BOONE, N.C. – You usually expect players to be an emotional fever-pitch when it comes to playing a football game on senior day, particularly when it is Appalachian State playing at Kidd Brewer Stadium. But on Saturday afternoon on a rainy day suited more for the ducks swimming in the nearby iconic university pond in front of Trivette Hall, the 22nd-ranked Mountaineers found themselves treading water more so than unleashing their multitude of offensive weapons against downtrodden Sun Belt Conference opponent Texas State.
The Bobcats may have been 30-point underdogs against one of the elite teams in the Group of Five, but TSU trailed just 14-13 midway through the third quarter. At that point, Appalachian finally unleashed tailback Darrynton Evans, who rushed for 154 yards on 21 carries and three second-half touchdowns to finally lift the Mountaineers (10-1 overall, 6-1 in the SBC) to their comfortable 35-13 win.
“He’s an elite tailback, obviously,” ASU coach Eliah Drinkwitz said of his redshirt-junior speedster. “To me, he’s one of the most dynamic players in college football, because of his speed and return ability and we’re fortunate to have him.”
Evans scored on scampers of 13, 10 and 13 yards and the Mountaineer defense shut down the Bobcats (3-8, 2-5) the rest of the way to calm the nerves of the rain-soaked crowd. He also completed an option pass for 14 yards.
“When you’re in the red zone, you want to score touchdowns instead of scoring field goals,” Evans said. “As long as we put up points, we feel confident that we could have a good chance of coming out on top.”
Unfortunately, one of App State’s other dynamic offensive forces watched his redshirt-junior season come to an end. Wide receiver Corey Sutton torn an ACL on an ill-advised, third-and-long, tunnel-screen play-call, taking a blindside hit in the middle of the field.
Sutton, Appalachian’s leading receiver the past two years, got the Mountaineers rolling early with his dazzling 45-yard touchdown connection with quarterback Zac Thomas (8-of-16, 174 yards and two TDs passing), making a spectacular, over-the-shoulder catch after out-racing three defenders to the end zone.
But this second-generation ASU star (the son of Clarence Sutton, the starting free safety on Appalachian’s 1995 undefeated, regular-season team) put a damper on the victory when he was injured and watched on crutches from the sidelines in the second half.
Fortunately, wide receiver is one of the greatest positions of depth on the Mountaineer roster and Sutton’s injury will provide more snaps for Jalen Virgil, a junior who is the fastest player on the team.
Appalachian came into the contest as the 21st-ranked scoring offense in the Football Bowl Subdivsion, but Saturday exposed one of the Mountaineers’ biggest flaws again – a slow start with its potentially lethal attack.
Texas State, which typically employs a blitzing, 3-3-5 formation on defense, switched up its defensive fronts consistently and kept Appalachian off-balance with a slew of even-man fronts. Eventually, the Mountaineers wore Texas State down with dominant offensive line play in the second half and finished with 468 yards of total offense, 280 of those yards coming on the ground.
In the midst of the slow starts, Appalachian has experienced a stellar season defensively, minus a few big scoring plays by opponents. In this contest, the Bobcats were limited to 54 yards on the ground and quarterback Tyler Vitt (18-of-34 for 154 yards passing) was running for his life through much of the game.
One Appalachian senior who seemed inspired from the start was linebacker Noel Cook, who recorded a key tackle-for-loss, a third-quarter interception on a tipped pass and nearly had another interception to lead the defense. Another senior, defensive lineman E.J. Scott had the first two sacks of his career and deflected the pass that Cook picked off. Senior free safety Josh Thomas and senior linebacker Jordan Fehr tied for the Mountaineer lead in tackles with 12 apiece.
“It felt really good,” Cook said of the interception. “I kind of just felt like I needed a redemption for missing the first one, so it just felt really good to out there and provide the momentum we needed. But I have to credit E.J. right here because if he didn’t deflect the ball then that play wouldn’t have happened.”
Sun Belt Championship Game Upcoming
The victory, combined with Georgia Southern’s loss to Arkansas State on Saturday, clinched a berth in the second straight Sun Belt championship-game appearance for the Mountaineers. Louisiana-Lafayette, last year’s title-game opponent, also wrapped up a slot on Saturday. The Mountaineers, who beat ULL 17-7 on the road earlier this season and have never lost to this opponent, will host the Ragin Cajuns again on Dec. 7 at Kidd Brewer Stadium with a victory on Friday in a 4 p.m. contest at Troy.
Awaiting the winner of the SBC championship tilt is a berth in the New Orleans Bowl most likely. The Mountaineers would need to see three higher-ranked Group of Five teams, Cincinnati, Memphis and Boise State lose games in the final two weeks of the season to vault them into position to gain a bid in the Cotton Bowl.
The best scenario for Appalachian would be for Memphis to defeat Cincinnati this weekend in a regular season finale and then have Cincinnati return the favor in the American Athletic Conference title game the following weekend. Then Boise State would need to lose to either 4-7 Colorado State this weekend, or to Hawaii in the Mountain West championship contest the following week.
David Coulson is an executive editor for the College Sports Journal, and has covered college football for over 40 years. Present in the press box during the legendary Appalachian State upset of Michigan, his extensive coverage of Appalachian State allowed him to write about the Mountaineers’ first-ever Division I title in the book
Magic on the Mountain: Appalachian State’s Amazing Journey to the 2005 NCAA I-AA Football Championship.
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