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App State to Play Troy for Sun Belt East Title and Chance to Host Conference Championship Game


By Tim Gardner

The winner in Saturday’s game between Appalachian State and Troy in Boone clinches the Sun Belt’s East Division title and will play for the conference championship.

The game will kick-off at 2:30 Eastern Standard Time (EST) at Kidd Brewer Stadium. It will be televised on ESPN-Plus. It also can be heard across radio airways on 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); and 1350 AM (Asheville).

On Dec. 1, the Appalachian State-Troy winner will host the West Division winner– Louisiana-Lafayette, Arkansas State or Louisiana-Monroe —in the league championship game. Those latter teams also finish the regular season this Saturday. Louisiana-Lafayette (4-3 conference; 6-5 over-all) would advance to the championship game with a win at Louisiana-Monroe (4-3 conference; 6-5 over-all), while Arkansas State (4-3 conference; 7-4 over-all) advances with a win at Texas State and a Louisiana-Lafayette loss at Louisiana-Monroe. And Louisiana-Monroe needs to beat Louisiana-Lafayette and have Texas State upset Arkansas State to advance.

The winner of the Sun Belt championship game will then play in the R+L Carriers Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, LA on Dec. 15.

Appalachian State’s Mountaineers have an 8-2 record, including 6-1 in conference action. They lost to Penn State and Georgia Southern. They have beaten Charlotte, Gardner-Webb, South Alabama, Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Coastal Carolina, Texas State and Georgia State. 

The Mountaineers are 33-4 in their last 37 Sun Belt games, including a 17-1 home record.

The Troy Trojans are 9-2 on the season and 7-0 in Sun Belt play. They have fallen to Boise State and Liberty, but defeated Florida A&M, Nebraska, Louisiana-Monroe, Coastal Carolina, Georgia State, South Alabama, Louisiana-Lafayette, Georgia Southern and Texas State. 

The Trojans have won 13 straight Sun Belt games since a 19-8 loss to South Alabama on Oct. 11, 2017, and 10 of their last 11 on the road in conference play since the start of the 2016 season.

Appalachian State and Troy have the two programs that have been the Sun Belt’s most prominent nationally in recent years, and they have a history of intense games.

The series is tied 3-3, and the Mountaineers have a 2-1 edge in the head-to-head Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) series thanks to a 53-14 road win in 2014 and a 44-41 home win in three overtimes the following year. Troy won 28-24 at home in 2016. The next day, Troy became the first team in Sun Belt history to be nationally ranked. But Appalachian State shared the league title with Arkansas State that season. Last year, Appalachian State and Troy did not play and shared the Sun Belt championship with 7-1 marks.

Earlier this season, Appalachian State duplicated Troy’s feat of being nationally ranked, coming in at Number 25. However, it lasted just a week as the Mountaineers lost 34-14 in a Thursday night game at Georgia Southern. Ironically, Troy was ranked No. 25 in 2016 and also lost its next game to fall out of the rankings.

This week’s game will be one of the biggest in the head coaching careers of both Appalachian State’s Scott Satterfield and Troy’s Neal Brown.

Since 2015 (Satterfield’s third year as the Mountaineers’ head coach and Brown’s first as Troy’s head coach), Appalachian State is third among Group of Five teams with 38 wins and the Trojans are seventh with 34. Boise State and San Diego State have 39 apiece.

“It’s a big game because we’re trying to win a championship,” Satterfield said.

Brown downplayed how this game may be analyzed as a success or failure. “Any time you play these types of games people think it makes or breaks your season and I don’t buy into that,” he said. “To say the year hasn’t been a success if we don’t win (at Appalachian State), I don’t agree with that.”

Appalachian State is coming off a 45-17 rout of Georgia State, while Troy only beat lowly Texas State 12-7. Entering the Texas State game, Troy was coming off a two-touchdown win at Georgia Southern, a victory that made the Appalachian State game a showdown for the East Division title. Texas State has only won three games and has many of the same players the Trojans beat 62-9 a year ago.

But the Trojans had one of their worst offensive showings of the season, mustering only 220 total yards and not scoring a touchdown. They got field goals of 36, 47, 42, and 27 yards from Tyler Sumpter, who is 17-of 22 in field goal kicking for the season. And he has twice nailed 50 yarders and is 38-for-38 on extra points.

Against Texas State, Troy’s defense picked up the slack for an offense that entered the game averaging 33.5 points, recording five interceptions and six takeaways. Troy yielded just 284 yards, the third straight game it limited an opponent to less than 300 yards.

Troy’s struggle with Texas State can also be attributed to injuries. The Trojans lost starting quarterback Kaleb Barker earlier this season with a knee injury. And three receivers either didn’t play or barely saw action in the game. A fourth, Sidney Davis, was injured in the game and didn’t play much in it. The injured receivers — Davis, Damion Willis, Deondre Douglas and Tray Eafford — have accounted for 18 of Troy’s 20 receiving touchdowns this season. Douglas and Willis are expected to return for Saturday’s game. They have combined for 81 catches for 1,143 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Leading a very efficient Troy offense is steady quarterback Sawyer Smith, who completed 13-of-27 passes for just 79 yards versus Texas State, but has passed for 1,189 yards and nine touchdowns this season while throwing just 152 passes since replacing Barker.

The matchup also features the Sun Belt’s top two defenses (Appalachian State leads the league at 15.9 points and 282.8 yards allowed per game, followed by Troy’s 21.2 points and 348.5 yards), the league’s top two run defenses (Troy leads the league at 124.5 rushing yards allowed per game,

followed by Appalachian State’s 130.5) and the Sun Belt’s two most productive running backs (Appalachian State’s Darrynton Evans is first at 113.4 rushing yards per league game as part of his 860 total rushing

yards, followed by B.J. Smith’s 108.9 yards per league game as part of his 1,040 total yards).

