With Woody at the lead, the Mountaineers’ defense has been among the more effective in FBS in recent seasons. Starting in 2015, the defense ranked 11th, 20th and 30th in defensive efficiency by the measure of the website Football Outsiders. This season, going into Wednesday’s bowl games, Appalachian State ranked in the top 30 nationally in scoring, takeaways, third-down efficiency, tackles for loss and passes defended.
In what was evidently Woody’s final game at Appalachian State, his defense put on a show in its bowl-game win over Toledo on Saturday in Birmingham, Ala. The Rockets entered the game ranked eighth nationally in total offense and 11th in scoring offense. Beyond getting shut out for the first time since 2009, Toledo failed to advance the ball past the Appalachian State 35-yard line in the whole game. The Rockets were limited to eight first downs and 146 total yards, 364 fewer than their season average.
“We put more and more defense in, and they took it and ran with it,” Woody told the Appalachian State website. “As you go into the bowl week, you've got exams, and that's stressful for those kids, and we're putting in more defensive schemes for them. They executed it so well tonight, and I was just so proud of them because you can sit in there and write down your assignment on a piece of paper, but to go out there and execute it is difficult. They did it.”
Playing out of the Sun Belt Conference, the Mountaineers have been able to punch above their weight against power-conference opponents.
In the past three seasons against five power-conference opponents – Georgia and Wake Forest this season, Tennessee and Miami in 2016 and Clemson in 2015 – the Mountaineers held the opposition below its season averages against FBS opponents for points three times. They kept them under their season rate for total offense and yards per play four times. The teams’ third-down conversion rates against Appalachian State were below their season average three times.
Under Woody’s direction, Appalachian State did it with smaller and lesser recruited players. In this year’s season opener against Georgia, the Mountaineers fielded a lineup in which the three starting defensive linemen were an average of 6-foot-1 and 264 pounds. Of the starting 11, nine were two-star prospects (247 Sports composite) and the other two didn’t have a rating.
Yet, only Notre Dame and Auburn (in the first meeting) held the Bulldogs to fewer yards than Appalachian State (368). The Bulldogs scored more points in seven games (including Georgia Tech) than they did against the Mountaineers.
When Appalachian State played Clemson (on its way to the national championship game) in 2015, the Tigers gained 392 yards and averaged 5.23 yards per play. Among the teams that couldn’t meet those standards against Clemson that season – Louisville, Georgia Tech, Boston College, Miami, Florida State, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Alabama.
Woody has used a 3-4 scheme, which will be a change for Tech players, who played out of a 4-2-5 base defense with Roof. The Jackets, though, would seem to have players who could adapt to that scheme. Desmond Branch, for instance, is a candidate to move from defensive tackle to end. Defensive end Anree Saint-Amour might fit as an outside linebacker.
Also interesting to note: Before Appalachian State, Woody was a successful defensive coordinator at Wofford, his alma mater. For years, Wofford has run an offense similar to Johnson’s option-based spread, which has been the frequent target of complaints that Tech’s defense is hampered by having to play against an unorthodox scheme throughout spring practice and the preseason. To whatever degree the complaint has basis, Tech now has a coordinator who faced similar circumstances and managed well.