This picture is a fairly accurate assessment of how I felt after last week's Division I Playoff picks. I mean, really, a Montana/Youngstown State final? Beleive me when I say I took my beating(s) like a man and I'm ready to make another pick. Despite Yosef fans' pleas to have me pick the Minutemen, and ZooMass' requests for me to pick Applachian State, I'll be doing what I always do - breaking down the game, and predicting the winner.
So it's not Montana and Youngstown in Chattanooga, TN tomorrow, it's Appalachian State and UMass. A matchup of former champions, the Mountaineers are going for a repeat (having won last year's Championship), while the Minutemen are going for their first championship since 1998. For those Lehigh fans that remember, that was the team that defeated one of the best Lehigh teams ever, ending our season on a 4th-and-goal from the 9 in a 22-16 final.
It should be a good game. Both teams only have one loss - UMass to non-playoff-participant (or NPP for short) Navy 21-20, and Appalachian State to NPP North Carolina State 23-10. Both are neither run-heavy or pass-heavy teams. App State has an offense that has simply overpowered pretty much everyone they've faced; UMass' defense gave up more than 20 points to PP teams exactly once - to Villanova in Week 3. It's clear that these are the two best teams to be playing for the Championship - they are fearsome teams to face, almost complete in every way.
How does UMass win this game?
1. Early Momentum. Last week against Montana, the UMass offensive line parted the fearsome Montana defensive line and let RB Steve Baylark run unmolested for a shocking early TD. You could argue that Montana, and their fans, never really recovered from that play. You could actually feel the aura of doubt emenating from the stadium. If QB Liam Coen and RB Steve Baylark can make App State "hear footsteps" early in the game, it could spell a win.
2. Slow Down the Run. I know it's a tall order, but UMass has to slow down QB Armanti Edwards and RB Kevin Richardson. I don't care if you start with eight in the box and leave yourself vulnerable - you simply have to stop the engine that makes this offense run, and that's the running game.
3. Field Position Battle. P Christian Koegel, the best punter in the nation, made life miserable for Montana last week. He can easily do it again if UMass gets in one of those field-position, defensive battles. That's how they've won almost every game this year, and if the game follows that sort of pace, it favors the Minutemen.
How does Appalachian State win this game?
1. Prove UMass Can't Stop The Run. You have to get Edwards and Richardson involved early - maybe even softening up UMass' defense with some deep passes if you have to. Getting that ball rolling early, with big early TDs, can deflate this Minuteman team early.
2. Win the Turnover Battle. If the fearsome Appalachian State "D" line can get pressure on UMass QB Liam Coen and force some bad throws, the chance for picks will be there. Yet they can't gamble too much: they also can't let Baylark get hot and run roughshod over the defense, which has been UMass' recipie all throughout the playoffs.
3. Jump On Them . UMass is not a team that rallies from fourth-quarter deficits. The faster the pace of the game, the more scoring their is, the more it favors Yosef and the Mountaineers. Jump out, jump early, jump all over them.
I don't think this will be a back-and-forth affair. I think the team which is leading the game midway through the second quarter will win the game, as neither team is built to come from behind. I think that team will be Appalachian State.
Yosefs 35, ZooMass 21