By Tim Gardner
The Appalachian State Mountaineers set various milestones during the 2019 football season and they ended it in dramatic fashion , recovering a pair of fumbles that they scooped up and returned for touchdowns to key a 31-17 win Saturday night in the New Orleans Bowl. The game was played in the Mercedes-Bentz Superdome.
The verdict gave Shawn Clark a win in his head coaching debut at his alma mater.
With the win, Appalachian State also extended its bowl game winning streak to five, a debut stretch unmatched at the major college Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level. Since the 2014 season — the Mountaineers first in the FBS, when they weren’t allowed to play in bowl games due to transition — they’ve played in a bowl season every season since, being victorious in all.
Those include back-to-back wins in the Camellia Bowl (2015 and 2016), another in the Dollar General Bowl (2017), and the last two in New Orleans as the Sun Belt Conference champion.
Appalachian State finishes the season 13-1, the winningest for a Sun Belt and State of North Carolina major college.
It also was the Mountaineers most victories since 2007. That season featured the last of Appalachian State’s three consecutive I-AA national titles.
Appalachian State has won at least nine games in each of the last five seasons.
The Blazers (9-5) scored just four plays into the game and in only 1:14 to take a 7-0 lead. On second and-seven from the the Appalachian State 25-yard line, quarterback Tyler Johnston III hit receiver Hayden Pittman with a touchdown pass and Nick Vogel kicked the point-after.
The drive covered 75 yards and all but three were made via the passing game.
UAB duplicated that touchdown on its next possession. The Blazers again scored in four plays–this time from 79 yards–and the score again was from 25 yards when Austin Watkins caught a pass from Johnston III at the 10:28 mark of the opening period. Vogel made the conversion kick to the put the Blazers up 14-0.
Chandler Staton then kicked a 34-yard field goal on the second play of the second quarter to pull the Mountaineers within 14-3.
Appalachian State then cut the deficit to 14-10 with 7:59 remaining in the first half when wide receiver Thomas Hennigan caught a 17-yard touchdown from quarterback Zac Thomas and Staton followed with the conversion kick.
The touchdown capped an 81-yard; seven play drive.
Appalachian State then took its first lead early in the last half. Thomas rushed up the middle for no gain from UAB’s 30-yard line. Thomas then fumbled on a quarterback sneak the next play. But running back Darrynton Evans picked up the ball and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown with 12:14 left in the third period. Staton followed with a successful point-after kick as the Mountaineers moved ahead 17-14.
The drive covered 44 yards and took seven plays and 2:46.
The Blazers tied the score (17-17) when Vogel nailed a 49-yard field goal at the 8:19 mark of the third quarter.
But the Mountaineers scored on their second fumble recovery and return for a touchdown with just over six minutes (6:16) left in the period. Johnston III was sacked by outside linebacker Nick Hampton for a 7-yard loss. Johnston III then fumbled and Mountaineer linebacker Trey Cobb picked it the ball and returned it 24 yards for a touchdown. Staton added the extra point for a 24-17 lead.
The Mountaineers pushed their cushion to 31-17 with 44 seconds to go in the third quarter when Thomas threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to Hennigan and Staton added the PAT.
Hennigan ripped the ball away from a UAB defender to score the latter touchdown.
The score stood the rest of the way.