By Tim Gardner
The Appalachian State Mountaineers seeking to become the first Sun Belt Conference team and the first Football Bowl Subdivision Championship team from the state of North Carolina to win 12 games in a season when they play Louisiana-LaFayette this coming Saturday, Dec. 7. The game will be played on their home field at Kidd Brewer Stadium in Boone for the league crown. A win then or in their bowl game will ensure the Mountaineers of those lofty milestones.
Saturday’s game will kickoff at 12:00 noon and will be televised nationally on ESPN.
Needing a conference championship game win to remain in contention for the Cotton Bowl, Appalachian State’s case is also bolstered by an FBS-leading six road wins that are part of the nation’s only 6-0 road record. With road wins against the likes of bowl-eligible Appalachian State has the best road record since Western Michigan went 6-0 en route to a Cotton Bowl berth at the end of the 2016 season.
And No. 20 (Associated Press) Appalachian State and Louisiana-LaFayette are no strangers. This game will mark their fourth meeting in a two-season period, with Appalachian State winning the past three encounters.
Appalachian State won 17-7 on the road in a regular-season meeting on Oct. 9. The Mountaineers won the 2018 regular-season matchup and again at home in the conference championship game. Of those past three results, the 30-19 final in last December’s title game marked the largest margin of victory. This year’s championship game is likely to be another tight contest.
“Everybody understands what the game is about, it’s about who’s going to win the Sun Belt Conference championship,” first-year Appalachian State head coach Eliah Drinkwitz said. “There’s going to be some natural ‘want to get it done.'”
Sun Belt East Division Champion Appalachian State’s 11-1 record is the best 12-game mark in Sun Belt Conference history, while Louisiana (10-2), which won the league’s West Division, has secured a school-record win total.
Both won seven of eight conference regular season games.
“Both teams have improved since that (first) game),” said second-year Louisiana–Lafayette head coach Billy Napier.
This is the first matchup of teams with 10 or more victories in Sun Belt Conference history.
The Mountaineers have won all seven previous meetings in the series, including four times in Boone.
Appalachian State quarterback Zac Thomas had a pair of 7-yard touchdown runs in the first meeting with the Ragin’ Cajuns. But Louisiana-LaFayette hasn’t lost since the Appalachian State game. The Ragin’ Cajuns are on a six-game winning streak, which includes four victories by 17 or more points.
“Our team has made improvement and we’re excited with the opportunity to win a conference championship,” Napier added. “We’ve made incremental improvements over time. I think we’ve seen a lot of young players gain confidence and we will look play very well against Appalachian State.”
Like the Mountaineers, Louisiana-Lafayette has a big-time quarterback in Levi Lewis who has 20 touchdown tosses this season. Amazingly, he has not thrown an interception is his last 135 passes.
And both teams have 1,000-yard rushers — Darrynton Evans (1,250) of Appalachian State and Elijah Mitchell (1,007) of Louisiana-Lafayette.
“They (Louisiana-Lafayette) try to control their game with their run game, but can also rely on Lewis and some quality receivers, who can present tough matchups for opposing defenses” Drinkwitz noted. “I think they’ve improved tremendously since the first time we played them this season.”
The Mountaineers showed in one game without big-play receiver Corey Sutton, who’s out for the remainder of the season, that they have other weapons in their regular-season finale last Friday at Troy–a 48-13 blowout win.
“What you try to do is spread out the opportunities to the rest of the team and see if other guys can step up,” Drinkwitz said. “We’ve done a very good job in that respect.”
Louisiana-LaFayette is led defensively by senior linebacker Jacques Boudreaux, who has made 89 tackles this season. The Mountaineer offense must be aware of where he is on the field at all times because as he goes, so goes the Ragin’ Cajuns defense.
And how well Louisiana-LaFayette runs the ball against Appalachian State’s defense will play maybe the biggest factor of its chances of pulling an upset over the Mountaineers. Appalachian State allowed a combined 617 rushing yards in its last seven wins (or 88.1 yards per win). It held Louisiana-LaFayette to 123 (compared to its 314.0 average going in), Louisiana-Monroe to 111, South Alabama to 87, South Carolina to just 21, Georgia State to 186 (compared to its 274.7 average going in), Texas State to 54 and Troy to 35.
Senior inside linebacker Jordan Fehr had a career-high 16 tackles in Appalachian State’s win against North Carolina and 12 more tackles (with one sack) in the win at South Carolina. He has a team-leading 90 tackles.
Also, senior outside linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither has 85 tackles for the Mountaineers. He intercepted a second-half pass and blocked a game-ending field goal in the 34-31 win at North Carolina, had 2.5 tackles for loss among his 11 stops at Louisiana-LaFayette and he also had 2.5 tackles for loss with one sack, two passes broken up and a forced holding penalty on the game’s final play in the victory at South Carolina.
Junior defensive end Demetrius Taylor is likely the Mountaineers’ most versatile player on that side of the ball. He has six sacks, twelve tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, six quarterback hurries, four passes broken up, one blocked punt, one blocked field goal, one interception, one fumble return for a touchdown and 38 tackles this season.
This game should be a barn-burner, but Appalachian State is better–maybe only slightly— than Louisiana-LaFayette. Expect the Mountaineers to prevail.
Prediction – Appalachian State 31, Louisiana-LaFayette 25