In Coastal Carolina’s six seasons in the Sun Belt Conference, one team has clearly emerged as the Chanticleers’ primary rival.
As is becoming the norm when CCU and Appalachian State meet, first place in the conference’s East Division is on the line tonight at Brooks Stadium in a game that will be broadcast to a national audience on ESPN.
The winner of the matchup in each of the past two years has won the East Division, while the loser has finished as a runner-up. The Chants (7-1, 4-1) will try to hold onto the top spot in the division against the Mountaineers (5-3, 2-2), who are among five East teams with two losses in league play.
CCU senior quarterback Grayson McCall said the burgeoning rivalry is something the players have felt grow.
“You kind of don’t have a choice, right? It’s out there, it’s obvious. You live and breathe it,” McCall said. “. . . Maybe the younger guys that haven’t experienced it, they don’t know what it’s like, but they’re going to find out real soon on Thursday night that it’s going to be a war, and a lot of excited fans and a lot of emotions.
“The word of the week for us this week is emotion, and how we can control them and use them to our advantage because it’s going to be a really emotional game.”
Contentious chatter from the fan bases of both programs – and from players on both sides in the past in both interviews and on social media – has quickly stoked the rivalry from being a spark to a five-alarm fire.
The game has been sold out of all but free student tickets for a couple weeks and spectators are encouraged to wear black for a “black out” promotion.
“Emotions are going to be high, sparks are going to fly and we’re going to war, so you have to calm yourself down a notch,” McCall said. “At the end of the day, we’re really excited about the opportunity and can’t wait to go play on Thursday.”
As the only two Sun Belt teams in the Carolinas, the Chants and Mountaineers are often recruiting the same players, which adds to the competitiveness between the programs.
“We do recruit against each other quite a bit. They obviously recruit our state quite a bit,” CCU coach Jamey Chadwell said.
Coastal is coming off a night road game Saturday at a physical Marshall team, and Chadwell has voiced his displeasure with the conference’s scheduling around the game. App State has played only winless Robert Morris in the past 15 days – which it beat 42-3 – as its last conference game was against Georgia State on Oct. 19.
“We get back at 3 a.m. in the morning and have to turn around on a Thursday, and they have a home game, basically an open date against an FCS program that they drilled, and they came off a Wednesday game,” Chadwell said. “They can say all they want, I know they practiced for us and got prepared for us way before we were able to do that for them.
“. . . I do think when it’s two marquee teams you hope they’re all coming in even having the same opportunity to get ready for the game. But at the end of the day you play with the cards you’ve got.”
Mountaineers coach Shawn Clark contends his team didn’t begin preparing for Coastal until Sunday.
“Our focus was on Robert Morris last week to make sure we were prepared,” Clark said. “We were here early Sunday morning to try to get a game plan together. It’s a short week for us and a short week for Coastal Carolina. Unfortunately we didn’t have much time to spend on Coastal this year.”
While App State beat CCU in each of the Chants' first three seasons in the Sun Belt from 2017-19 – CCU was 6-18 combined in the conference in those seasons – and the Mountaineers are 7-1 all-time vs. CCU, the teams have split the past two.
CCU won 34-23 in 2020 with two TDs in the final 2:30 at Brooks Stadium, and App State won 30-27 last Oct. 20 in Boone, North Carolina, on a 24-yard field goal as time expired to knock off a CCU team that was undefeated and ranked 14th in the AP Poll.
“Everyone that was at that game last year, they rushed the field and all that, it was a heartbreaking loss,” McCall said. “You kind of just don’t forget about those things. It’s definitely going to motivate us this week. We control our own destiny and they’re kind of in our way right now so we’ve got to take care of business so we can reach our goals we set going into the season.“
Scouting App State
The Mountaineers have won two straight games with blowouts over Georgia State and Robert Morris, adding to an eventful season.
They scored 40 fourth-quarter points in a 63-61 loss to North Carolina in their opener, knocked off then-No. 6 Texas A&M 17-14 in their second game, and scored on a Hail Mary on the game’s final play to beat Troy in their third game.
The Mountaineers have been inconsistent since, suffering losses to James Madison and Texas State, which is 3-5 and 1-3 in the conference, before its two recent wins.
“We have been inconsistent and that’s my job as the head coach to get that corrected,” Clark said.
Coastal’s rush defense will be challenged again this week.
