conference Championship and a bowl game with class, integrity and academic example, (Georgia Southern) stands in our way.

“I don’t want to make it any bigger than that. I don’t want to make it any less than that. It’s a big game because if we want to win the conference championship, we’ve got to beat these guys.”

Although Georgia Southern in only 4-3 overall, its 2-1 record in the Sun Belt puts it in second place behind the Mountaineers. The Eagles also present a unique challenge in that they run the triple option, an attack led by multitalented quarterback Shain Werts that gave App State — whose defense is currently ranked No. 1 in the conference — fits a year ago.

Speaking of that game a year ago, a reporter noticed that a replay of it was playing on a television at the Mountaineers’ football facility prior to Drinkwitz’s press conference Monday.

When the reporter asked the first-year Mountaineers coach if there was any significance to that, Drinkwitz simply smiled, nodded and said, “I haven’t mentioned it, but if it’s on the TV …”

While sidestepping the subject of motivation, Drinkwitz acknowledged that the Eagles are an opponent his team can’t afford to take lightly.

“They obviously have a tremendous scheme on offense that they’ve been good at for a very long time,” he said. “Their defensive scheme and talent is very good (too). We know what this game means and the significance it has for us.”

The matchup took on even greater significance aside from the Sun Belt Conference and national ranking implications last week when Georgia Southern freshman offensive lineman Jordan Wiggins was found dead in his dorm room in what is being ruled a suicide by overdose.

It’s a situation Drinkwitz addressed by extending his program’s condolences to Wiggins’ family and the Eagles.

“Our hearts, our thoughts and prayers are with them as they go through this,” he said. “I know (Georgia Southern Coach Chad Lunsford) personally. I know he’s a great leader and a great man, and I know he’ll lead their team in the right way through this. It’s bigger than football.”