STATESBORO — The newcomers to Georgia Southern’s football program are quick studies when it comes to “Hate Week.”
They have to be as the Eagles host their biggest rival, Appalachian State, in Saturday’s regular-season finals at 6 p.m. at Paulson Stadium (ESPN+).
“I can definitely say that it means a lot to all the players here,” said defenseman Wylan Free, a sixth-year player who transferred from Fresno State this season.
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While California native Free came to Statesboro from the West Coast, quarterback Kyle Vantrease was a sophomore growing up in Ohio in the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry and a three-year starter at the University of Buffalo in the Mid-American Conference, before moving January to GS.
He’s listened to veteran teammates like sophomore Dillon Springer, on the defensive end, about the rivalry with the Mountaineers that dates back to 1932. They met 37 times, with App State winning the last two with 21-15-1 series advantage.
“I know that’s why you play football, those rivalry games,” Vantrease said Monday. “You can feel how the energy in the building has completely changed since every week we’ve had this year.”
Vantrease said he’s very excited to be working with App State, and so is Georgia Southern head coach Clay Helton.
“I know how special it is for our players,” said Helton. “Dillon Springer stepped in front of our team (on Sunday) and spoke to them, especially the younger kids, about how special this rivalry is, what it means to our fan base, how electric this crowd will be on Saturday night.
“I wish I could just say it’s a different game, but it’s not. It’s something special. I get goosebumps thinking about it. This is my first opportunity to be involved. That’s why we’re playing the game after Georgia Southern, to be in those kinds of games.”
Shawn Clark, who participated in this game as an Appalachian State player (Class of 1998), assistant coach, and head coach since 2020, doesn’t need a history lesson.
“To play in a game of this magnitude, the history that we have together, I just think it’s one of the best games in college football,” he said Monday.
He compared the rivalry to Georgia vs. Florida and Alabama vs. Auburn.
“It’s going to be a heated rivalry,” Clark said. “Our players know each other. Our coaches know each other. It’s a fun game.”
Here are four more things to know when Georgia Southern (5-6, 2-5 Sun Belt Conference) plays Appalachian State (6-5, 3-4):
Bowl image that comes into focus
As Georgia Southern seeks its fourth bowl game in five years, Appalachian State is looking to prevent that by winning Saturday and qualifying for its eighth straight bowl spot.
“Whoever wins gets a chance to go to a bowl game,” Appalachian State’s Clark said Monday. “It probably shouldn’t happen any other way in this rivalry game with Georgia Southern-App State.”
GS needs a sixth win to qualify for the Bowl, while ASU needs a seventh win as two of its wins come through FCS programs and only one counts.
The Mountaineers also need a win to be 4-4 in the SBC. They have the longest streak in the country at 37 seasons with a conference record of .500 or more, whether they were in the Southern Conference (29) or their current Sun Belt membership (eight).
They have 14 more seasons than their closest competitors in Boise State, Clemson and Oklahoma with 23 straight.
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The Sun Belt Conference has five guaranteed invitations with the Cure Bowl in Orlando, Florida; the LendingTree Bowl in Mobile, Alabama; the Myrtle Beach Bowl in Conway, SC; the Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama; and the New Orleans Bowl. Eligible SBC teams could also receive general bids for other bowl games.
“The bigger the moment, I’ve always thought, the more you have to focus on the little things,” Helton said. “It’s game after game, practice after practice. Live in the moment and not think about it, ‘oh, what does that mean?’ Obviously we’re all human. We understand how special the game is, what it means to both teams. We’re both fighting for the opportunity to play in the postseason.”
Georgia Southern running back depth
For filling a position where every game can be a collision, Eagles running backs have been relatively healthy this season — as in Healthy Enough to Play.
But that all changed last week when redshirt junior Gerald Green was injured on Nov. 16 and junior starter Jalen White was injured during last Saturday’s game against Marshall.
