By Tim Gardner
Appalachian State, one of college football’s hottest teams so far during the 2018 season, returns to action this Saturday, October 20 with a 3:30 p.m. Sun Belt Conference home game against Louisiana (Lafayette) in Kidd Brewer Stadium.
The game will be televised on ESPN Plus. It also will be broadcast on the Appalachian State IMG Radio Network at the following affiliates: 97.3 FM (North Wilkesboro)-Flagship; 96.5 FM/1450 AM (Boone); 1270 AM (Gastonia/Charlotte); 1150 AM (Rock Hill, SC/Charlotte); 101.5 FM/600 AM (Greensboro/Winston-Salem/High Point); 107.7 FM/1450 AM (Hendersonville); 1350 AM (Asheville); and 620 AM (Raleigh-Durham).
The Ragin’ Cajuns are the only West Division team to appear on Appalachian State’s schedule every year since they joined the league in 2014. Appalachian State has a 4-0 lead in the series. It won 35-16 on the road in 2014, 28-7 at home in 2015, 24-0 on the road in 2016 and 63-14 at home in 2017.
The Mountaineers (4-1 over-all; 2-0 conference) have not lost since their season opener on September 1 at Penn State in overtime (45-38). Appalachian State has romped past all four of its other opponents–Charlotte (45-9), Gardner-Webb (72-7), South Alabama (52-7) and Arkansas State (35-9).
Appalachian State also has outscored its last four opponents by a combined score of 204-32, including holding them scoreless by a 65-0 margin in the second half.
The Mountaineers increased their voting point totals in both the Associated Press (AP) Top 25 and Amway Coaches Poll following its road victory against Arkansas State on October 9.
Appalachian State posted program highs of 51 voting points in the AP Top 25 (up from 11 last week) and 55 voting points in the Coaches Poll (up from 38 last week). Those totals have the Mountaineers unofficially ranked at No. 29 in the AP Poll and No. 31 in the Coaches Poll.
Coach Scott Satterfield’s club has been equally impressive offensively, defensively and in special teams. The Mountaineers are currently No. 4 nationally in scoring offense (48.4 points per game), No. 8 in scoring defense (15.4 points per game), No. 7 in yards allowed per game (288.2), No. 11 in offensive yards per game (496.8) and No. 1 in special teams touchdowns (four). Appalachian State is the only FBS team that ranks in the top 11 in scoring offense, scoring defense, total offense and total defense.
Additionally, the Mountaineers are No. 1 nationally by averaging 6.4 defensive three-and-outs per game (32 in 69 total possessions).
With offensive tackles Victor Johnson and Chandler Greer, center Noah Hannon and guards RyanNeuzil, Baer Hunter and Cole Garrison playing the majority of snaps along a line, the Mountaineers also currently rank third in the country at 6.49 yards per rush, No. 7 at 264.8 rushing yards per game and tied for 13th with only six sacks allowed. Their ball carries are averaging 4.68 yards before contact.
Appalachian State’s special teams have scored on Darrynton Evans’ 100-yard kickoff return at Penn State, Thomas Hennigan’s 59-yard punt return at Charlotte, Steven Jones’ end-zone recovery of his own blocked punt against Gardner-Webb and Clifton Duck’s 62-yard punt return against Gardner-Webb.
The junior Duck is among the players recognized on the USA TODAY Sports midseason All-America teams released this week.
He ranks No. 4 nationally at 18.1 yards per punt return and second with 41.4 punt return yards per game. He is one of just six players from a Group of Five conference to be recognized among the 50 midseason All-Americans.
Also a standout cornerback, Duck has 22 tackles, 1.0 tackle for loss and two pass breakups in 2018 despite having fewer passes thrown in his direction.
College Sports Madness named Appalachian State outside linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither the defensive player of the week in the Sun Belt for his efforts against Arkansas State. He had a career-high 14 tackles, including five stops on plays that gained 1 yard or less. Davis-Gaither paces the Apps’ defense with a team-high 39 tackles. He has broken up three passes and has registered one quarterback hurry.
