By David Rogers. December 15, 2018. NEW ORLEANS, LA — Bourbon Street has a new swashbuckling pirate to celebrate. Appalachian State’s football team is a modern-day Jean Lafitte, the swaggering, swashbuckling rogue of a privateer who once helped Andrew Jackson win the Battle of New Orleans — and in many ways the personification of the city itself: romantically charming and an unapologetic follower of its own rules.
COVER IMAGE: Appalachian State quarterback Zac Thomas holds aloft the MVP trophy he earned for his performance in the 2018 R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
Shrugging off two weeks of “distractions” and a first quarter of mistakes, App State broke open a tight football game with big plays on offense and a stifling defense. The Mountaineers rolled past Conference USA powerhouse Middle Tennessee in the R-L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, 45-13.
Well over half of the announced attendance of 23,942 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome were Mountaineer fans and they had plenty to cheer about.
App State’s 32-point margin of victory is a record for the New Orleans Bowl, besting the previous mark of 27 by Troy in 2010, in a 48-21 win over Ohio.
The still young Mountaineers were impressive in rolling up 448 yards of total offense. Led by sophomore quarterback Zac Thomas — named MVP of the 2018 edition of the New Orleans Bowl — App State used a balanced attack, netting 233 yards rushing on 34 carries by a 5-man committee of runners, while using seven receivers to rack up 215 yards through the air — including five TD passes. Middle Tennessee accumulated a respectable 392 yards of total offense — slightly more than the team’s regular season average per game of almost 389 — but the Blue Raiders fell short in getting into the red zone and putting the ball across the goal line for touchdowns.
In many respects, Saturday night’s Mountaineer performance was (to borrow a phrase of the former New York Yankees’ Hall of Fame catcher, Yogi Berra) “…deja vu all over again.” Kindling flashbacks to last year’s shutout of much ballyhooed Toledo in the Dollar General Bowl, on this night the Appalachian’s defense effectively shut down the vaunted Blue Raider attack. It was an overall team performance that included six quarterback sacks (for a loss of 33 yards) and 12 tackles for loss. A football game played among the historic haunts of yesteryear’s pirates, Jean Lafitte would be proud.
After a first quarter that only saw a single Middle Tennessee field goal, a 24-yarder by redshirt sophomore Crews Holt, the Mountaineers exploded for 24 points in the second quarter, which tied the New Orleans Bowl record for the most points in any quarter.
Both teams foundered in the early going. Receiving the opening kickoff, Middle Tennessee kept the often explosive App State offense off the field for over five minutes on the Blue Raiders’ opening possession, but the 10-play, 45-yard drive produced only a missed field goal attempt by Holt from 47 yards. App State squandered the defensive stand, though, when on the Mountaineers’ third play from scrimmage a Thomas pass intended for sophomore wide receiver Thomas Hennigan was intercepted by the Blue Raiders’ sophomore safety Reed Blankenship.
MTSU wasted the short field opportunity in terms of getting the ball into the end zone for a TD, but the 7-play, 39-yard drive led to the Blue Raiders’ drawing first blood when Holt booted a 24-yard field goal to put the Murfreesboro, TN contingent ahead, 3-0.
Any “nervous Nellies” among the Mountaineer faithful were fretting about the long trip to New Orleans when Thomas fumbled the snap on the second play of App State’s next offensive possession. It was the second ASU turnover in as many tries. Pundits and talking heads aplenty were left wondering whether former head coach Scott Satterfield’s leaving for the University of Louisville top job within the past two weeks and his almost immediate plundering of four assistant coaches to go with him had left the Mountaineers ill-equipped and ill-prepared.
They needn’t have worried. App State’s interim head coach Mark Ivey admitted afterwards that his staff and players faced a lot of “crazy stuff” the past two weeks in making the transition, but likened the challenges to what he described as a microcosm of life in facing adversity. You go on — and rally to the opportunity provided.
And rally the Mountaineers did. After getting on the scoreboard early in the second quarter with a 22-yard Chandler Staton field goal to tie the game, the Boone’s favorite sons brought their brand of swashbuckling football to the French Quarter. The pirates of the High Country hoodwinked the Blue Raiders when Thomas lateraled to wide receiver Malik Williams, who then tossed a pass to fellow sophomore WR Thomas Hennigan for a 30-yard touchdown to give the Mountaineers a 10-3 lead (after Staton’s PAT kick slotted the uprights).
