App State prepared for Hurricanes’ speed

The Mountaineers will try and earn a Power Five win when they visit Miami

Tight end Miller Gibbs and Appalachian State will look to build off last week's win over East Carolina and pull off an upset when the Mountaineers play Saturday at Miami. (Chris Carlson / AP Photo)

There’s a buzz around college football that Miami should be on upset alert against Appalachian State on Saturday based on the results of last week’s season-opening games.

Mountaineers coach Shawn Clark isn’t buying it.

While he’s confident in his team and its chances against the Hurricanes in the nationally televised matchup at Hard Rock Stadium, he understands there’s no comparison between a win against East Carolina — no matter how impressive it might have been — and a blowout loss to the best team in the country.

“I know the score didn’t look good for Miami,” Clark said Monday of the Hurricanes’ 44-13 dismantling at the hands of No. 1 Alabama. “But they have an unbelievable football team with a lot of talent.

“I can’t tell you how fast they are. They’ve got big guys up front, great running backs, great receivers, their quarterback is outstanding, their kicking game is great. There are really no holes that I see on their team except that they played Alabama. We have our work cut out for us on Saturday.”

As respectful as Clark is of the Hurricanes, neither he nor his team will be intimidated by either the opposition or the surroundings Saturday.

The Mountaineers have a long history of playing on even terms with Power Five teams, including road victories at UNC and South Carolina as recently as 2019.

They’re also an experienced group, with 13 players — including nine starters — returning for a second senior season thanks to the extra year of eligibility given to them by the NCAA in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Included in that group is receiver Corey Sutton, a first-team preseason All-Sun Belt Conference selection last year before opting out as a COVID precaution, and offensive lineman Baer Hunter, a member of this year’s preseason first-team.

App State ranked in the top 20 nationally last season in both scoring defense and total defense, and its running game is explosive. The duo of Camerun Peoples and Nate Noel averaged better than 7 yards per carry against the Pirates last week while rushing for more than 100 yards each.

From a statistical standpoint, the disparity in the teams isn’t that wide. The biggest difference, according to Clark, is speed.

“That’s the main thing I keep talking about all the time,” the App State coach said. “They can run sideline-to-sideline and some of those 50-yard gains you might see turn into 10-yard gains because they can track you down from the backside.”

Preparing for that kind of speed is the most challenging aspect of pregame preparations for Clark and his staff.

“We’ll come up with a great plan for that, but you can’t replicate team speed,” Clark said. “We have a fast football team. They have a faster football team. Our guys see it, they know what’s going on. It’s one of those situations that you have to know what you’re getting into before the game starts.”

At least some of the Mountaineers already have experience in what they’re going to face against Miami. Several team members, including receivers Thomas Hennigan and Malik Williams, played against the Hurricanes in 2016 when the ACC team came to Boone.

Despite a record crowd at Kidd Brewer Stadium for the highly anticipated game, things didn’t go well for App State. Miami scored a touchdown on the opening play and never looked back on the way to a 45-10 victory.

Quarterback Chase Brice has also seen action against the Hurricanes, both as a backup at Clemson and as a starter last season at Duke. Although he completed 20 of 25 passes in that game, he managed just 94 passing yards and the Blue Devils were shut out in a 45-0 loss.

Brice got off to an encouraging start with his third team in three years, throwing for 259 yards and two touchdowns in his App State debut. The key to his success was his ability to limit turnovers, something that plagued him last season with the Blue Devils.

Ball protection will be especially important this week against a team the caliber of Miami.

“One thing we talked about with Chase all through the summer and last week is, ‘You don’t have to win the football game.’ We have to manage the football game,” Clark said. “If you look at our games from years past, what gets us in trouble are when we turn the football over and presnap penalties. I’m very pleased with where he is right now, but he has a lot of room for improvement like we all do.”