Smith has averaged 5.7 yards per carry while racking up 12 touchdowns.

But Troy’s defense will have the very tough task of slowing down the high-caliber Appalachian State offense. The Mountaineers average a Sun Belt-best 38.9 points per game.

Still, the Trojans have created 26 takeaways and carry a plus-10 turnover margin into the game. They have recorded 10 interceptions in the last four games and 17 this season, paced by safety Cedarius Rookard’s four. Rookard also is third in total team tackles (56).

Linebackers Tron Folsom (68) and Charlton Martial (62) lead Troy in tackles.

“They (Appalachian State) do a good job running the football,” said Brown. “Everything is based off having success on the run and being able to hit some shot plays over the head. They are a really good offensive team.”

Zac Thomas, who returned to Appalachian State’s lineup two games ago following an injury, leads the Sun Belt in quarterback efficiency rating (83.7, No. 6 FBS), passing efficiency (161.4, No. 15 FBS), yards per pass attempt (8.67, No. 15 FBS) and yards per completion (13.29, No. 24 FBS).

For the season, he has 16 passing touchdowns, seven rushing touchdowns and just four interceptions to go along with 1,674 passing yards and 384 rushing yards.

Wide receiver Corey Sutton is sixth nationally at 20.69 yards per catch. He had a 39-yard touchdown and a 40-yard catch in the first quarter of last weekend’s 45-17 win versus Georgia State. It was his second 100-yard game. Sutton has 29 receptions for 600 yards and six touchdowns this year.

In conference games, Evans also is Number one in the Sun Belt in all-purpose yards per game (151.0) and kickoff return average (27.4). He became Appalachian State’s primary back during the second league game, after Jalin Moore suffered a season-ending injury, and has 100-yard rushing games against Arkansas State (115), Louisiana (183), Coastal Carolina (159) and Georgia State (127).

With touchdown runs of 79 and 56 yards the last two games, he ranks No. 6 nationally in 50-yard runs (four) and No. 14 nationally in 20-yard runs (11). Appalachian State ranks No. 11 nationally at 5.91 yards per rush, No. 16 in rushing yards per game (246.6) and tied for No. 20 in fewest sacks allowed (14).

With Moore and Evans, five Appalachian running backs have a 100-yard game in their careers: Marcus Williams Jr. (twice last year, plus 103 at Coastal Carolina), D’Andre Hicks (150 this year) and Daetrich Harrington (118 last year). Appalachian State and Clemson have an FBS-high four running backs with 100-yard games this year.

Since losing to Georgia Southern a month ago, the Mountaineers have rushed for at least 220 yards in every game.

Thanks to exceptional offensive line play, Appalachian State ranks No. 11 nationally at 5.91 yards per carry. Left tackle Victor Johnson (36 straight starts), center Noah Hannon (22 straight starts), left guard Ryan Neuzil (15 straight starts), along with right tackle Chandler Greer, guard Baer Hunter and guard Cole Garrison have helped the Mountaineers earn a No. 16 national ranking in rushing offense and No. 20 in fewest sacks allowed (14) this year.

Scoring against the Mountaineers has been difficult. Appalachian State has allowed only single-digit points in six of its last nine games, given up just 24 second-half points in its eight wins and outscored its opponents 105-35 in the fourth quarter this year. The Mountaineers had second-half shutouts of Charlotte, Gardner-Webb, South Alabama, Arkansas State and Coastal Carolina, which scored its only first-half points on an interception return.

And maintaining drives will be critical for the Trojans if they don’t get quick scores, as Appalachian State ranks No. 4 nationally by forcing a three-and-out on 42.9 percent of its defensive series.

The Mountaineers also lead the Sun Belt, and are ranked nationally in some defensive statistical categories including: scoring defense (15.9, No. 7 FBS), total defense (282.8, No. 8 FBS), passing defense (152.3), third-down defense (31.5 percent) and red zone defense (77.3).

Akeem Davis-Gaither leads Appalachian State in tackles with 75, including six for loss and one sack. The versatile linebacker also has broken up five passes and forced two fumbles.

With Evans and Thomas Hennigan (also a wide receiver) back deep, Appalachian State is No. 2 nationally at 28.76 yards per kickoff return. The Mountaineers also are second nationally with six blocked kicks (one behind the seven from Toledo and Baylor) due to the ace work of Steven Jones (two punt blocks), Tae Hayes (two blocked field goals), Demetrius Taylor (one punt block) and Caleb Spurlin (one punt block).

Clayton Howell, who had a 62-yard punt last weekend for Appalachian State against Georgia State, is 12th nationally with a 41.1 net average.

Appalachian State kicker Chandler Staton is a perfect 49-of-49 kicking extra points and is 8-for-10 on field goals this season, with his longest being 40 yards.

Regardless if the Mountaineers win or lose Saturday, they have had a very good season and qualified for their fourth consecutive bowl game. But a win over Troy gives Appalachian State a shot at an 11-win season. They would also have to win the Sun Belt Championship game next week and then their bowl game for that to happen. Such an achievement would be heady stuff and turn a very good season into a great season. And it’s a definite possibility. Whichever team wins the Appalachian State-Troy game will be a heavy favorite against the West Division winner in the league championship tilt.

I predicted before the season that Appalachian State would win 9 and lose 3 games during the regular season. That was without knowing that its game versus Southern Mississippi would be cancelled due to Hurricane Florence. So that translates into an 8-3 regular season. Sometimes you have to stay with your original, gut feeling. Prediction: Troy 24, Appalachian State 23.