By David Coulson
LAS CRUCES, N.M. — If Appalachian State needed any additional motivation before Saturday afternoon’s regular-season-ending football game with New Mexico State, the Mountaineers received shortly before kickoff with the news that a share of the Sun Belt Conference championship would be clinched with a win.
With word quickly spreading that league-leading Arkansas State had lost 24-19 in a bizarre finish at Louisiana-Lafayette just minutes before App State received the opening kickoff, the Mountaineers turned that adrenaline shot into 17 first-quarter points on the way to an easy 37-7 victory.
And it was a start that could have been even better, with ASU (9-3 overall, 7-1 in the Sun Belt) leaving a number of additional points on the field.
But 17 early points was more than enough for that smothering Appalachian defense, which didn’t allow NMSU even one first down until midway through the second quarter and came within inches on a near pass-breakup of shutting out the Aggies.
The Mountaineers piled up 604 yards of total offense behind the dual rushing force of Marcus Cox (16 carries, 140 yards) and Jalin Moore (17 attempts, 111 yards) and some timely passing and running from quarterback Taylor Lamb as they jumped on NMSU immediately.
Cox burst free for 10 yards on the first play from scrimmage and Moore dashed to the Aggie one on the next play to put the Mountaineers into scoring range. Appalachian had to settle for the first of three Michael Rubino field goals, but followed with touchdowns on their next two drives to go ahead by 17 points in little more than 10 minutes.
Following Rubino’s 20-yard field goal, Moore smashed in on a fourth and goal from the one and Shaedon Meadows (four catches, 72 yards) grabbed Lamb’s long pass for a 42-yard scoring strike.
New Mexico State finally showed some offensive life when Connor Cramer hit Tyrien Taylor with a 54-yard TD aerial with 5:06 left in the first half as safety A.J. Howard narrowly missed a pass deflection and the ball sailed over him and into the hands of Taylor. Taylor then sprinted the rest of the way to the end zone.
But Lamb (20-of-28 for 220 yards passing) directed a 10-play, 51-yard drive with the clock winding down in the second quarter and Rubino’s 31-yard kick gave the Mountaineers their 20-7 halftime lead.
Appalachian played conservatively in the second half, focusing more on ball possession and running down the clock. Rubin added to the lead with his 27-yard field goal midway through the third period and Lamb capped off the quarter with his first-yard, read-option TD rush with 16 seconds left in the stanza.
Lamb (10 carries, 71 yards rushing) turned one missed tackle into a 48-yard option score just four minutes into the fourth quarter to finish the scoring.
But the numbers on defense were just as impressive. Appalachian limited NMSU to 10 first downs and 240 total yards, while holding the Aggies to 2-of-14 on third and fourth downs.
Cramer was 10-of-24 passing for 93 yards with two interceptions as he was harassed all afternoon long by the Mountaineer pass rush. Overall, ASU piled up two sacks, six tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries, led by eight tackles, one sack and two tackles for loss from freshman linebacker Akeem Davis.
Josh Thomas and Mondo Williams contributed interceptions, the 19th and 20th of the season for the nation’s leading team in that category.
While the Mountaineers finished their regular season with their seventh conference win in eight games, they also vaulted into sole possession of first place in the league.
Arkansas State appeared to pull out a victory at Louisiana-Lafayette with two seconds remaining when Red Wolves quarterback Justin Hansen’s desperate lateral to offensive tackle Devin Mondie was ruled a touchdown by field officials.
But a booth review showed that Hansen’s knee was down at the seven before he released the ball on the fourth-and-10 play that started at the Louisiana-Lafayette 11. ULL ran one play from victory formation to clinch the 24-19 win.
Troy walloped last-place Texas State 40-7 to stay even with Arkansas State, a half-game behind Appalachian.
Arkansas State travels to Texas State and Troy heads to Georgia Southern next Saturday, both road teams needing wins to share the Sun Belt title with the Mountaineers.
Appalachian will find out on Dec. 4 where it will head for its bowl game later in December. Among the possible destinations are New Orleans; Mobile, Ala.; Orlando; or Montgomery, Ala.