By Tim Gardner
It’s a given that Appalachian State is the best team in the Sun Belt Conference. And the Mountaineers will play the team that is likely the league’s second-best Wednesday, Oct. 9, when they travel to Louisiana (LaFayette) in a game on Cajun Field (41,426) that will be nationally broadcast on ESPN 2, beginning at 8:00 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time).
In fact, this may be the first of two games between the schools as Appalachian State is from the Sun Belt’s East Division and Louisiana is from its West Division and the regular season winners of each will face off in the conference championship game on Dec. 7. The same happened last year with the Mountaineers winning the regular season (27-17) and league championship tilt (30-19) over Louisiana.
Ironically, the Mountaineers have never lost to Louisiana, holding a 6-0 lead in the series. Since joining the Sun Belt Conference in 2014, Appalachian State is 35-6 in league play. It is 35-4 in its last 39 league games (after an 0-2 start) and 36-4 in its last 40 games against Sun Belt teams — counting the 2018 title game. In the 35-4 run since 2014, Appalachian State is 16-3 on the road in league play.
Like Appalachian State, the Ragin’ Cajuns were also idle this past Saturday. Appalachian State is undefeated at 4-1 over-all and 1-0 in conference action, while Louisiana is 4-1 over-all and 1-0 in league play.
Coach Eliah Drinkwitz’s Appalachian State team features an extremely explosive offense, which leads the Sun Belt and is ranked fifth nationally at 47.0 points per game. The Mountaineers are tied for first in fewest fumbles lost (zero) and tied for second in fewest turnovers (two).
Darrynton Evans ranks second nationally in all-purpose yards (176.3 per game), second in points scored (15.0 per game), eighth in kick return average (30.7) and 10th in rushing yards (117.8 per game). With 10 total touchdowns, only Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor (16 in five games), SMU’s Xavier Jones (13 in six games) and Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard (13 in six games) have more this season.
Since becoming Appalachian State’s primary running back 13 games ago, Evans has rushed for 1,531 yards and 15 TDs. That yardage total would rank No. 4 n the school’s single-season records if the 13 games were all in the same year.
An Appalachian State starting receiver set a career-high for catches or yards in each of its first three games. Thomas Hennigan had a career-high seven catches for 79 yards against East Tennessee State, and Malik Williams recorded career highs for single-game catches (six) and receiving yards (73) against Charlotte. Williams topped that with six catches for 78 yards at North Carolina, where Hennigan made six catches for 90 yards. The team leader in receptions was Corey Sutton with seven at North Carolina.
Heading into the off weekend, Hennigan ranked No. 3 nationally with eight contested catches this season, including two leaping receptions on gains of 35 and 31 in the win over North Carolina.
Williams has three straight games with at least 70 receiving yards after going through his first two seasons with a single-game high of 68.
With five players back who started games in 2018, Appalachian State’s offensive line has ranked in the top 25 nationally in both rushing yards per game and fewest sacks allowed in each of the last five years. The Mountaineers currently rank 22nd nationally at 225.2 rushing yards per game.
Appalachian State quarterback Zac Thomas has completed 69-of-96 passes for 802 yards and seven touchdowns this season while tossing only two interceptions. He is also deft as a runner, rambling for a 50-yard gain against North Carolina, giving him three runs of at least 50 yards in 19 career games and seven runs of at least 20 yards.
Defensively, Appalachian State is also solid and stingy. End Demetrius Taylor ranks among the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) per-game leaders in forced fumbles (No. 3, 0.75), tackles for loss (No. 15, 1.63) and sacks (No. 25, 0.88). During the 4-0 start, he has compiled three forced fumbles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, one fumble recovery (with a 20-yard return for a TD), one interception (with a 19-yard return), two pass breakups and two quarterback hurries.
The last time a player had 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble return for a touchdown —without intercepting a pass like Taylor did against North Carolina — was Georgia’s Marcus Howard in the Sugar Bowl against Hawaii at the end of the 2007 season. According to Sports Reference, there isn’t another player with those four statistical accomplishments for the 2019 season to date, and only one FBS player in 2018 reached those four statistical totals for the entire season.
Appalachian State linebacker Jordan Fehr recorded a career-high 16 tackles in the victory over North Carolina. He had 15 stops last season at Arkansas State to earn Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Week honors won that award again with eight tackles, three sacks and a safety in the last game against Coastal Carolina.
Appalachian State and Utah are tied for first nationally with 77 interceptions since the start of 2015. In addition to Taylor, senior outside linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither recorded his first career interception at North Carolina, and new starting cornerback Shaun Jolly has a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions this season. Jolly returned an interception for a touchdown against Coastal Carolina for the Mountaineers,
Davis-Gaither, who tied for No. 8 nationally among non-defensive backs with the seven pass breakups in 2018, added two more in the 2019 opener. He also blocked a game-tying field goal as time expired in Appalachian State’s 34-31 win against North Carolina.
Defensive tackle George Blackstock recorded a career-high five tackles against East Tennessee State in the season opener and made his first career start against Coastal Carolina.
As a team, Appalachian State’s average of 30.8 yards per kickoff return is No. 4 nationally, and Evans is the school’s career leader with three kickoff returns for touchdowns.
Appalachian State’s Xavier Subotsch ranks No. 14 nationally with a net punting average of 42.5 yards, and the Mountaineers join Memphis and Utah State as the only FBS teams with multiple defensive touchdowns and multiple special teams touchdowns this season.
The Mountaineers also lead the Sun Belt in punt return average (17.9, seventh), opponent punt return average (-2.25, first in FBS), blocked kicks (three, tie for first) and PAT percentage (100.0, tie for first).
Chandler Staton, who also has been very productive on field goals, is a perfect 118-for-118 on PATs in his collegiate career.
Coach Billy Napier’s Ragin’ Cajuns are led offensively by quarterback Levi Lewis, who has passed for 980 yards and eight touchdowns with only two interceptions. He has completed 79-of-122 throws. Receiver Ja’Marcus Bradley is Lewis’ top target, with 22 catches for 352 yards and four touchdowns. The team’s top running backs are Elijah Mitchell, who has 402 yards on 67 carries and nine touchdowns, and Trey Ragas, who has 340 yards and six touchdowns on 46 carries.
Defensively, Louisiana is led by linebacker Jacques Boudreaux, who has a team-best 33 tackles (17 solos; 16 assists).
Many may have seen that North Carolina was a two-point play away from upsetting Clemson this season. Well, Appalachian State beat North Carolina 34-31 in Week 4. The Mountaineers moved to 4-0 after beating Coastal Carolina 56-37 a week ago Saturday to record their first conference win. Coastal Carolina has a road win at Kansas and another league team, Georgia State, won at Tennessee. Meanwhile, Louisiana beat Liberty by four touchdowns and Ohio by 20 points. This adds up to the Sun Belt getting stronger as a conference.
If Appalachian State beats the Ragin’ Cajuns, it will further solidify that it is the league’s best team. But if Louisiana pulls an upset, it will cast doubt and the Ragin’ Cajuns may be considered by some as the Sun Belt’s top team. But regardless of who wins this game, Appalachian State is still the league’s most talented and best team. The Mountaineers have a good chance to go unbeaten this regular season, win the league championship game and maybe even a bowl game. If so, that would likely earn them a final Top 25 ranking. But first things first as they need to win at Louisiana. The best team does not always win. But it will this game. Prediction: Appalachian 30, Louisiana 14.