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App State Hosts UL-Monroe for Homecoming in Battle of Sun Belt Division Leaders

Photo by Appalachian State Athletics

By Tim Gardner

Sun Belt Conference Division Leaders clash when Appalachian State hosts Louisiana-Monroe this Saturday, October 19 at Kidd Brewer Stadium for the Mountaineers homecoming game. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m.

The game marks the fifth meeting between Appalachian State and Louisiana-Monroe. The Mountaineers lead the all-time series 3-1, including a 2-0 record in games played in Boone. In the last meeting between the schools on Nov. 4, 2017, Caleb Evans accounted for 403 yards total offense and five touchdowns to lead Louisiana-Monroe to a 52-45 win.

This year’s game will mark the Mountaineers’ first home game as a nationally ranked Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) Major Level team.

In the midst of an 11-game winning streak and a 5-0 start to the 2019 season, Coach Eliah Drinkwitz’s Appalachian State team received national recognition in the form of its second Top 25 ranking in the program’s brief FBS history.

At 5-0 overall and 2-0 in league play heading into the game against ULM (3-3, 2-0), Appalachian State is No. 24 in both the Associated Press Top 25 Poll and the Amway Coaches Poll. It’s the highest ranking in any poll in the Mountaineers’ FBS history and the first ranking of Appalachian State by the coaches. It also marks the highest ranking for any Sun Belt team since the league was established in 1976. Appalachian State joined the Sun Belt in 2014.

As one of 12 unbeaten FBS teams and one of three Group of Five conference teams with an unblemished record, the Mountaineers have defeated East Tennessee State, Charlotte, in-state ACC program North Carolina on the road and Sun Belt foes Coastal Carolina (at home) and Louisiana (on the road).

Appalachian State’s 11-game winning streak is the nation’s third-longest active streak behind Clemson (21) and Ohio State (12). Since 2015 — during a run that includes three straight league titles and four consecutive bowl wins — the Mountaineers have the nation’s fifth-best winning percentage thanks to a 46-11 record.

Last year, Appalachian State earned its first Top 25 ranking as an FBS member (No. 25 in the AP poll) thanks to a 5-1 start that featured five straight wins following an overtime loss at Penn State. Appalachian State teams in 2019 and 2018 account for two of the three Sun Belt Conference teams to ever receive a Top 25 ranking.

This year’s game could be the most competitive played between Appalachian State and Louisiana-Monroe. Several similarities exist between them–especially offensively.

In Drinkwitz’s first season as head coach, the Mountaineers are among the nation’s leaders in several special teams and offensive statistical categories and are coming off a brilliant defensive performance in a 17-7 road win over Louisiana, who entered that contest with the nation’s No. 1 rushing attack. Appalachian State is tied for the national lead in fewest turnovers lost (2) and most blocked kicks (4). The Mountaineers are 10th in scoring offense (41.0), tied for fifth in defensive touchdowns (2), eighth in kickoff returns (28.8), ninth in third-down conversions (50.0), 11th in pass completion percentage (70.4) and 12th in punt returns (15.5).

Also, in 22 red zone trips this season, the Mountaineers have 20 touchdowns, one made field goal and one missed field goal. The 90.9 touchdown percentage is tied for first place nationally with Navy.

Coach Matt Viator’s Warhawks rank among the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision’s Top 30 in rushing offense (No. 28 at 217.5 yards per game.) and total offense (No. 29 at 462.8 ypg). Additionally, the Warhawks are listed among the Sun Belt Conference leaders in passing offense (third at 245.3 ypg.), total offense (third) and rushing offense (fifth). ULM has rushed for 200-plus yards in four of the first six games in 2019.

Saturday’s matchup features both Sun Belt quarterbacks who are among the 20 finalists for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award. Appalachian State’s Zac Thomas and ULM’s Caleb Evans account for two of the six Group of Five quarterbacks on the list. Both are very versatile passing or running with the ball. The reigning Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Week, Thomas has seven passing touchdowns and three rushing touchdowns this season. Evans has thrown 10 touchdown passes and rushed for five more touchdowns this year.

Thomas has completed 80-of-113 passes for 949 yards and seven touchdowns. He has suffered only two interceptions.

