By Tim Gardner
From a possible Sun Belt Conference co-championship to bowl-slotting implications, there’s a lot on the line for the Appalachian State Football Mountaineers when they play Louisiana-Lafayette this Saturday, December 2 at Kidd Brewer Stadium in Boone. The game will start at 2:30 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time) and will be televised on ESPN3.
The Mountaineers (6-1 conference; 7-4-over-all) are part of a three-way tie with Troy (6-1 conference; 9-2 over-all) and Arkansas State (6-1 conference; 7-3 over-all) for first place in the Sun Belt Conference. Appalachian State will win a share of the conference championship and tie the Troy-Arkansas State winner at 7-1 with a victory over Louisiana -Lafayette on its Senior Day.
The Mountaineers also would enhance their bowl opportunity by beating Louisiana-Lafayette, likely getting to play in a more prestigious and higher-echelon bowl game. The four bowl possibilities for Appalachian State include: The R-L Carriers New Orleans Bowl in New Orleans, LA on December 16; the Auto Nation Cure (Florida Hospital) Bowl in Orlando, FL on December 16; the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, AL on December 16; and the Dollar General Bowl on December 23 in Mobile, AL.
Appalachian State does not play Troy or Arkansas State this season. The Mountaineers will finish in a three-way tie for second place in the Sun Belt Conference with the loser of Troy-Arkansas State if they lose to Louisiana-Lafayette and Georgia State beats Idaho Saturday. Appalachian State defeated Georgia State 31-10 last Saturday in Atlanta to knock the Panthers (5-2 conference; 6-4 over-all) out of contention for any part of the conference title. And Appalachian State would be considered ahead of Georgia State in the league standings if both are part of a tie by virtue of the Mountaineers win over the Panthers. If Georgia State losses to Idaho, Appalachian State would at worst finish in a two-way tie for second place with the loser of the Troy-Arkansas State game.
But, of course, the Mountaineers want to earn a share of the Sun Belt championship for the second straight year.
In 2016, an upset win at Louisiana-Lafayette gave Appalachian State a chance to win a Sun Belt Conference title nearly 1,700 miles from home.
There aren’t any long-distance surprises in store for the Mountaineers this year. They’ll face the Ragin’ Cajuns at home Saturday following a week in which they’ve known the championship stakes are in play.
Appalachian State, which finished a 7-1 record in the Sun Belt last season, earned a share of the league title by winning 37-7 at New Mexico State after previously unbeaten Arkansas State lost 24-19 at Louisiana-Lafayette.
The Ragin’ Cajuns need a win this Saturday to gain bowl eligibility.
Coached by Mark Hudspeth (95-58 coaching record over-all; 29-37 at Louisiana-Lafayette), the Ragin’ Cajuns are 4-3 in the Sun Belt and 5-6 over-all. They are coming off a 34-24 upset home loss to Georgia Southern. But they won Sun Belt road games against Idaho (21-16) and South Alabama (19-14) in uncharacteristically low-scoring affairs.
Louisiana-Lafayette operates out of a spread offense, and averages 29.5 points and 401.2 yards per game.
“I think this year Louisiana (Lafayette) offense is probably the best that we’ve seen out of one of its teams as far as points,” Appalachian State head coach Scott Satterfield (39-22 overall coaching record) said. “That team can run and throw. Hopefully our defense will continue to play well and we get our ground game going like we did the last couple weeks. We’re still going to have to hit some plays down the field. We’re going to have our work cut out for us defensively to slow that offense down.”
Two quarterbacks have seen game action for Louisiana-Lafayette in recent weeks. True freshman Levi Lewis made his first game appearance in early November and has started three of the last four games, although he was replaced by junior Jordan Davis early in the Georgia Southern loss.
Listed at 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, the left-handed Lewis rushed for 129 yards in his first start. At 6-3 in height and 217 pounds, Davis has thrown for 219 and 225 yards in the last two games, but has only seen six full games of action this season. He has 1,281 passing yards. Davis has thrown nine touchdowns, but also six interceptions.
Lewis and Davis share a backfield with 227-pound redshirt freshman running back Trey Ragas, who has run for 799 rushing yards and nine touchdowns in 2017. Louisiana-Lafayette’s leading pass-catcher, junior Ryheem Malone (wide receiver), made six catches for 106 yards and has notched 616 receiving yards on the season.
