By David Rogers. December 7, 2019. BOONE, NC — Call it the craziest of eight. With a 45-38 victory over Louisiana in the Sun Belt Conference Championship Game on Saturday, Appalachian is now 8-0 against the Ragin’ Cajuns. And this game was not as close as the score indicates.
All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
Inspiration can come from anywhere. For the Mountaineers on Saturday in Kidd-Brewer Stadium, maybe it came from the football world’s lack of respect for the conference. Maybe they believed that a big win over ULL would improve their chances of getting a New Year’s Six Cotton Bowl bid. Maybe it was wanting to make sure another SBC team didn’t come into The Rock as a source of embarrassment like Georgia Southern did on Halloween night. Oh, then again, maybe it was the knowledge that they had a national television audience on ESPN, in football primetime.
Whatever the inspiration, the Mountaineers scored touchdowns on their first five possessions, then 10 more points in the second half — and played just well enough on defense to emerge the victor. For the second year in a row App State carved out a spot in Sun Belt football history.
As he entered the post-game press conference, Mountaineer junior running back Darrynton Evans looked almost like the heavyweight champion of the world, an oversize, shiny belt and buckle draped over his shoulder for all to see and admire. As MVP of the Sun Belt title game, Evans earned it in scoring the first three TDs for the Mountaineers. None was bigger than the first one, when on 3rd-and-15 he gathered in a (QB) Zac Thomas pass thrown just a little bit behind him, then wove his way through Cajun defenders to and down the right sideline for a 58-yard touchdown. Not quite two minutes had ticked off the clock.
Two more Evans TDs, an 8-yard run and a 5-yard pass-and-scamper gave the Mountaineers a 21-0 lead, still in the first stanza.
As ULL head coach Billy Napier admitted in his post-game remarks to reporters, the Ragin’ Cajuns “…just made too many mistakes…” in the game’s first half. Louisiana outdid App State in terms of total offense, 513 yards vs. the Mountaineers’ 416 and matched them in time of possession (29:49 vs. 30:11). The visitors from Lafayette had more than their share of “chunk plays,” especially through the air (10 pass plays of more than 15 yards, including some biggies of 43, 21, 37, 22, and 38 yards.
But turnovers — a couple of lost fumbles and a “pick six” pass interception — proved Louisiana’s undoing.
Certainly it is a credit to the Ragin’ Cajuns to have dug themselves a 21-0 hole and a 35-17 halftime deficit, to come back and bring the game to within a single TD at the end, but in the first half App State was about balance. Every time ULL scored — once they got on the board in the second quarter — the Mountaineers answered, and more.
While Louisiana made some adjustments at intermission that allowed them to “win” the second half, 21-10, it was a case of too little, too late and maybe even that the Mountaineers had taken the proverbial “pedal off the metal.”
Three App State running backs shared the rushing productivity load: Evans (73 net yards on 19 carries, 1 rushing TD), Daetrich Harrington (9 carries, 89 yards, 1 TD), and Marcus Williams, Jr. (8 carries, 78 yards, 1 TD). Evans’ performance on the day also included a pair of pass receptions for 63 yards (the longest 58 yards), both of them for TDs. The junior from Oak Hill, FL also contributed two kick returns for 26 yards.
The Mountaineers’ junior QB, Zac Thomas, was an efficient 9-of-17 passing for 149 yards, including two touchdowns, which was good enough for a 165.4 rating on the day.
For Louisiana, quarterback Levi Lewis recorded a career high of 354 yards passing, completing 24-of-46, a performance that included four TDs vs. one INT. Cajun running back Elijah Mitchell toted the ball 18 times for 85 net yards and one TD, while running back Raymond Calais carried eight times for 49 yards net.
On the other end of Lewis’ passes, the big playmaker of the day was Peter LeBlanc, who caught three passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns. Jarrod Jackson hauled in four completions for 80 yards, and Ja’Mar Bradley moved the chains in catching five passes for 58 yards and a TD.