Appalachian State has won 15 straight games with Thomas as the team’s primary quarterback. He is 15-2 overall as the Mountaineers’ starting signal-caller, with the only losses coming in overtime at No. 9 Penn State (Sept. 1, 2018) in his first career start and at Georgia Southern (Oct. 25, 2018) when he was injured on the third play of the game and did not return.

With a 19-play, 97-yard touchdown drive that lasted 10 minutes, 11 seconds and finished with a Thomas touchdown run for the game’s final tally at Louisiana, it was Appalachian State’s first 10-minute scoring drive since at least 2000 and the second-longest drive in an FBS game this year.

Evans has completed 119-of-195 throws (.610) for 1,397 yards. He has four interceptions. Evans has accounted for 1,738 yards total offense and 15 scores. He has thrown for more than 200 yards in each of his last three starts. He is listed among the NCAA FBS leaders in total offense (No. 21 at 289.7 yards per game) and points responsible for (No. 24 with 90 points).

He needs 32 passing yards at Appalachian State to become the third quarterback in ULM history to reach the 8,000-yard career milestone (Kolton Browning, 2010-13: 10,263 career passing yards; and Steven Jyles, 2002-05: 8,987).

Evans ranks second on the team in rushing yards (341).

For the Mountaineers, Thomas’ top receiving target so far in 2019 has been Thomas Hennigan (25 catches for 305 yards, 12.2 average per catch and two touchdowns).

Appalachian State’s Darrynton Evans ranks fourth nationally in all-purpose yards per game (154.8), fifth in points per game (12.0), eighth in kick return average (30.7) and 11th in rushing yards per game (108.0).

He has 89 carries for 540 yards and nine touchdowns this season and is averaging a most impressive 6.1 yards per carry.

A key Evans’ throwing success throughout his career has been his ability to utilize all of the weapons at his disposal in ULM’s one-back offense. This season, five Warhawks have at least 13 receptions, including Markis McCray (24 for 298), Josh Pederson (24 for 288 yards), Xavier Brown (15 for 187), Jonathan Hodoh (14 for 170) and Zach Jackson (13 for 156).

Josh Johnson leads the Sun Belt Conference and ranks seventh in the FBS in both rushing yards (712) and rushing average (118.7) yards per game. His 6.72 yards per carry ranks 14th in the FBS. Johnson also leads his team in rushing touchdowns (6) and scoring (36 points) while ranking second in explosive plays (8, 20-plus yard runs).

Johnson has been stopped for a loss only four times in 106 rushing attempts. He opened the season with 69 consecutive carries without being tackled in the backfield.

Tight end Josh Pederson leads ULM in receptions (24; tied with Markis McCray) and touchdown receptions (5) while ranking second in receiving yards (288). Eighteen of his 24 receptions (75 percent) have resulted in either a first down or a touchdown.

How consistently successful the Warhawks are moving the ball against Appalachian State’s vaunted defense will be a key factor if they can pull off the upset. Outside linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither leads Appalachian State with 45 tackles, including double-figure totals in road wins at North Carolina and Louisiana. He intercepted a second-half pass and blocked a game-ending field goal in the 34-31 win at North Carolina, then had 2.5 tackles for loss among his 11 stops at Louisiana to earn Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Week honors.

Among Davis Gaither’s statistics are six tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. He has also made an interception.

Senior linebacker Jordan Fehr recorded a career-high 16 tackles in the win at UNC and is second on Appalachian State’s team with 40 stops.

Defensively, Louisiana-Monroe also ranks among the Sun Belt leaders in interceptions (tied for first with 7), turnover margin (second at +0.5 per game) and takeaways (second with 11). In addition, the Warhawks are listed among the FBS leaders in interceptions (tied for 21st).

Linebacker Cortez Sisco Jr. leads the Warhawks in tackles with 54 (24 solos, 30 assists), including back-to-back double-figure efforts against South Alabama (career-high 13 stops) and No. 23 Memphis (11).

Appalachian State should be on upset alert this week. Louisiana-Monroe is the type team that can take the Mountaineers down to the wire. But if the Warhawks don’t play well, Appalachian State can turn the game into a rout. The Mountaineers will be the favorite in all their remaining regular season games with the possible exception at South Carolina. And the more talented and deeper team should prevail this week. Prediction: Appalachian State 44, Louisiana-Monroe 30.