The Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, AL will always be a special place for Appalachian State Football, as the site of the Mountaineers’ first bowl win.
A return trip for the 2016 game may lack the originality of last year’s 31-29 win over Ohio but the game may end up being even more exciting than Appalachian’s as-time-expired 2015 victory, if that’s imaginable. In fact, it’s hard to conceive two teams more evenly matched than Toledo and App State.
But, in spite of the parallels, there are also key differences that will offer both teams the chance to create separation as the game unfolds. Those differences and the team that takes advantage of them will determine the 2016 Camellia Bowl champion.
When Toledo Has the Ball…
Toledo has a ton of offensive weapons, but the offense begins with running back Kareem Hunt. Just 25 yards from becoming Toledo’s all-time leading rusher and 175 yards from 5,000 for his career, Hunt Is a very tough between-the-tackles runner who rarely goes down on first contact. Arm tackles are a waste of time, you have to get a shoulder on him and wrap up.
The Rockets will batter defenses with Hunt and then utilize Terry Swanson as a chance of pace option, but all told Toledo has four runners with at least 235 yards. Amazingly, despite over 440 carries their running backs have lost only a net 55 yards all season. They don’t give up ground often.
Their spread offense utilizes a read-option component but there are a couple of leading tendencies to consider. First, quarterback Logan Woodside does not run the ball. He can extend plays within the pocket but he’s not a threat to pull that play-fake and run with it (stepping back from it and throwing is another matter).
Next, this is an A/B-gap running game. They will go outside on occasion, but for the most part they’re coming straight at the middle of the defense. Again, Hunt is great working between the tackles which means that App State’s defense will have to fit those inside gaps consistently.
Toledo’s runs more than they throw but the passing game is truly lethal, so Appalachian has to be constantly prepared to contain Woodside and his receivers. It’s a vertical passing game (14.5 yards per completion!) and the Rockets prefer working deep along the sidelines, especially with back-shoulder fade throws.
Woodside is very accurate (nearly 70%) and extremely good with ball security, only throwing interceptions once out of every 44 pass attempts. He gets rid of the ball quickly (only sacked 12 times) and uses a variety of receivers as five different Rockets have at least 38 catches.
Oh yeah, Woodside has thrown 43 touchdown passes. Let that sink in for a moment…that’s more than the combined total for the Sun Belt’s top two quarterbacks. And the deep ball is in play; 17 scoring throws of over 25 yards, 10 over 50, six from beyond 70, two over 80, and a 98-yarder for good measure.
All told, Toledo’s average scoring throw to a wide receiver or running back this season covers 39.4 yards. That’s astonishing. Heart attack #1 is 6’2” Cody Thompson, who averages nearly 20 yards per catch and has 10 scores. Fellow outside starter Jon’Vea Jones also has 10 touchdowns, but in just 38 receptions. Slot receiver Corey Jones is their possession guy with 60 receptions and Hunt is a dangerous dump-down option out of the backfield when pressure comes.
But, once they arrive in the red zone Toledo’s real weapon is all-American tight end Michael Roberts, all 6’5”, 270 lbs. of him. Don’t let the weight fool you, he can move and has great ball skills. Nearly 35% of Roberts’ catches this season have been for touchdowns, and only two have come from beyond 25 yards. When the Rockets get within close sight of the end zone the defense has to have a specific plan for Roberts.
The offensive line is, again, much like App State’s. Not flashy, but they execute their stuff very well. The starters average just a hair under 300 lbs. with emphasis on blocking right up the gut. You’ll get the occasional pulling guard, but for the most part it’s north/south coming right at you. Again, they’ve only allowed a sack every 40 passing attempts and very little lost yardage. They’re very good.
This may be as complete an offensive unit as Appalachian will see this season. They’re going to use the run to set you up for the big play through the air. The run-to-pass play ratio is 55%-to-45%, but their offensive yardage ratio is 62% via pass vs. 38% on the ground. They run the ball more often, but gash you with the passing game.
APP STATE DEFENSE
App State’s defense has crested at #15 nationally in total defense, 7th in scoring defense, 7th in red-zone defense, and is third in interceptions. Of course, now they’ll face off with a Toledo offense that’s fourth in total offense, 18th in scoring, and features a quarterback with the 2nd-best passer efficiency in college football.
This thing is going to be interesting.
In a familiar refrain, Appalachian’s 3-4 defense begins up front at nose tackle. Myquon Stout earned all-Sun Belt honorable mention status with a breakout season, and he, along with Darian Small and Tyson Fernandez, will be the first must-watch.
