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December 1, 2011

Five questions before Maine

Appalachian State hits the field Saturday to face off against the Maine Black Bears after taking last weekend off thanks to a first-round playoff bye week. Appalachian will look to secure a victory and begin a deep run into the NCAA's FCS Playoffs. Here are five questions to consider before the Mountaineers take the field.

1. Will Appalachian effectively limit Maine quarterback Warren Smith?

Compared to many of the teams Appalachian State faces annually in the Southern Conference, Maine might not possess the most dynamic offense. However, it is a team more than capable of posing a threat to an Appalachian program that has been anything but consistent this season.

The Black Bears produce an average of 29.5 points per game this year, with most of their offense generated from quarterback Warren Smith. The senior has guided Maine to a respectable 8-3 record and a playoff berth thanks in large part to his 240 passing yards per game average. Combine that figure with 17 passing touchdowns and Smith has the look of a solid collegiate signal caller. What makes Smith difficult to defend, however, is his ability to make plays with his feet as well.

The senior is effective at throwing on the run and likes to keep the ball as a runner if needed. Through his 11 games this year, Smith has 95 carries for 249 yards and six touchdowns. Those are not Payton Award winning numbers, but he packs enough of a threat as a runner that defenses have to respect his ability.

Defending players like Smith take discipline, which some could argue the Mountaineers have struggled with this year. Considering Appalachian's experience with similar quarterbacks, it should be just another day at the office if things go right in the film room. Containing Smith will be first on the list if the Mountaineers hope to limit the 28th best passing offense in the FCS.

2. How will ASU minimize the impact of the Black Bears' top two pass catchers?

With any successful quarterback, there is typically a reliable receiver for him to throw to. At Maine, Smith has two.

Junior wide receiver Maurice McDonald has been the go-to target for Smith for much of this season. The 6-foot wideout has tallied 58 catches for 591 yards and 10.2 yards per catch. With five touchdown receptions, McDonald is a threat the Mountaineer secondary must pay attention to.

But while McDonald has made the most noise at wideout for the Black Bears this season, tight end Justin Perillo has made quite an impact as well.

The 6-foot-4 sophomore boasts a 250-pound frame that can move defenders as a blocker, but also make for a difficult target to bring down after a catch. Perillo is Maine's second leading receiver this season with 45 catches for 446 yards. While Perillo's three touchdown receptions might indicate Smith does not look his way often in the red zone, there is no question the tight end can still pose a threat inside the 20-yard line. The Mountaineers will have to find a way to limit McDonald without giving up too many opportunities to Perillo if they hope to advance to the next round of the playoffs.

3. Can the Mountaineers' offensive line contain talented Black Bears defensive lineman Michael Cole?

Appalachian's offensive line has seen more change in personnel this season than most teams are probably used to experiencing. The group has struggled at times this year, but has played solid enough to help the Mountaineers become the nation's 31st best offense in terms of total yards.

While ASU has managed, for the most part, to avoid giving up grotesque numbers of sacks, the offensive line has struggled against opposing team's top pass rushers. Maine defensive lineman Michael Cole will likely be this weekend's greatest challenge for Appalachian's blockers.

The 6-foot-2 sophomore weighs in at 250 pounds, but plays as though he weighs much more because of his ability to push around opposing blockers. Cole is also quick on his feet. Combine those two abilities, and Cole has managed to secure 10 sacks this year. Cole has also demonstrated an ability to consistently get to the ball carrier in run defense by posting 13.5 tackles for loss this season.

If the Mountaineer offense hopes to produce a successful effort and leave Saturday with a victory, Cole's threat will have to be counteracted in the game plan by coaches and players.

4. How will Jackson fare in his first playoff game as starter?

Sophomore quarterback Jamal Jackson has done well in his first season at starting quarterback this year. Jackson had a few unpleasant outings this campaign, but has managed to steadily improve an offense that struggled in the first half of the season. In Appalachian's last six games with Jackson at the helm, the Mountaineers are averaging 32 points and 275 passing yards per contest. That is up from 23.8 points and 177.4 yards in the season's first five games.

Given his success, it's difficult to bet against Jackson's capability as a young starting quarterback. He has had plenty of doubters since taking over for DeAndre Presley as the signal caller, but has consistently proven them wrong and led the Mountaineers to another playoff berth. Regardless, this will be the biggest stage Jackson has ever been on, so it will be important he approach it with the same high level of preparation he has with his other games. He will have the benefit of a friendly crowd in Boone and plenty of weapons. Running back Cedric Baker Boney will likely return to the backfield and give Jackson a healthy supporting trio of ball carriers as well.

As with any playoff game, there is an added high level of pressure. However, the Mountaineers are not seeded in this year's playoff bracket and likely will not draw as much national media attention as they have in previous years. That could benefit Jackson and make focusing on fundamentals a little easier.

Jackson will have to have a solid game for the Mountaineers to walk away with a win over the nation's No.13 ranked program. If he has an off-day, it could be a long game for the Mountaineer defense.

5. Which Appalachian State team will show up?

The Mountaineers have been so inconsistent at times this year that many Mountaineer fans have been left scratching their head when trying to figure out what kind of team ASU really is. Appalachian knocked off Georgia Southern Oct. 29, the nation's top ranked team at the time, but lost to a Furman Paladins program that was struggling to remain relevant in the SoCon race the following week.

The Mountaineers responded by blowing out regional rival Western Carolina Nov. 12 with a 46-14 final score and 553 yards of total offense. That matched expectations of many prognosticators around the Southern Conference, but many of those people were left clueless the following weekend when Appalachian State laid an egg to start a game with Elon Nov. 19. The Mountaineers trailed 21-0 with just over two minutes to go in the first quarter, but were somehow able to rally back to a 28-24 victory by game's end.

These outcomes tend to point to one major trend for Appalachian's season. If the Mountaineers are focused, underestimated and have their backs against the wall, they have shown they can play excellent football on both sides of the ball. When the Mountaineers lack that focus, they can play uninspired football that often endangers the chances of a win.

Appalachian is favored by many heading into this weekend's game against Maine, but that should not affect ASU's preparation or mentality heading into the contest if it hopes to advance to the next round of the FCS playoffs. If the Mountaineers play with that underdog mentality and are focused appropriately, expect a Mountaineer team that will compete intensely for a victory.

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