For as good as Louisiana played on defense, including three sacks of Thomas, Appalachian State always seemed to find an answer with which to counter-punch and make up for any gaffes. The Mountaineers were only 5-of-13 on 3rd down conversions, but 2-of-3 on 4th down. And if they weren’t scoring big play TDs, but grinding it out down into the “red zone,” they were a perfect 3-for-3 once inside the ULL 20-yard-line.
Mountaineer head coach Eliah Drinkwitz was philosophical during the post-game trophy presentation as he pulled the poker chip out of his pocket that was first shown to the players and coaching staff during the team’s first summer meeting, on May 28th.
“Our motto was to ‘Keep the Chip,'” Drinkwitz explained to the throng of students and Mountaineer fans gathered around the portable stage brought onto the field. “The natural human tendency when you achieve something over a long period of time is to let up. Our football team needed to keep that motivation (to succeed), keep the chip (on their shoulder) and stay in the moment. All those things that have motivated you in the past need to continue to motivate you to climb that mountain.
“Championships never go on sale,” he added. “If we were to repeat as (Sun Belt) champions, we had to put in the same amount of work, the same amount of effort that we had in the past. It was about keeping the chip, keeping the chip on your shoulder and keeping the championship here in Boone. We are definitely excited about that.”
With the win, the Mountaineers now await finalization of their bowl future. There is still a remote chance that the powers that be will bump up their ranking above Memphis and Boise State to earn a bid to the Cotton Bowl. Other rumors have App State potentially going to the Belk Bowl (Charlotte) if the SEC does not have enough teams bowl eligible to satisfy their various bowl tie-ins. The most likely bowl for the Mountaineers, though, is a return appearance in the New Orleans Bowl, which usually pits the winner of the Sun Belt Conference against a Conference-USA opponent.
The other question of interest looming is what opportunities might lay ahead for Drinkwitz to consider. Although he has only been an FBS head coach for one season, the Mountaineers’ success under his leadership, even considering that at least 90% of the players on the roster are holdovers from the Satterfield era, Drinkwitz has been mentioned as a possible hire for Power 5 programs. With six coaching vacancies, including Mississippi, Missouri, and Arkansas in the SEC, Boston College and Florida State in the ACC, as well as Rutgers in the Big Ten — and there may be more firings to come — opportunity may present itself.
Both Drinkwitz and ULL head coach Billy Napier have been in the rumor mill, Drinkwitz most notably in the “blogosphere” conversations at Arkansas. He deflected questions in the press conference has nothing more than rumors, comparing them to President Donald Trump’s “fake news.” He said that he and his family love living in Boone, and certainly respect and appreciate what both the athletics and university administrations are trying to do in growing the university and elevating its profile.
“I know you guys have a job to do,” Drinkwitz said, “but right now I am celebrating my first conference championship.”
For his part, Napier was candid in saying that in this (coaching college football) business, success means that you are going to be presented with opportunities. It is not just about the money, he said, but also about the quality of life for your family. “Right now we are in one of the best places on Earth to live, in Lafayette, Louisiana.”
- App State won a Sun Belt Conference title for the fourth straight year and is 2-for-2 in winning the Sun Belt Championship Game. Oklahoma won its fourth straight Big 12 title on Saturday, and the only other FBS program with four straight titles at this point is Clemson, which was going for a fifth ACC championship in a row Saturday night.
- App State became the first in-state FBS program or Sun Belt program to post a 12-win season. Of the 10 instances of an in-state program winning 11 games in a season, App State is responsible for three of them (in the Mountaineers’ six FBS seasons). App State is responsible for three of the four 11-win seasons in Sun Belt history.
- App State posted its fourth win this season against a team ranked in the top 45 of ESPN’s FPI (Football Power Index). It’s the only ranked G5 team with two wins over P5 teams (both on the road) or three road wins over ESPN FPI top 50 teams.
- App State is 43-7 in its 50 games against Sun Belt teams, and it improved to 8-0 in the series with Louisiana.