Again, Toledo wants to cave in the middle of the defense for Hunt, who hits the line at nearly full-speed. Winning the battle in the A gaps significantly influences Toledo’s offensive success. In their loss to Ohio, Hunt averaged just 3.3 yards per carry and the Rockets ended up turning their normal run-to-pass ratio upside down (29 runs & 46 throws) on the way to their lowest scoring output of the season.
But the nose tackles holding their gaps is just one aspect. Next, the inside linebackers have to make the proper gap fits to keep Hunt contained. Hunt explodes through both the line and arm-tackles, so Eric Boggs and John Law have to be in the right places to make head-up contact and wrap Hunt until help arrives, as he rarely goes down on first contact.
Swarming to the ball in run support is also key. Again, Hunt is great at absorbing the first hit and then breaking away into open field. This has been a strength of the Mountaineer defense this season.
It will be interesting to see how Defensive Coordinator Nate Woody utilizes his outside linebackers. With Toledo’s passing game being so prolific Woody has to decide how much he wants to have all-Sun Belt performer Kennan Gilchrist on the field to generate pass-rush pressure vs. replacing him with an extra defensive back in nickel coverage.
Also, Devan Stringer’s speed and range will be necessary to cover soft outside and intermediate passing zones and quite possibly Roberts at tight end. Anything Appalachian can do to prevent Roberts from getting clean releases at the line can only help.
The Mountaineer secondary has seen prolific throwers this season, facing off with five 2,500-plus yard passers, but none more so than Woodside. He can make all the throws, but does prefer working up the sidelines most often. This is a game where great corner back technique is important, as successfully pinning receivers against the sidelines will be crucial in the inevitable zero-cover situations.
How will Secondary Coach Scot Sloan align his safeties to take away the middle of the field from Woodside, especially as relates to Roberts? Watch for the familiar use of strong safety A.J. Howard in the nickel role at Gilchrist’s OLB spot, with free safety Alex Gray to one hash and versatile safety Josh Thomas on the other.
When Toledo enters the red zone watch for pass coverage to shift somewhat to account for Roberts’ impact inside the 20. The key is to keep Roberts from establishing his position in front of the defender, where he can simply use his frame to shield off coverage for a direct throw. Bracketing him and forcing Woodside to drop a ball into a small window is the goal.
Can Appalachian generate turnovers? This could be the biggest turning point in the game. In Toledo’s recent loss to undefeated Western Michigan, the Broncos intercepted Woodside’s first pass of the game for a pick-six and Toledo was minus-three in turnovers for the game. In fact, in their three losses Toledo was minus-six in turnover margin overall and Woodside threw six of his nine interceptions.
In the red zone, not only has Toledo been effective at converting scores inside the 20 (93% or 7th nationally) but they score touchdowns in 72% of those instances. App State is 7th nationally in red zone defense, allowing scores on just 73% of those possessions, but the Mountaineers surrender touchdowns just 48% of the time. If Appalachian can force Toledo to settle for field goals then it’s advantage Mountaineers.
But, Toledo thrives on big offensive plays. In each of App State’s three losses there has been at least one key scoring play of 50 yards-plus. The Rockets can erase mistakes and momentum very quickly with big strikes and App has been susceptible to those plays at times. But don’t expect Woody to stray from what has made the Mountaineer so successful defensively. Appalachian will bring pressure.
When App State Has the Ball…
APP STATE OFFENSE
Sometimes the best defense is a good offense. App State is 14th in the country with an average 33:25 time of possession. Toledo’s offense can’t score when they’re on the sideline, so maintaining drives is another key to watch during the game.
Especially third-downs; Toledo’s defense is middle-of-the-pack in most regards but are 17th nationally allowing just 34% of third-down conversions. Appalachian has struggled to a 33% conversion rate on the season.
This means that App State’s use of the two (sometimes three) headed rushing attack has to keep down-and-distance manageable with first-down success. The closest Toledo came to seeing a run game like App’s is against Western Michigan, where they surrendered 249 yards and three rushing scores.
App State seems to have mastered the rotation of Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year Jalin Moore and all-time leading rusher Marcus Cox, even occasionally using them together in more of a triple-option look. But, Toledo gets up the field in a hurry, so there’s not a lot of time for plays to develop. Moore and Cox have to get north/south as quickly as lanes appear.
Quarterback Taylor Lamb is also important in the run game, as he went for 306 yards and six touchdowns over the final six games.
Appalachian won last year’s Camellia Bowl on the strength of the run game and this year ‘s outcome likely rests on that same success. The offensive line has to seal back to the inside on stretch plays, because Toledo has excellent pursuit.
