App State Football vs Troy (Sun Belt Championship)

Appalachian State (8-4, 6-2 Sun Belt) vs Troy (10-2, 7-1 Sun Belt)

Saturday, December 2nd, 2023 4:00pm EST

TV/Video: ESPN

Radio: FLAGSHIP 97.3 FM (North Wilkesboro), 96.5
FM/1450 AM (Boone), 99.1 FM/1060 AM/1030 AM (Charlotte),
105.3 FM/1320 AM (Greensboro), 790 AM (Johnson City),
107.7 FM/1450 AM (Hendersonville), 103.9FM/1250AM (Marion), Varsity Network App

Veteran Memorial Stadium

Capacity: 30,000

Surface: Prograss

Jeff Sagarin Ratings

App State: 72.54

Troy: 74.16

Home: 2.33

Troy is favored by the Sagarin ratings by 3.95 points

VegasInsider Line: Troy -6

Series: App State leads 8-3

Last Meeting: App State 32, Troy 28, September 17, 2022, Boone, NC

For the ninth consecutive year, App State has won at least five home games. Three straight years averaging over 30,000 fans at Kidd Brewer Stadium, and just a couple hundred away from eclipsing 35,000. There is no doubt, when you come to Boone for college football, you leave entertained. However, Kidd Brewer Stadium is quiet for now, and the Mountaineers will take their show on the road for the final two games of the season. That has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? Two more games. Only twenty FBS schools will play their thirteenth game this weekend. For the fourth time, App State will represent their division in the conference championship in just six opportunities. This feeling is the familiar territory we missed last year. It hurts to think about it the past, but it should make the current moments worth it more in the end. Whether the Mountaineers win or lose on Saturday will not define their season. Troy is a worthy opponent, and they won the conference a season ago. But that was last year, and nothing that happened a year ago will have an impact on this game.

Ten of the fourteen Sun Belt coaches picked Troy to represent the West division back in late July. The other four coaches picked South Alabama. Troy led their division for most of the season and cleared the division by three games. Only two of their conference games were decided by less than seven points being a two-point loss to James Madison and a touchdown win over Louisiana just a couple weeks ago. Only FCS Stephen F. Austin scored more than 30 points on the Troy defense, and that was the first game of the season. Western Kentucky and Louisiana were the only teams that scored 24 points on Troy. Everyone else: 17 points or fewer. For the season, Troy has allowed just 13 points per game to conference opponents, but that number has ticked up slightly the last three weeks to 18.3 points per game. Considering their opponents were two of the worst teams in the conference in Southern Miss and UL-Monroe, that might throw some caution to the wind. Louisiana was playing for bowl eligibility and got there, while the others were playing out the string.  

The Troy defense is elite. Easy to see there. Does not a take genius to figure that out. The Trojan offense is one of the better offenses in the league, but it does not compare to leading statistical categories like their counterparts do. Quarterback Gunnar Watson has played in parts of six college football seasons, all at Troy. Watson was on the 2018 Troy team that lost to App State 21-10, which was a winner-take-all game to represent the East in the inaugural Sun Belt Championship. Watson did not play against App State in 2018 or 2019 but has played in the last three matchups. None of them have ended well for Watson although last year was the closest, he and Troy had come.  In those three games, Watson has completed just over 60% of his passes for 526 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. He has thrown an interception in each game he has played against the Mountaineers, who coincidentally lead the Sun Belt with 15 interceptions this season and have eight interceptions in their last four games. The Mountaineers are 7-1 this season when intercepting a pass.

With senior day recognitions, Armanti Edwards’ number retirement and generally cool weather, the Mountaineers started a little slow last Saturday, but took advantage of four Georgia Southern turnovers to pull away. The Mountaineers scored immediately after each Eagle turnover, with two scores quickly responded by one play touchdowns. The Mountaineers also dominated the middle eight minutes of the game, scoring an unheard of 17 points even with a turnover of their own. After the score was tied at 17-17 with just 2:33 remaining in the second quarter, App State reeled off 34 consecutive points before allowing a kickoff return touchdown and field goal that cut a three score lead to a three score lead by Southern. Yes, you read that right. It has been amazing, week after week, how the Mountaineers offense can put up 532 yards and it feel like everyone got a piece of the pie. Eight receivers caught passes, with seven catching two or more. Three different running backs eclipsed 60 yards, which was more than the Eagles leading rusher.