But Williams, the former high school quarterback, and App State’s newly minted coaching braintrust were not done with the hi-jinks. After senior defensive back Tae Hayes poached Blue Raider senior quarterback Brent Stockstill’s pass and returned it 27 yards to the MTSU 41-yard line, Thomas & Co. covered the short field in seven plays to paydirt — the last one more chicanery featuring Williams’ arm when he tossed an eight-yard pass to a wide open Thomas who had flared out, unnoticed, into the right flat. Williams’ strike was collected into the awaiting arms of Thomas as he turned upon crossing the goal line.
Suddenly, the Mountaineers had a 17-3 lead and had found their footing, quite literally. App State’s defense limited the Blue Raider offense to just 23 yards before being forced to punt. Held at bay up to this point, sophomore running back Darrynton Evans showed why he earned first team All-Sun Belt honors during the regular season when he rambled around the right side for 62 yards, to the MTSU 12. A couple of plays later, Thomas found tight end Henry Pearson on the left side for yet another Mountaineer TD. “ASU-ASU-ASU” rattled off of the Superdome rafters as App State took a commanding, 24-3 lead.
Stockstill and the Blue Raiders ripped off some good chunks of real estate through the air with passes of 16, 10 and 28 yards, but again MTSU attack stalled in the red zone and they settled for a 33-yard Holt field goal and a halftime deficit of 24-6.
With momentum, Appalachian didn’t disappoint in receiving the ball to start the second half. Thomas & Co fashioned a 10-play, 75-yard drive that culminated with a 17-yard TD pass from Thomas to yet another sophomore wide receiver, the sure-handed Corey Sutton.
By this time, App State’s defense had caught the fever, forcing Middle Tennessee to punt after a three-and-out that saw consecutive QB sacks, a smothering defensive gem by senior linebacker Anthony Flory followed by a “gotcha” at the hands of Okon Godwin and Akeem Davis-Gaither.
If there was a scary moment in this game, it was here. All-Sun Belt defensive back and punt return specialist Clifton Duck stood at the Mountaineer 21-yard line, following the flight of the MTSU punt. Inexplicably, the Blue Raiders’ Zack Dobson pummeled the defenseless Duck well before the ball arrived, leaving the App State faithful to wonder about the health of their star junior DB while calling for Dobson’s head on a platter. With the Superdome big screens replaying the premature hit over and over again with stop-action playback, it was an easy targeting call by the officials and a Dobson ejection.
From there, the Mountaineer momentum was palpable — and contagious. Freshman running back Cameron Peoples, who saw limited playing time this year and will save his redshirt opportunity under the new NCAA rules, put an exclamation point on the App State performance with a 63-yard TD sprint around the right side, but only after wresting away from three would-be tacklers en route. Talking to reporters later, Ivey smiled in saying about the Mountaineer stable of running backs returning for 2019 in Evans, Marcus Williams, Jr., Daetrich Harrington, Demarcus Harper, D’Andre Hicks, Nakendrick Clark and Peoples, “They’ll be a lot of fun to watch next year. There is a lot of talent in that room.”
Peoples’ TD (and Staton PAT) pretty much put the game away at 38-6 midway through the third period. Stockstill responded with a 43-yard TD aerial to redshirt junior wide receiver Isiah Upton a few minutes later, but the otherwise dominating App State defense kept at bay any hopes of late rally by the Blue Raiders. For good measure, Thomas added an 11-yard TD toss to Sutton to finish the game’s scoring.
For the record books:
- App State’s five TD passes tied a New Orleans Bowl record by a team
- The Mountaineers finished with 233 yards rushing, the fifth highest in New Orleans Bowl history, but the 6.9 yards per carry established a new New Orleans Bowl standard for rushing excellence
- Peoples’ 63-yard TD run and Evans 62-yard rush are now the third- and fourth-most in New Orleans Bowl record books
- The six sacks by App State’s defense tied the New Orleans Bowl record, and marked the third straight year that the winning team had registered six sacks.
- Mountaineer placekicker Chandler Staton tied the New Orleans Bowl record of six successful PAT kicks, joining five others on the list
- The 62 rushing yards allowed by the App State defense comprised the third best defensive effort in the game’s history
MTSU head coach Rick Stockstill acknowledged later, “I said it going in that we had to be able to run the football. And we couldn’t…If you can’t run the ball, especially in the red zone, it’s tough…When a team makes you one-dimensional, it makes it even harder.”