The Louisiana-Lafayette defense has not been a team strength this season, and has consistently had tough times defending against both the pass and run. The Ragin’ Cajuns use multiple defenses, but primarily a 4-3-4 set. They give up 37.9 points and 482.2 yards per game. They surrendered 464 total yards to Georgia Southern, including a whopping 389 yards on the ground.
Louisiana-Lafayette’s rush defense is ranked only 119th nationally.
The Ragin’ Cajuns have played in games with scores of 51-48 (win versus Southeastern Louisiana), 66-42 (loss to Tulsa), 45-21 (loss to Texas A&M), 56-50 (two-overtime loss to Louisiana-Monroe), 47-3 (loss to Arkansas State), 50-22 (loss to Mississippi) and 47-34 (win versus New Mexico State).
Leading Louisiana-Lafayette in tackles is senior safety Tracy Walker, who has 82 stops (57 solos; 25 assists).
Despite statistics, including points allowed, Satterfield is impressed with the Ragin’ Cajuns defensively. He commented: “Louisiana is very aggressive on defense and is playing a lot of seniors on its defensive front with players who have a lot of experience and that team has a lot of playmakers. They (Louisiana) put a lot of pressure on the opposing quarterbacks and play a lot of man coverage behind it.”
The Ragin’ Cajuns will face an Appalachian State team that bounced back from a 52-45 loss to Louisiana-Monroe (ULM) to hold Georgia Southern to 191 yards (a 27-6 win) and Georgia State to 292.
Appalachian State operates from a multiple spread offense. The Mountaineers have an effective running game that is averaging 202.1 yards per game. Junior running back Jalin Moore had a most productive game against Georgia State, accumulating 239 rushing yards. He has rushed for at least 100 yards in three of his last five games, and has tallied 802 rushing yards this season.
Senior wide receiver Ike Lewis made five grabs for 43 yards in last week’s game, and leads the Mountaineers with 604 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.
Senior quarterback Taylor Lamb was not at his best against Georgia State, throwing for 107 yards with two touchdowns against two interceptions. Still he ranks as one of Appalachian State’s all-time best, and is having a terrific season. He has thrown for 2,363 passing yards, 23 touchdowns and only six interceptions.
Appalachian State’s defense has played especially well late in the season and has allowed only a combined 16 points in the last two games. Based from a 3-4 set, the Mountaineers have a strong rush defense and has been consistently tough against the run all season.
A pair of inside linebackers leads the Mountaineers in tackles. Senior Eric Boggs has a team best 88 stops (46 solos; 42 assists) and junior Anthony Flory has 74 (50 solos; 24 assists). Appalachian State also features sack artist, senior defensive end Tee Sims, who has recorded 9.5 sacks for 78 yards in losses this season. He has been the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) leader in the statistical category.
Senior outside linebacker Rashaad Towns has added five sacks and has 48 total tackles (25 solos; 23 assists) for Appalachian State.
Defensive backs Tae Hayes (junior) and Clifton Duck (sophomore) both have made four interceptions for the Mountaineers in 2017.
In the kicking game, redshirt freshman Chandler Staton is perfect on field goals (8-for-8) and conversion kicks (18-for-18) after becoming the Mountaineers starter midway through this season. His longest made field goal is 53 yards. Louisiana-Lafayette’s junior kicker Stevie Artigue has had better than average success this season, converting 10 of 14 field goals and 29 of 37 conversion kicks. His longest field goal in 2017 is 51 yards.
The Mountaineers won 24-0 at Louisiana-Lafayette last year and 28-7 against the Ragin’ Cajuns in Boone two years ago (2015). This year’s game should also be a victory for Appalachian State. The Mountaineers simply have too much talent on both sides of the ball and in special teams for Louisiana-Lafayette to overcome. Appalachian State should have much success gaining yardage and putting points on the scoreboard. And Louisiana-Lafayette will have consistent problems moving the ball against Appalachian State’s stingy defense. Expect the Mountaineers to repeat as Sun Belt Conference Co-Champions. Prediction: Appalachian State 44, Louisiana-Lafayette 9.