- Since the 2015 season began, App State is No. 5 nationally in win percentage (81.5) and tied for No. 5 in total wins with its 53-12 record. The win total trails only Clemson (67-4), Alabama (65-6), Ohio State (60-6) and Oklahoma (60-9), with Georgia taking a 53-14 record during that span into Saturday SEC Championship Game.
- App State fifth-year seniors Akeem Davis-Gaither, Desmond Franklin, Victor Johnson, Collin Reed and Josh Thomas finished their careers at The Rock with a 27-4 home record.
- App State increased its season total to 69 touchdowns to tie the Sun Belt’s single-season record. Arkansas State also had 69 in 2015.
- Darrynton Evans has played in two Sun Belt Championship Games and won two MVP belts. After putting up 218 all-purpose yards in the 2018 title game, he had 162 more Saturday with 73 rushing, a career-high 63 receiving and 26 on kick returns.
- Darrynton Evans increased his season total to 23 touchdowns (17 rushing, five receiving, one via a kickoff return). The Sun Belt record for single-season touchdowns is 24 (Middle Tennessee’s Dwone Hicks in 2001), and Evans’ total of 23 ranks second in App State history with one game remaining. Kevin Richardson scored 31 touchdowns as App State won the 2006 FCS title with a 14-1 record.
- Darrynton Evans had two touchdown catches in the same game for the first time, and his previous single-game high for receiving yards was 41 against ULM on Oct. 19.
- Daetrich Harrington, playing his second game since returning from an injury that sidelined him for four straight games, led the team in rushing for the second time this season. He had 71 yards against Coastal Carolina and a team-best 89 yards on just nine carries Saturday.
- Marcus Williams Jr., one of four active Sun Belt players with three straight seasons of 500-plus rushing yards, went over 75 rushing yards against a Sun Belt opponent for the fourth time this season.
- Seniors accounted for every role in the three turnovers forced by App State. E.J. Scott recovered a fumble that he forced, Desmond Franklin recovered a fumbled forced by Noel Cook and Josh Thomas returned an interception for a touchdown.
- It was App State’s fourth pick-six touchdown of the season. That’s one behind the FBS lead of five from Louisiana Tech.
- Demetrius Taylor recorded his seventh sack of the season.
SELECTED TEAM STATS
- Total Offense — ULL 513, APP 416
- Net Yards Rushing — ULL 159, APP 267
- Net Yards Passing — ULL 354, APP 149
- Rushing TDs — ULL 1, APP 3
- Passing TDs — ULL 4, APP 2
- Fumbles-Lost — ULL 2-2, APP 1-1
- Interceptions By ULL 0, APP 1, returned 16 yards for TD
- Time of Possession — ULL 29:49, APP 30:11
- 3rd Down Conversions — ULL 8/14 (57%), APP 5/13 (38%)
- 4th Down Conversions — ULL 1/1 (100%), APP 2/3 (67%)
SELECTED INDIVIDUAL STAT LEADERS
- ULL — Levi Lewis: 24-46, 354 yards, 4 TDs, 1 INT
- APP — Zac Thomas: 9-17, 149 yards, 2 TDs
- APP — Daetrich Harrington: 9 carries, 89 yards, 1 TD
- ULL — Elijah Mitchell: 18 carries, 85 yards, 1 TD
- APP — Marcus Williams, Jr.: 8 carries, 78 yards, 1 TD
- APP — Darrynton Evans: 19 carries, 76 yards, 1 TD
- ULL — Raymond Calais: 8 carries, 49 yards
- ULL — Peter LeBlanc: 3 catches, 118 yards, 2 TDs
- ULL — Jarrod Jackson: 4 catches, 80 yards
- APP — Darrynton Evans: 2 catches, 63 yards, 2 TDs
- ULL — Ja’Mar Bradley: 5 catches, 58 yards, 1 TD
- APP — Thomas Hennigan: 4 catches, 50 yards