By Tim Gardner
The preseason favorite to win the Sun Belt Conference’s East Division looked far more impressive than the pick to win the league’s West Division Tuesday night as Appalachian State rolled to a 35-9 win over Arkansas State at Centennial Bank Stadium in Jonesboro, AR before 21,421 fans and a ESPN2 national television audience.
With the victory, the Mountaineers (4-1 over-all; 2-0 conference) stake an early claim to the Sun Belt championship. It also was their 14th win in the last 16 conference road games. Appalachian State improved to 40-10 in its last 50 games overall.
Quarterback Zac Thomas had a hand in three touchdowns for the Mountaineers while accounting for 220 yards of offense–76 rushing and 144 through the air.
Arkansas State opening the scoring when Blake Grupe kicked a 31-yard field goal with 10:26 remaining in the first quarter to provide a 3-0 lead. The scoring drive covered 54 yards and took eleven plays.
It marked the first time Appalachian State has trailed in a game since its season opener on September 1 at Penn State.
Arkansas State (3-3 over-all; 0-2 conference) extended its advantage to 6-0 with 13:46 left in the second quarter when Grupe kicked a 47-yard field goal. The Red Wolves went 45 yards in ten plays for the score.
But Appalachian State answered just four plays later when Jalin Moore ripped off a 27-yard touchdown run, brushing off defenders and stretching the football across the goal line with 11:13 to go in the period. Chandler Staton added the conversion kick to put the Mountaineers ahead 7-6.
Darrynton Evans made a 39-yard run the play before the touchdown to set it up. It came on the Mountaineers’ fifth offensive drive.
But Moore, Appalachian’s State’s senior offensive backfield leader, hurt his right ankle on the touchdown run. He remained on the ground after the play. Medical personnel put his right leg in an air cast, and he was carted off the field. He didn’t re-enter the game, and finished with 32 yards on seven carries.
Before Moore’s score, Appalachian State’s offense had barely moved the ball, gaining only 31 yards combined on its first four drives.
Grupe kicked his third field goal–this one from 33 yards– to put the Red Wolves back in front at 9-7 with 4:37 remaining in the half.
But the Mountaineers regained the lead on their next possession when wide receiver Corey Sutton caught a 25-yard touchdown pass from Thomas 2:57 before intermission. Staton booted the extra point for a 14-9 score.
That scoring strike was set up two plays earlier by a 41-yard catch by wide receiver Jalen Virgil.
Cornerback Tae Hayes intercepted a pass by Red Wolves quarterback Justice Hansen deep in Arkansas State territory (22 yard line) and returned the ball to the 3 moments later to set up the Mountaineers next points. Evans ran for a 1-yard touchdown and Staton followed with the point-after kick to boost the lead to 21-9 with 45 seconds left before intermission.
Evans rushed for a career-high 115 yards in relief of Moore.
Appalachian State safety Josh Thomas then picked off a Hansen pass on the ensuing possession, stopping Arkansas State’s last-ditch effort to score before halftime.
Appalachian State had only 187 total yards of offense in the first half, and 149 of them came on two drives. The Mountaineers finished with a total of 390 yards, 144 passing and 246 rushing.
The Mountaineers drove 86 yards in five plays for their initial second-half score, capped by a 3-yard touchdown jump pass from Thomas to tight end Collin Reed with 2:52 left in the third quarter. Staton made the PAT to increase the lead to 28-9.
A 57-yard gallop by Evans to the Arkansas State 24 helped create that touchdown.
Appalachian’s third interception of Hansen occurred right after defensive backs Austin Exford and Steven Jones swallowed up an Arkansas State punt returner for a 5-yard loss. Exford then picked off a pass tipped by teammate (linebacker) Akeem Davis-Gaither for his first career interception, allowing the Mountaineers to record more interceptions off Hansen than he had totaled in the Red Wolves’ first five games combined.
Zac Thomas then dashed 62 yards for an insurance score with 6:09 remaining and Staton converted his fifth extra point kick to push Appalachian State’s cushion to 35-9 as the game became a rout.
Hansen, the Sun Belt’s preseason pick for its offensive player of the year, was 25-for-40 passing with 209 yards and no touchdowns. It was a gritty effort by the Mountaineers’ defense against Hansen as he had thrown at least one passing touchdown in 21 of his previous 22 games.
Appalachian State’s defense also forced seven three-and-outs and allowed a total of only the nine points on the five Arkansas State drives that advanced to at least the Mountaineers’ 35-yard line. The Red Wolves were limited to 336 total yards, including 219 through the air, as linebacker Jordan Fehr also contributed a solo sack.
Appalachian State is off this Saturday before returning to action October 20 with a Family Weekend home game against Sun Belt foe Louisiana. The game will kick-off at 3:30 p.m. in Kidd Brewer Stadium.