However, the Mountaineers also need to keep Toledo from bringing the extra defender from their 4-2-5 alignment to the line constantly in run support. For all of the Rockets’ aggression with their defensive front, their secondary tends to give cushion in a cover-two type of scheme. They’re willing to allow short completions and then close quickly to make the stop.
Despite Toledo’s surrender of shorter routes, that’s not really App State’s passing approach. Like Toledo, the Mountaineers like to get vertical as well, led by all-Sun Belt receiver Shaedon Meadors (16.2 yards per catch). Of course, Appalachian won’t throw the ball nearly as often as Toledo (almost 35% less, in fact) but they use the passing game to make key conversions and keep chains moving.
Toledo runs a pretty basic defense, there aren’t a lot of exotic blitzes (they’ll bring the occasional safety) and they won’t throw a ton of pre-snap looks at you. They focus on stopping the run with great execution at the point of attack and a swarming pursuit, and keeping opposing receivers in front of them.
While they may give up ground between the 20s they get tough in the red zone, allowing touchdowns just 56% of the time. This is an area App State has struggled with at times, converting just 58% themselves. Again, against a scoring offense of Toledo’s caliber the Mountaineers need every point they can produce.
Again, Toledo doesn’t get too complicated with their defensive approach, but they will mix up their front dependent upon situation. The “norm” is a four-man look with a standing rusher to one end, similar to how App uses Gilchrist, but they can back off into a three-man front in the gaps or even bring a safety down to create a five-man front on short-yardage.
The disruption begins up front with tackle Treyvon Hester, who has eight tackles-for-loss and leads the team with five sacks. But, much like App State’s Stout, his impact is felt well beyond the stat sheet. Hester is the guy who messes things up, even when he doesn’t get credit for the stop. The head-to-head between he and Mountaineer center Parker Collins is going to be one of the best in this game.
The defensive ends are going to crash hard and Hester’s interference up front leaves linebackers Ja’Wuan Woodley and Tyler Taafe (130 total combined tackles) free to attack the run game. Woodley, in particular, gets upfield very quickly but that same aggression can be used against him and the entire defense with the right play calls.
Safety DeJuan Rogers is the guys they move around to bring extra support, especially against the running game. That’s where Appalachian’s ability to hit some downfield throws would keep the Rockets honest, especially as relates to Rogers.
Again, the secondary stays off the line and doesn’t try to attack all passing lanes. They force you to find soft spots in their zones and complete those throws. They’ve intercepted just six passes this season yet allowed only a 56% completion percentage. They force quarterbacks to make quick reads and accurate throws.
But if App State is to win this game it will likely be on the power of their running game. In Toledo’s three losses they allowed an average of 285 rushing yards, which was nearly 160 yards over their average in the nine wins. Appalachian comes into the game averaging 316 rushing yards in their past five games.
On Special Teams…
Neither team stands out statistically in any particular aspect of special teams, which all but assures something big will happen in that phase of the game. Both placekickers are very reliable on field-goals inside 40 yards (95.5%) but anything beyond there gets dicey.
Perhaps the most important role special teams might play in this game will come relative to field position. Appalachian punter Bentlee Critcher holds the advantage in pinning opponents deep, with 19 punts downed inside the 20 yard-line and only three touchbacks in 50 punts.
Critcher also forced kickoff touchbacks on 63% of his kicks, while Toledo could manage touchbacks on just under 20% of their kickoffs.
And, When It’s All Said and Done…
It’s bowl season and there are about to be 41 separate games played, some of which won’t be great, good, or even that fun to watch. The Camellia Bowl promises to be different. There’s a reason multiple media outlets have ranked the Camellia, on average, as one of the top dozen bowl games for 2016.
Toledo and Appalachian State play the game well. They’ve combined to beat six other bowl teams and when they’ve lost it’s been exclusively to fellow bowl-caliber competition.
Turnovers are key. Toledo doesn’t typically surrender them and App State is great at creating them. Appalachian is plus-eight for the year and Toledo is minus-four.
Teams that have beaten Toledo have run the ball successfully against them, 250-300 yards kind of successful.
Toledo hasn’t had a game all season where they’ve thrown less than three touchdown passes. What happens if they don’t get there?
Can Appalachian prevent the big scoring plays Toledo has lived on this season? The Rockets have had at least one touchdown from beyond 30 yards in 11 of 12 games this season.
If the football cliché that football wins championships turns out to be true in this game then Appalachian State becomes the two-time Camellia Bowl champion.
APP STATE 35 – TOLEDO 30