Thursday night’s football game between Appalachian State and East Carolina at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium is more just a matchup of in-state programs. It’s a rare opportunity for the Mountaineers and Pirates to step out of the shadow cast by their higher-profile ACC rivals and get some national attention of their own.
“It’s going to be a great game, in-state, East Carolina,” App State coach Shawn Clark said. “I think it’s great for our state, those rivalries that our fans can get to. Who wants to play in a stadium that’s not close to being packed? Now we’re going to play in Charlotte with a great crowd, a great showing for both universities. We’re excited about it.”
Coach Mike Houston and his Pirates are just as fired up about renewing a rivalry that dates back to 1932 when both were members of the Southern Conference.
And not just because of the venue, the exposure or the potential recruiting benefits that come with beating another in-state program that targets many of the same players.
Entering his third year in Greenville with high hopes after ending 2020 on a two-game winning streak, Houston is looking at the matchup with the Mountaineers — one of the top non-Power 5 programs in college football — as a potential springboard toward ECU’s first winning season since 2014.
“I think it’s a measuring stick from the standpoint that I think they have a quality team right now,” Houston said. “You look at the success they’ve had the last couple of years and these guys are the ones that have been playing. I’m sure that they’re expecting a chance to have a special season this year.
“We’re excited about what we have. So I think certainly it will be something that tells us what we have and it’ll tell us where we stand.”
The Pirates return 10 starters on offense and nine on defense among the 59 lettermen on their roster, eight of which are seniors taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA.
App State, however, is just as experienced. And unlike ECU, the Mountaineers’ veteran nucleus — which includes running back Camerun Peoples, who rushed for 300 yards and five touchdowns in last year’s Myrtle Beach Bowl — is experienced at winning.
App State has claimed five straight bowl victories, won three Sun Belt Conference championships, beaten Power 5 opponents North Carolina and South Carolina, and earned a spot in the national rankings since transitioning to the FBS in 2014. And the program has done it all while going through three coaches in a four-year span.
Despite a challenging schedule, which includes a trip to Miami next week, expectations are high for another successful season in Boone.
“I like where our team is at right now,” Clark said. “It helps having sixth-year guys back to help the younger guys out and understand the magnitude of playing college football. Our goal is to be 1-0. Our focus is on East Carolina. We’re not looking ahead, not looking at last year, but to make sure we’re prepared for this game.”
If there’s one area in which the Pirates have a distinct advantage it’s at quarterback, where Holton Ahlers returns for his third season as the starter. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound junior already ranks sixth on ECU’s all-time list for passing yards (7,093) and third in touchdown passes (51), and he is coming off a breakout season in which he completed a career-best 61.3% of his passes.
App State, by contrast, will be under new leadership after the graduation of its own three-year starter, Zac Thomas.
Clark and the Mountaineers are hoping that Thomas’ replacement Chase Brice, who started his career as a backup at Clemson, can bounce back from leading the nation with 22 turnovers last year in his only season at Duke.
“He hasn’t done anything for us to feel bad about,” Clark said. “He’s got an outstanding arm, he throws the ball with great velocity, he’s getting better at decision-making and he’s got some good weapons to throw the ball to. Our message to Chase is to throw it to the right person, and he’s been great in fall camp.”
Thursday night’s matchup is the first of four scheduled between ECU and App State. Although the schools have played 32 previous times, this will be their second meeting since 1979 and the first in which both programs are members of the FBS.
“Long term, two in-state, state-supported institutions,” ECU’s Houston said, “I think it’s going to develop into what should be a great rivalry.”