Inside linebacker Jordan Fehr was the Sun Belt’s defensive player of the week for his play versus Arkansas State. Fehr also had a career-high 14 tackles and one sack. The fourth-quarter sack, which resulted in a 9-yard loss, was one of his seven stops on plays that gained 2 yards or less.
With a game canceled by Hurricane Florence, Appalachian State is one of only four FBS teams to have played just five games — the others are NC State, North Carolina and Akron. Still, the Mountaineers are tied for the No. 5 spot nationally with 23 players who have contributed in the tackles for loss statistical category. The breakdown features TFL contributions by 10 defensive linemen (App State’s regular rotation has nine linemen), seven linebackers and six defensive backs. The team leaders in TFLs are outside linebackers Davis-Gaither and Noel Cook with 3.5 apiece.
Sophomore quarterback Zac Thomas is 70-for-112 passing with 1,040 yards for the Mountaineers. He has thrown ten touchdowns and only three interceptions. Thomas has had at least one passing and one rushing touchdown in every game this season. He’s scored on runs of 54 and 62 yards in the last two games and ranks in the top 10 nationally in quarterback ratings, rushing touchdowns by a quarterback, point responsibility per game and yards per pass attempt.
His top passing target has been sophomore wide receiver Corey Sutton, who leads the Apps in catches with 16 for 352 yards and four touchdowns.
Unfortunately, Jalin Moore suffered a season-ending injury last week, but Appalachian State has four other running backs with a 100-yard game in their careers: Evans (115 at Arkansas State), Marcus Williams Jr. (125 and 130 last year), D’Andre Hicks (150 this year) and Daetrich Harrington (118 last year) to help make up for Moore’s absence.
Coach Billy Napier’s Rajin’ Cajuns (3-3 over-all; 1-1 conference) have shown an ability to produce a lot of points. In their wins, they have scored at least 42 points. Those include against Grambling (49-17), North Texas State (42-27) and last week versus New Mexico State (66-38).
The Rajin’ Cajuns had the unfortunate task of having to play the nation’s top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide, losing 56-14. Louisiana also fell 56-10 to Mississippi State and 30-28 in a conference game versus Coastal Carolina.
Louisiana senior quarterback Andre Nunez torched New Mexico State’s defense last week, finishing with 315 passing yards and five touchdowns. He had 19 pass completions in the game, after having been held to less than 10 completions in each of his previous three outings.
He has completed 84-of-123 passes for 1,080 yards and eleven touchdowns. He has thrown only four interceptions.
Wide receiver Ryheem Malone leads Louisiana in pass receptions with 24 for 217 yards and two touchdowns. His fellow wide receiver Ja’Marcus Bradley has added 17 receptions for 284 yards and six touchdowns.
The Rajin’ Cajuns offense also features a pair of explosive running backs in Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas.
Ragas has 599 yards on 90 carries with four touchdowns. Mitchell has compiled 460 yards on 61 carries and seven touchdowns.
The biggest test for Louisiana will be how long its suspect defense can hold up against Appalachian State’s potent offense. It’s hard to imagine a defense allowing 216.8 rushing yards per game keeping Evans and Company in check.
Linebacker Jacques Boudreaux leads the Rajin’ Cajuns in tackles with 34.
Appalachian State and Arkansas State were the preseason favorites to win the Sun Belt’s East and West Divisions, respectively. And after an easier-than-expected time of beating the Red Wolves in their home stadium, the Mountaineers are the team to beat for the over-all league title. And the primary question about Appalachian State has become: Can it run the table and go undefeated the rest of the regular season? The answer is a resounding “yes” as the Mountaineers will likely be favored in their remaining games, although a trip to Georgia Southern and a home game with Troy are potential stumbling blocks.
But first things first as Appalachian State must get by Louisiana for a shot an undefeated record the rest of the regular season. The Mountaineers are 29-3 against Sun Belt foes in their last 32 league games. And you can make that 30-3 in the last 33 conference tilts after Saturday’s game as they roll to another victory. Prediction: Appalachian State 49, Louisiana 10.