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Appalachian State to Play For Sun Belt Conference Championship Saturday

Photo courtesy of Appalachian State Athletics

By Tim Gardner

As the old adage says, this one will be for all the marbles.

Appalachian State is hosting Louisiana-Lafayette in the inaugural Sun Belt Championship Game this Saturday, December 1 at Kidd Brewer Stadium in Boone. The game will kick-off at 12:00 noon before an expected sellout crowd in the 30,000-capacity stadium and a national television audience on ESPN.

The game can also be accessed via radio airways on the following affiliates: 97.3 FM (North Wilkesboro) – Flagship station; 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); 1350 AM (Asheville); and 620 AM (Durham/ Raleigh).

The Mountaineers (9-2 over-all) won the conference’s East Division, prevailing 21-10 against Troy in Boone last weekend to leave the two teams at 7-1 and advance via the head-to-head tiebreaker. Louisiana-Lafayette (7-5 over-all) won the West Division with a 5-3 record matched by Arkansas State, which had a head-to-head loss to the Ragin’ Cajuns. Louisiana-Lafayette is coming off a 31-28 win last week at Louisiana-Monroe.

Saturday’s winner receives a bid to the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Dec. 15. That game will be played against a Conference USA team has a 9:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST) kickoff on ESPN.

Appalachian State, Clemson (ACC) and Oklahoma (Big 12) are the three teams nationally with a chance Saturday to win a third consecutive conference title. Before the existence of a Sun Belt title game, Appalachian State shared league titles with Troy in 2017 and Arkansas State in 2016.

Appalachian State has never lost to Louisiana-Lafayette, owning a 5-0 lead in the series. The Mountaineers have already defeated the Ragin’ Cajuns this season by a 27-17 margin in Boone on Oct. 20. In that game, Darrynton Evans rushed for 183 yards and Akeem Davis-Gaither posted 15 tackles as the Mountaineers built a 27-10 lead before the Ragin’ Cajuns scored with 1:03 left.

The game features an interesting contrast in head coaches.

Scott Satterfield has compiled a 50-24 record in his six years as Appalachian State’s head coach. After playing quarterback for Appalachian State and then serving eleven years as an assistant coach for the Mountaineers, Satterfield spent one season (2009) as an assistant at Toledo and two at Florida International (2010-11), before returning to Appalachian State as an assistant in 2012. He became the Mountaineers head coach, starting with the 2013 season. He is tied for sixth nationally with 39 wins since the start of 2015 and is 34-6 versus Sun Belt teams from 2014 up to this week’s game.

The Ragin’ Cajuns are led by first year head coach Billy Napier. Prior to his stint at Louisiana-Lafayette, Napier was an assistant on two National Championship teams at Alabama during his two tenures there. He also served as an assistant at Clemson, Arizona State, Colorado State and South Carolina State. He played collegiately (quarterback) at Furman.

This game features the Sun Belt’s top two scoring offenses (Appalachian State’s at 37.3 points, followed by Louisiana-Lafayette’s 33.7) and top two offenses in terms of yards per carry (Appalachian State’s ranked 10th nationally at 5.773, followed by Louisiana-Lafayette with a national ranking of 11th at 5.766).

Evans leads the Sun Belt in rushing yards per game (112.8) and all-purpose yards per game (151.0) in league outings. Besides his output against Louisiana-Lafayette the first time the teams played this season, Evans has had 100-yard rushing games against Arkansas State (115), Coastal Carolina (159), Georgia State (127) and Troy (108). Thanks to touchdown runs of 79 and 56 yards in back-to-back games before he had a 58-yard run against Troy, Evans ranks No. 3 nationally with five runs of 50-plus yards. He is likely to surpass 1,000 yards in rushing this year, needing only 32 to reach that milestone.

Zac Thomas, who returned to Appalachian State’s lineup three games ago, led the Sun Belt during the regular season and ranks among the top 35 quarterbacks nationally in over-all rating (No. 13 at 79.9), passing efficiency (No. 18 at 156.5) and yards per completion (No. 35 at 12.95). For the season, he has 18 passing touchdowns, eight rushing touchdowns (with two of 50-plus yards) and just four interceptions. Thomas has completed 138-of-217 passes for 1,787 yards this season.

Appalachian State ranks No. 10 nationally at 5.77 yards per rush, No. 14 in rushing yards per game (242.5) and tied for No. 19 in fewest sacks allowed (15) thanks to the consistently outstanding play of Assistant Coach Shawn Clark’s linemen– offensive tackles Victor Johnson and Chandler Greer, center Noah Hannon and guards Ryan Neuzil, Baer Hunter and Cole Garrison playing the majority of snaps.

Wide receiver Corey Sutton is 11th nationally at a league-best 19.76 yards per catch, and the last two of his eight touchdowns put the Mountaineers ahead 14-0 as it built a 21-0 lead in the first half against Troy. He has 34 catches for 672 yards and eight touchdowns this year.

Defensively, the Mountaineers have equaled or even bettered their offensive success. The “Legion of Boone” defense has become a machine.

Appalachian State led the Sun Belt in 2018 with top-10 national rankings in total defense (No. 4, 278.2 yards), scoring defense (No. 5, 15.4), pass efficiency defense (No. 2, 100.4), passing defense (No. 4, 153.8), yards allowed per pass attempt (No. 2, 5.4), third-down defense (No. 8, 30.4 percent), fourth-down defense (No. 2, 27.8), three-and-outs per game (No. 2, 5.64), first downs allowed (No. 2, 168), special teams touchdowns (tie for No. 1, four), blocked kicks (No. 4, six) and kickoff return average (No. 2, 27.8).

