Day two of Bowl Season kicks off with an intriguing matchup between Western Kentucky and Appalachian State in the RoofClaim.com Boca Raton Bowl. The bowl game has been played since the 2014 season and is held at FAU Stadium in southern Florida. This year’s game features one of the most prolific passing offenses in the Group of Five, if not in all of college football. Western Kentucky brings the nation’s fifth-most pass efficient offense to Boca, and the Hilltoppers have nearly 5,700 passing yards on the season. Appalachian State has a balanced offensive attack with a quarterback who has found his place in Boone, North Carolina. The two teams recently lost their conference championship games by close margins, and now Appalachian State and Western Kentucky will battle in Boca.
Opt-Outs and Roster Updates
On Appalachian State’s side of the ball, there isn’t a lot of news relating to bowl game opt-outs. The only player that will not suit up on Saturday is wide receiver, Corey Sutton. The team’s leading receiver suffered an upper-body injury in the Sun Belt Championship and underwent surgery in the week following the game. He had a team-high 900 receiving yards and seven touchdowns while playing in all 13 games this year. Quarterback Chase Brice will miss his top target in Boca, but the Mountaineers have a couple of other guys who can carry the load.
Western Kentucky has experienced some significant postseason personnel movement leading up to their bowl game. Notably, offensive coordinator Zach Kittley has accepted a job at Texas Tech at the same position under new head coach Joey McGuire. Kittley is a native of Lubbock but will remain with the Toppers to coach in the Boca Raton Bowl. Additionally, two key offensive players put their names in the transfer portal following the championship game loss to UTSA. Receiver Mitchell Tinsley and offensive lineman Mason Brooks will transfer from the school, but both intend to play in the bowl game.
There are, however, some Hilltopper personnel that will not be participating in bowl activities. Offensive line coach Stephen Hamby will take over at Texas Tech coaching the same position. He is also a Lubbock guy, having graduated and coached at the school. Western Kentucky’s co-offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis will re-join his former USC counterpart Clay Helton at Georgia Southern. Ellis will not coach in the Boca Raton Bowl. Two players will miss the game with injuries as well. Starting defensive tackle Jeremy Darvin who underwent surgery after the Conference USA championship game, and starting linebacker Will Ignont who has been out the last few games to an injury. Other than these four, the Hilltoppers will be at full strength in Boca.
High-Powered Hilltopper Offense
Western Kentucky has one of the most productive passing offenses in the nation led by quarterback Bailey Zappe. He has a chance to make history on Saturday in Boca by passing Joe Burrow’s record for passing yards and passing touchdowns in a single season. Zappe currently leads all of college football with 5,518 passing yards and 56 touchdowns. His yardage is first in the FBS by over 1,000 yards. He’ll need 522 against Appalachian State to break Burrow’s record. Five passing touchdowns on Saturday will also break Burrow’s record of 60 for a single year.
The Hilltopper offense is built around the pass, as 72% of their plays this season have been passes. Two receivers have surpassed the 1,000-yard mark handsomely. Jerreth Sterns leads the team with 1,707 yards and 14 touchdowns on the season. Sterns has over 1,000 yards after the catch this season, which is far and away the best in the country. He also achieved second-team All-American status following his incredible season. Tinsley is the other target, and he has 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns this year. WKU’s speed on the outside and their ability to deliver the ball downfield have been lethal all season. To add to that, WKU also has the top-rated pass-blocking team in the nation. They have given up just nine sacks all season. The Hilltoppers average 43 points per game and will have their best on display in Boca.
Chase Brice Finds His Place
Brice has jumped around the east coast trying to find his spot at quarterback within a program. After starting his career at Clemson, he transferred to Duke and things didn’t quite go his way in 2020. Following a disappointing 2020 season in Durham, Brice again entered the transfer portal. This time, he landed with Appalachian State, and he has found his place in Boone with the Mountaineers. Brice has thrown for over 3,000 yards this season and has accounted for 26 total touchdowns. With weapons on the outside and in the backfield, his offense has been complimentary in both phases.
At Clemson, a lot is expected of the quarterback position, and he wasn’t getting the reps necessary in a deep quarterback room. At Duke, Brice wasn’t able to showcase his skills in a down season. However, at App State, Brice has been able to throw the ball around 30 times per game and lean on his run game when needed. His success at the position helped lead the Mountaineers to a 10-win season and conference championship game appearance.
Balanced Attack on Both Sides
Although Sutton will be out for the bowl game due to injury, the Mountaineers have Thomas Hennigan and Malik Williams out wide who have been productive all year. Their stats are nearly identical, each with 775 yards and six touchdowns on the year. In addition to the offense’s ability to pass, App State has been very effective on the ground. Camerun Peoples and Nate Noel have split carries this season and account for over 1,900 rushing yards. Peoples has found the end zone 14 times on the season. As a team, the Mountaineers have passed the ball 448 times and run the ball 486 times. Their effectiveness this season has been built around the success in both phases.
Defensively, App State will be the best unit that the Hilltoppers have faced all season. As a primarily passing team, WKU will be up against one of the better passing defenses on their schedule. The Mountaineers’ passing defense expected points added (EPA) on a per-play basis is 13th best in the nation at -0.115. EPA translates yards gained to points added in the context in which the yardage is gained while factoring out garbage time production. A positive EPA on offense is good, a negative EPA is good on defense. In this case, it means that App State’s passing defense productivity is actually preventing points from being scored on a down-to-down basis. The Mountaineers allow just over 200 passing yards per game and have given up a mere 19 points per game.
Steven Jones Jr. leads the Mountaineer defense with five interceptions this season. He has had an eye for the ball and will give WKU tough looks in the secondary on Saturday. Up front, Nick Hampton has been App State’s sack leader this year with 11 total. He also leads the team with 50 quarterback pressures and 34 quarterback hurries. Hampton has been a force on the defensive line and will give the Hilltoppers pass protection fits all day. He is one of the top pass rushers in the Group of Five.
Appalachian State and Western Kentucky Battle in Boca
The Hilltoppers and Mountaineers have played each other just five times, with the most recent contest in 2000. Since joining the FBS, Appalachian State has never lost a bowl game. They are 6-0 in Bowl Season since 2015. This will be Western Kentucky’s eighth bowl game in the last ten seasons, and they have a 4-3 record. It’s their second trip to play in the Boca Raton Bowl. Their last appearance was in 2016 with a blowout win over Memphis. Zappe will look to break Burrow’s seemingly unbreakable passing records on Saturday while leading one of the nation’s most high-powered passing teams. The Mountaineers have a solid defense and will have to play their best ball to prevent WKU’s scoring capabilities. Appalachian State and Western Kentucky will battle in Boca in one of the better Group of Five bowl game matchups of the postseason.