By David Coulson
LAFAYETTE, La. — Appalachian State finds itself figuratively in the college football wasteland on Wednesday night at 8 p.m. when the Mountaineers meet Louisiana-Lafayette on the road in a Sun Belt Conference game that will be played on ESPN2.
When App State (3-2 overall, 1-0 in league) moved from the Southern Conference and the Football Championship Subdivision into the Sun Belt and the Football Bowl Subdivision ranks, the Mountaineers knew that jump would mean some unique scheduling demands and new challenges.
Last season, the Mountaineers played three games in the span of 15 days — a brutal stretch that included two Thursday night, nationally-televised games at Kidd Brewer Stadium and a triple-overtime Saturday thriller at home.
ASU won two of those three contests, but was so drained by the second half of that final Thursday game at the Rock that Arkansas State stormed back for a 40-27 victory that cost the Mountaineers the Sun Belt championship.
This season’s scheduling weirdness is much more manageable, but it still requires Appalachian to play on a Wednesday night for the first time in school history. It is a matter of national exposure versus normalcy on a night where ASU hits its fall-semester break.
The Mountaineers will also take the field with 10 days between their last game and Wednesday’s contest. App State will then host its annual homecoming game on a Saturday against Idaho on Oct. 22 before facing the short-week schedule again for the trip to arch-rival Georgia Southern on Oct. 27 — another Thursday night encounter that will be televised by ESPNU.
“It’s a wacky schedule,” ASU coach Scott Satterfield said. “I don’t like any mid-week games. I would rather play every game on Saturday. But I understand where it comes from.”
The logic behind this is that lower-level conferences like the Sun Belt, the Mid-American Conference and Conference USA have to adapt their schedules to fit into television schedules that bring attention and money into school athletic programs.
For a number of years now, ESPN and other networks have used college football games on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights to fill voids in programming schedules before college basketball returns each season.
And some larger leagues, like the Atlantic Coast Conference use the more viewer-friendly Thursday and Friday slots to grab audiences for more marquee games.
While playing on a Wednesday probably doesn’t do anything to help the team’s grade-point average, the contest against ULL has allowed the Mountaineers to get healthy.
Marcus Cox, the senior tailback who is just 44 rushing yards away from John Settles’ one-time, school-career record of 4,367 yards, is expected to return to the lineup for the first time since suffering a left quad injury in the first half of the Miami game on Sept. 17.
Kevin Richardson, one of the heroes of ASU’s three-consecutive national championships from 2005-07, broke Settles’ mark in his final season and finished with 4,804 yards — a standard that is well within the reach of a healthy Cox.
In the absence of Cox, sophomore backup Jalin Moore rushed 39 times for a career-high 257 yards in the 45-38 win at Akron and added 159 yards on 28 attempts, including a game-breaking 55-yard scoring jaunt as Appalachian knocked off Georgia State 17-3 in its Sun Belt opener.
Following uncharacteristic performances that allowed Miami and Akron to score a combined 83 points in the previous two games, the Mountaineer defense was more like its usual self in the win over Georgia State, limiting the Panthers to 241 yards and one field goal.
While the ASU passing attack has struggled to find its footing for much of the season, quarterback Taylor Lamb and his young receiving corps should be helped on Wednesday by the fact that the Ragin’ Cajuns have given up and average of 298 yards per game through the air and rank 122nd in the FBS for pass defense.
ULL (2-3, 1-1) is much stronger against the running game, giving up 121 yards per contest to rate 27th nationally. Overall, the Cajuns are 80th in total defense and 105th in scoring defense (33.6).
Two things have hurt Louisiana on offense, a foot injury to star senior running back Elijah McGuire — the Sun Belt’s 2014 player of the year with 1,264 yards rushing — and the inconsistent play of new starting quarterback Anthony Jennings.
Jalen Nixon, a fifth-year senior, who used the NCAA’s graduate-transfer rules to move from LSU to ULL for his final campaign looked to have won the QB job from Jennings before suffering a broken ankle in a loss to New Mexico State.
Nixon started 14 games for the Bayou Tigers in 2014 before falling out of favor, but his season now appears over. Jennings has struggled with eight TD passes and six interceptions as the Ragin’ Cajuns have struggled in their first five games.
ULL won two of its first three games, beating FCS McNeese State 30-22 and Sun Belt rival South Alabama 28-23 after losing its opener against Boise State 45-10, but the Cajuns lost 41-39 in four overtimes to Tulane and 37-31 in overtime to down-trodden New Mexico State in their past two games on the road.
App State — which has claimed 14 of its past 15 Sun Belt contests — has won its first two games against Louisiana, beating the Ragin’ Cajuns 28-7 at home last year after a crushing 35-16 victory in their first trip to Lafayette in 2014.
ULL had been one of the premier programs in the Sun Belt, with four consecutive nine-win seasons from 2011 to 2014 before plummeting to 4-8 last year.