Eliminating a non-offensive touchdown by Coastal Carolina, Appalachian State’s defense has allowed only 9.2 points per game. It gave up 10 points or less in seven of the team’s nine wins. Taking away Penn State’s overtime touchdown and a defensive touchdown by Coastal Carolina, Appalachian State’s defense has allowed just 14.1 points every four quarters.

The Mountaineers have given up just 31 second-half points in their nine wins and outscored opponents 105-35 in the fourth quarter this year. They had second-half shutouts of Charlotte, Gardner-Webb, South Alabama, Arkansas State and Coastal Carolina.

With 5.64 three-and-outs forced per game, Appalachian State ranks No. 2 nationally behind top-ranked Alabama (5.75). And at 44.3 percent (62 in 140 chances), the Mountaineers also are second to Alabama (45.7 percent).

In the secondary, Appalachian State is tied for No. 2 nationally with 69 interceptions since the 2015 season began. Still coached by new defensive coordinator Bryan Brown, the cornerbacks had an FBS-high 30 picks from 2015-17, and junior Clifton Duck is tied for No. 1 with 12 interceptions since the start of 2016. Safety Desmond Franklin’s four interceptions this year are tied for the Sun Belt lead.

And among players from bowl-eligible teams, the Mountaineers have three of the Sun Belt’s top seven tacklers in Akeem Davis-Gaither (No. 1, 8.1 average per game), Anthony Flory (No. 3, 7.3 average per game) and Jordan Fehr (No. 7, 6.8 average per game).

For the season, Davis-Gaither leads the Mountaineers in tackles with 89, including eight for loss and one sack. He also has broken up six passes and forced two fumbles.

Appalachian State remains among five teams with a Football Bowl Subdivision-leading four special teams touchdowns, scoring on Evans’ 100-yard kick return at Penn State, Thomas Hennigan’s 59-yard punt return against Charlotte, Steven Jones’ end-zone recovery of his own blocked punt versus Gardner-Webb and Clifton Duck’s 62-yard punt return against Gardner-Webb.

Chandler Staton has made 8-of-12 field goals and all 52 extra point kicks for the Mountaineers, while Clayton Howell has a 42.8 yard per punt average. Howell has nailed nine punts inside the opposition’s 20-yard line.

Louisiana-Lafayette has used a two quarterback system of sorts. Senior quarterback Andre Nunez has completed 164-of-249 passes for 2,051 yards and 19 touchdowns. He has thrown 10 interceptions.

The Ragin’ Cajuns’ quarterbacks have been efficient and accurate all season long, with sophomore quarterback Levi Lewis leading the conference in passing efficiency (198.1) and Nunez not far off, ranking fifth in the conference and 24th in the FBS (152.2).

Wide receiver Ryheem Malone leads Louisiana-Lafayette in pass receptions with 39 for 459 yards and four touchdowns. His fellow wide receiver Ja’Marcus Bradley has added 33 receptions for 516 yards. Bradley has especially been a consistent weapon for Louisiana-Lafayette throughout the season, and his first quarter touchdown reception at Louisiana-Monroe gave him 10 on the season.

The Ragin’ Cajuns offense also features a pair of very explosive running backs.

Trey Ragas has 1,040 yards on 181 carries and eight touchdowns. The sophomore running back racked up 115 yards on 23 carries last week against Louisiana-Monroe, and with a five-yard run in the third quarter, he eclipsed 1,000 yards on the season.

Elijah Mitchell has compiled 874 yards on 123 carries and 12 touchdowns.

While the Ragin’ Cajuns are averaging 33.7 points per outing, they’re giving up 34. They can’t give up that many—or even close to that many– to Appalachian State and expect to have a decent chance to win.

Junior linebacker Jacques Boudreaux recorded a career-high 11 stops in Louisiana-Lafayette’s win over Louisiana-Monroe, and is quickly approaching 100 tackles on the season having already recorded a team-best 83 tackles, including 4.5 for loss and two sacks. He ranks seventh in the conference in total tackles made.

The Ragin’ Cajuns may have a slim edge in the kicking game. Kyle Pfau has hit 10-of-13 field goals this season, with his longest being 52 yards. Rhys Byrns has a 39.6 per yards punting average. He has booted a punt as far as 68 yards and has nailed 17 inside the opposition’s 20 in 2018.

It’s hard to beat a team twice in the same season. However, if you’re good enough to beat a team once, you’re good enough to beat it again. Such is how this writer feels about Appalachian State’s prospects for this game.

I picked the Mountaineers to lose last week to Troy and thus not reach the conference championship tilt. Now that the Mountaineers have beaten Troy to earn the right to play for the Sun Belt crown, I won’t make the same mistake of picking them to lose again.

Both Appalachian State and the Ragin’ Cajuns have potent offenses, but the Mountaineers’ defense is far better than Louisiana-Lafayette’s. The Mountaineers will score a lot of points and keep the Ragin’ Cajuns from scoring many. Can you Appalachian State enthusiasts say “How ‘Bout Those Sun Belt Champs?” Prediction: Appalachian State 45, Louisiana-Lafayette 9.