In response to a Blowing Rock News question about the challenges posed by Appalachian State’s overall team speed, Stockstill was candid in saying, “They’re really good. They’re talented. We missed some tackles. On a couple of those long runs, we missed tackles, we didn’t fit it right.
“You have to give them credit though,” Stockstill added. “We’re not very fast at wide receiver. We had a hard time getting open. With the injuries that we’ve had this year, we just didn’t have guys open. We couldn’t protect and we couldn’t run the ball. For an offense that’s tough (sledding). It was a tough deal. Again, you have to give them credit. They didn’t give us much breathing room.”
Ivey didn’t mince words in pointing out, “I remember talking to our other coaches in June and July. The strength coaches did a great job of honing what was already there. If we could get them in the right spot(s), we could be successful. Size is great, but team speed is key to being successful.”
Now undefeated as an FBS-level head coach, Ivey and the rest of the Mountaineer coaching staff face an uncertain future with a new head coach Eliah Drinkwitz arriving to take the reins next year. The offensive mastermind behind North Carolina State’s resurgence in recent years, the 35-year-old Drinkwitz will undoubtedly want to hire some of his own guys in filling assistant coach positions, but Ivey, now in the seventh year of coaching at his alma mater where he was a four-year letter-winner waxed philosophical in pondering the prospects of his future.
“If this is the end, I feel good about it,” he said. “I’m just pleased the kids played well…I don’t think I have ever been carried off the field before. I love every one of those kids. They are exceptional. The fact that they wanted to hang out with me and have fun…well, I’ll take that every day.”
SELECTED TEAM STATS
- Total Offensive Yards: App State 448, MTSU 392
- Net Yards Passing: App State 215, MTSU 330
- Net Yards Rushing: App State 233, MTSU 62
- Fumbles (Number-Lost): App State 2-1, MTSU 0-0
- Interceptions by: App State 2, MTSU 2
- Penalties (Number-Yards Penalized): App State 8-50, MTSU 12-89
- Time of Possession: App State 26:29, MTSU 33:31
- Third Down Conversions: App State 7-of-10, MTSU 5-of-13
- Fourth Down Conversions: App State 0-of-0, MTSU 0-of-2
- Red Zone Scores-Chances: App State 5-of-5, MTSU 2-of-3
- Sacks by: App State 6, MTSU 0
SELECTED INDIVIDUAL OFFENSIVE STATS
- MTSU — Brent Stockstill, 25-37 for 330 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs
- APP — Zac Thomas, 15-24 for 177 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs
- APP — Malik Williams, 2-2 for 38 yards, 2 TDs
- APP — Darrynton Evans, 14 carries, 108 net yards
- APP — Cameron Peoples, 3 carries, 69 net yards, 1 TD
- MTSU — Chaton Mobley, 10 carries, 45 net yards
- APP — Zac Thomas, 9 carries, 28 net yards
- APP — Marcus Williams, Jr., 6 carries, 25 net yards
- APP — Corey Sutton, 8 catches, 78 yards, 2 TDs
- MTSU — Gatlin Casey, 6 catches, 64 yards
- APP — Jalen Virgil, 2 catches, 58 yards
- MTSU — Ty Lee, 4 catches, 55 yards
- MTSU — Tavares Thomas, 4 catches, 51 yards
- MTSU — Isiah Upton, 2 catches, 47 yards, 1 TD
- APP — Thomas Hennigan, 3 catches, 45 yards, 1 TD
- MTSU — Patrick Smith, 3 catches, 39 yards
- MTSU — Chaton Mobley, 3 catches, 36 yards
- APP — Malik Williams, 1 catch, 22 yards
- APP — Zac Thomas, 1 catch, 8 yards, 1 TD
- APP — Devin Papenheim, 1 catch, 3 yards
- APP — Henry Pearson, 1 catch, 1 yard, 1 TD
SELECTED DEFENSIVE STATS
- MTSU — Reed Blankenship, 6 solo tackles, 2 INTs
- MTSU — Darryl Randolph, 6 tackles (5 solo), 1 pass breakup
- APP — Akeem Davis-Gaither, 10 tackles (7 solo), 0.5 sacks, 1.5 TFLs
- APP — Josh Thomas, 8 solo tackles, 1 INT
- APP — Okon Godwin, 4 tackles (2 solo), 2.5 sacks, 3 TFLs
- APP — Anthony Flory, 5 tackles (3 solo), 1 sack, 1 TFL
- APP — Tae Hayes, 4 solo tackles, 1 INT