They are two of the leading rushers this season in the Sun Belt, and among GS defenders only one true freshman, Omari Arnold, has come second after white (162 attempts, 914 yards, 83.1 ypg) and green (86, 475, 47 ,5).
Arnold would be the starter with 33 carries for 189 yards and 17.18 ypg if the juniors can’t play. Helton said the pair are day-to-day but things aren’t looking good for White and his knee.
“We have more running backs,” Helton said, noting Arnold, AJ Brown (no tries this season), Bryan County High grad Terron Dixon II (two carries, 6 yards) and Tyler Jordan (no tries), all redshirt- juniors.
“We trust these children. That’s what we told our employees,” Helton said Monday. “We’re developing everyone in this football, all 134 men, because you just don’t know when that time is going to come.
“If Gerald and Jalen can’t leave, it will be Omari, followed by AJ (Brown) and Tyler (Jordan) and TD (Terron Dixon II) and we will move on. We trust these kids to do tons of rep (in practice). It’s just her chance now.”
Stop the Appalachian State’s offense
Georgia Southern’s efforts to stem opposing attacks this season have left the Eagles in total defense (129th of 131 teams with 484.1 yards per game), rushing defense (129th with 227.6 ypg) and passing -Defense (104 ).
GS has looked to progress such as defending the red zone or keeping Marshall – who used up time in the fourth quarter – to three points in the second half in a 23-10 loss last Saturday.
“We really pulled when it counted,” said Free, who is one of the team’s lead tacklers (6.5 tackles per game).
“I’m feeling good with our defense right now, great actually,” Free said. “Coach (Will) Harris puts together a great game plan every week. I feel good about our defense. We’re a curve but not breaking (defense). At the end of the day, it’s all about putting points on the board.”
Appalachian State is averaging 33.7 points per game — second in the 14-team Sun Belt — to 32.1 for GS (fourth). The Eagles allow 30.9 points per game (12th), to 24.5 for the Mountaineers (6th).
App State features two of the league’s best runners in Cameroon Peoples (9th at 65.9 yards per game) and Nate Noel (16th at 54.1 yards). Both were injured, with Shawn Clark saying on Monday Noel was expected back for Saturday’s game and the manager wasn’t sure if Peoples were available, although he was leaning in the right direction.
The Mountaineers have the league’s third-best offense (439.5 ypg), third-best rushing game (188.8 ypg), and sixth-best passing offense (250.7 ypg). They’re led by sixth-year quarterback Chase Brice, who is 204 of 323 passes (63.2%) for 2,668 yards (242.5 ypg), 27 touchdowns and six interceptions.
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The former Grayson (Ga.) high star played at Clemson and Duke before joining App State, where he was the 2021 Sun Belt Newcomer of the Year and All-Sun Belt Third Team.
Clark assisted in the Georgia Southern defense.
“They are big,” he said Monday. “They have a great defensive line. They have excellent linebackers. Their secondary is solid. Their corners are very aggressive in a way. That presents us with some challenges.”
Special game for Eagles seniors
Emotions will already be running high for a game between great rivals, one that will decide which team advances to a bowl game and which team packs for the season.
It’s also Senior Day or Senior Night as kick-off is scheduled for 6pm
Helton spoke this week about Saturday being the last opportunity for 20-plus seniors to play at Paulson Stadium. He wants them to add another highlight to a regular season, with an away win over a Power 5 conference team in Nebraska of the Big Ten and a home win over then-No. 25 James Madison.
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“A lot of them have decided to come back this year after a three-win season last year. Now they’re very close to having a chance to go to a bowl game,” Helton said. “They laid the foundation of leadership for us to really build something for us that will be sustainable.
“We’d like to reward them,” he continued. “We are very grateful to this group of seniors for what they have done for us this year.”
Nathan Dominitz is the Sports Content Editor for the Savannah Morning News and savannahnow.com. Email him at [email protected] Twitter: @NathanDominitz