App State has three dangerous running backs who are all familiar names to CCU in Camerun Peoples, Nate Noel and Daetrich Harrington, who have been in the program a combined 14 years.
Peoples has a team-high 515 rushing yards and five rushing TDs and Noel has gained 157 yards on 20 carries over the past two games. They both average at least 6.4 yards per carry.
“They have multiple running backs who can have a field day at any given point, that’s much respect to them,” said CCU senior nose tackle Jerrod Clark. “The key for our defense is to not make the game bigger than it is.”
Peoples has had a pair of huge games at Brooks Stadium. He gained 171 first-half yards and finished with 178 on a career-high 27 carries vs. CCU in 2020, then set a school record with 317 rushing yards in the 2020 Myrtle Beach Bowl in a win over North Texas.
After surrendering 324 yards rushing in a 49-21 loss on Oct. 15 to Old Dominion, which entered the game 130th in FBS in rushing offense with 71.6 yards per game, CCU shut down a formidable Marshall ground game last week.
“We understood the sense of urgency,” Jerrod Clark said.
CCU held the Thundering Herd to 87 yards rushing with a long of 26, and held Khalan Laborn, who entered the game as the nation’s No. 2 rusher with 1,002 yards, to 59 yards on 16 carries with a touchdown. Laborn hadn’t been held under 100 yards in any game this season.
“What our defense showed against Marshall is what we’re capable of consistently, and that’s the biggest challenge,” Chadwell said.
App State is 20th in the nation with 208 rushing yards per game and also averages more than 250 yards per game passing.
Chadwell is concerned about App State’s run game opening up their play-action passing game, which is led by former Clemson and Duke quarterback Chase Brice, who has completed 64.9% of his pass attempts for a league-leading 22 touchdowns and 1,921 yards this season.
The Mountaineers may be thin at linebacker, as Clark said starters Kesean Brown, Trey Cobb and Nick Hampton – as well as cornerback Ethan Johnson – will all be game-time decisions due to injuries.
• Coastal is still trying to overcome a number of injuries this season, and the short turnaround from Saturday’s win at Marshall has added to the challenge.
Junior cornerback Manny Stokes Jr. was injured against the Herd and is out tonight, according to Chadwell, though senior tight end Xavier Gravette is expected to return from injury after missing Saturday’s game.
• The turnover cloak has gotten a lot of use, as CCU ranks second nationally in fumble recoveries (11), fifth in turnovers forced (19) and sixth in turnover margin (plus-10).
The return of redshirt sophomore inside linebacker Shane Bruce on Saturday helped CCU boost its turnover numbers. He had a team-high 11 total tackles, a tackle for loss, a fumble recovery and a quarterback hurry and was named SBC Defensive Player of the Week.
Bruce missed two games and has played through injuries in other games, and is one of the primary communicators on defense, particularly with the secondary. “We’ve missed him, so I’m glad he’s back,” Chadwell said.
• Coastal has endured some poor special teams games this season, particularly with regards to kickoffs, field goal attempts and punts.
But true freshman punter Evan Crenshaw out of Nease High in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, was named the Sun Belt’s Special Teams Player of the Week.
He punted eight times against Marshall for an average of 42.4 yards per punt, including a career-long 50-yarder, and had six punts downed to contribute to Marshall's average starting field position being its own 27-yard line.
“We’re very high on Evan and he’s not had the type of year we were hoping he’d have consistency-wise,” Chadwell said. “I’m hoping this really is a springboard for him to show how good he is. I think he was either the No. 1 or No. 2 high school punter when he came in here. That means diddly squat once you’re here, but he has that opportunity and has that ability. . . . If he can continue to do that, that becomes another weapon for us.”
Who: Appalachian State (5-3, 2-2 Sun Belt) at Coastal Carolina (7-1, 4-1)
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Brooks Stadium, Conway
Occasion: Fan Black Out promotion
Radio: WRNN FM 99.5
Sun Belt East Division Standings
School, Conference, Overall
Coastal Carolina, 4-1, 7-1
* James Madison 3-2, 5-2
Appalachian State, 2-2, 5-3
Georgia Southern, 2-2, 5-3
Georgia State, 2-2, 3-5
Old Dominion, 2-2, 3-5
Marshall, 1-3, 4-4
* Is not eligible for postseason as a transitioning FBS program