By David Coulson
MONROE, La. — As Appalachian State prepares for its trip on Saturday evening to Louisiana-Monroe and a 7 p.m.Sun Belt game that will be shown live on ESPN3, it is easy to reflect on what a difference 11 months has made for the Mountaineer football program.
Just a year ago, App State (4-1 overall, 1-0 in conference) began the season losing five of its first six games and was still just 3-5 overall and 2-2 in its new league when ULM — one of the preseason favorites in the Sun Belt — came to Kidd Brewer Stadium for a early November game.
There were howls of protest a few weeks earlier around campus and within the alumni when it was learned that embattled coach Scott Satterfield had received a previously-agreed-on salary increase, due to the Mountaineers’ move from the Southern Conference and the Football Championship Subdivision into the Sun Belt and the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The fans of the Mountaineers held out little hope that there would be much of a turnaround for a team that was struggling on defense and making far too many mistakes with a young offense and with its predictably unpredictable special teams.
Things hit low tide when FCS Liberty upset ASU 55-48 in overtime on homecoming, but the Mountaineers did rebound with two big conference wins, 53-14 at Troy and 44-0 on a snowy, windy day at home against Georgia State.
But Troy and Georgia State were two of the most beleaguered programs in all of FBS and there was still plenty of uncertainty as the Mountaineers prepared to play the Warhawks — a school that had some of the best talent in Appalachian’s new league.
When ULM scored on Pete Thomas’ three-yard pass to Ajalen Holley with 1:42 remaining on the fourth-quarter clock to give the Warhawks a 29-28 lead, it looked like App State’s season-long frustration might grow deeper.
That changed, however, when young quarterback Taylor Lamb deftly moved the Mountaineers 53 yards in little more than a minute to set up Bentlee Critcher’s 39-yard field goal with 29 seconds left to lift ASU to its 31-29 victory.
If one win changed the Mountaineers’ confidence level last year, it was this thrilling victory over the Warhawks.
Many of the same combatants will be on hand Saturday night when two teams heading in opposite directions meet as Appalachian enters one of its key stretches of the season.
Satterfield remembered on Wednesday what a difficult game his team encountered last year against ULM (1-4, 0-1).
“We had to earn every yard we got against that defense,” Satterfield said, noting that most of those Warhawks defenders will be back on the field for the second-ever contest between these two teams in what could be a budding rivalry. “They are going to have to come out and playing their very best game and we’re going to have to play our very best game.”
The difference between the two squads right now may be that elusive concept of confidence.
Last year’s loss to ASU was the fifth of a six-game losing streak for ULM, which saw its bowl aspirations disintegrate into a disappointing 4-8 season. Outside of a 30-17 win at New Mexico State last year and their 47-0 victory in week two of this season against one of the most hapless teams in FCS, Nicholls State, the Warhawks have dropped 11 of 13 games.
Included in its four losses this year were a 51-14 demolition at Georgia, a 34-0 blanking at Alabama, a 51-31 setback at home against Georgia Southern and last Saturday’s 34-24 defeat at Tulsa.
During roughly the same period, ASU has won 10 of its past 11 games, including seven consecutive Sun Belt contests. The only loss for the Mountaineers during that time was a 41-10 thrashing at the hands of Clemson — currently ranked No. 5 nationally in the Associated Press Top-25 poll.
Statistics echo Appalachian’s success. The Mountaineers rank 10th in the nation in rushing yards gained (270.2 per game) and 29th in total offense (457.4). On defense, ASU is fourth best in points allowed (11.4), first in fewest rushing yards allowed (99.0), 17th in passing yards allowed (168.4) and eighth in total defense (267.4).
ULM, by comparison, ranks in the 100s in several of the those categories.
Still, the Warhawks have the respect of App State.
“It’s going to be a war with them, just like it was last year,” Satterfield said. “They have already lost one Sun Belt game. They don’t want to lose another one.”
Coming off a 37-3 victory at Georgia State before what turned out to be a pro-Mountaineer crowd, with 26 Georgia-based ASU players on the roster, Appalachian finally broke out its passing attack last weekend.
“For a lot of us, it was like a homecoming,” said senior receiver Malachi Jones, who hauled in a 45-yard reception from Lamb on the first offensive play from scrimmage for the Mountaineers and finished with three catches for 102 yards.
Overall, Lamb was 18-of-24 for 291 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception. He added four carries for 53 yards rushing to compile 344 yards of total offense.
But ASU lacked its normal punch in the ground game as Georgia State loaded the box defensively.
Junior running back Marcus Cox was held below 100 yards for the first time this season, carrying the ball 19 times for 76 yards as ASU was limited to 207 yards on the ground. It was first time Cox didn’t crack the century mark since he ran 21 times for 94 yards against ULM last season, snapping a streak of seven straight 100-yard games.
“We’ve got to get our running game going against a good defense,” said Satterfield.
Lamb is hopeful that the added balance from the emerging passing attack will make that easier against a ULM defense that has had its stats skewed by game against high-powered offenses from Georgia, Alabama and Georgia Southern.
“There is only so much you can learn from watching them on film against teams like that,” Lamb said. “They are very aggressive and athletic and they’re going to bring some heat (with blitzes). Last year, it was one of the best defenses we faced.”