The win last week coupled with James Madison taking out their frustrations on Coastal Carolina has put the Mountaineers in the spot they always hoped to be in by playing for a conference championship. The turnaround has been a true team effort. The offense can always play better, but when buoyed by their defense, a team can take on a completely different look. Weeks ago, we discussed slow starts with offense and it was hardly even noticeable this past week. If anything, this game resembled a microcosm of the entire season. A slower start that led to convincing win. Once the floodgates opened the Eagles were toast. Saturday marked the third straight game the Mountaineers recovered a fumble. They had just three in the previous nine games. Troy does not give up a ton of sacks, but all twenty-three sacks have come in six games. Turnovers or other impact plays, whether by attacking the ball at the line of scrimmage, on special teams, or in the secondary is what has made it tough for teams to overcome the Mountaineers and their offense.

What more could anyone ask for in a championship game? In the era of the Sun Belt championship game, the participants are usually decided by results that mattered in the regular season. Sometimes, there was a head-to-head battle that broke a tie in each division. In 2018, App State beat Troy in the regular season finale in a game that decided who would host the title game. In 2019 & 2021, the App State and Louisiana regular season winner would eventually host and win the conference championship. Last season, Troy defeated South Alabama in the regular season and hosted. Coastal Carolina defeated Marshall in the regular season which gave them the opportunity to participate. Hosting has mattered over the years. A road team has yet to win a conference championship game and usually the hottest team has also claimed the title. In 2018 and 2019, App State won their last six games in respective years. Louisiana won their last thirteen games in 2021, and Troy won their last eleven games last year. If you have noticed, we do not talk about 2020, because there was no game, cough, cough. Arguably, this is shaping up to be the best matchup in the history of the conference championship because we have two teams who are streaking right now. Troy is riding a nine-game streak, while the Mountaineers have won five in a row. The Trojans won the division going away and App State has had their back against the wall for last half of the season. In the last five weeks, Troy has been scoring touchdowns almost exclusively in the air. Gunnar Watson has fifteen touchdown passes during that span, and other Troy quarterbacks have tossed for two more scores. The Troy ground game has steadily run for a single touchdown in each of the last five games as well. Troy has determined their offensive course of action and have not strayed from it. That’s an easy path to take when their defense has been so consistent all year long. But what happens when that Troy teams sees the most balanced opponent they have faced in a long time. The last five Troy opponents are not exactly lighting the world on fire. Sure, both schools have had common opponents. The timing of when App and Troy played those four games gives us zero indication as to what we could expect this weekend. What we do know is that Kimani Vidal is a good running back who does not go down on first contact. He averages 112 yards a game, but Vidal gained 493 yards in two games against Stephen F. Austin and Arkansas State, who was dead last in the conference in rushing defense. In fact, over a third of Vidal’s rushing yards for the season come in those two games. Against James Madison, Vidal was held to 27 yards and there are plenty other examples where Vidal was limited, yet Troy was able to prevail. Keeping Vidal contained will do wonders for the backside of the Mountaineer defense. This is the true game within the game. Whether or not Troy can find enough rhythm on offense could be a deciding factor. Troy is well balanced, and if the Mountaineers can keep them off balance, and can roam the secondary, it will be a huge boost. Eventually the road team woes in the conference championship will come to and end. This might as well be this week.

The First Pick

T-roy 26

Mountaineers 31

App State Football @ Louisiana (Sun Belt Championship Game)

Appalachian State (10-2, 7-1 Sun Belt) vs Louisiana (11-1, 8-0 Sun Belt)

Saturday, December 4th, 2021 3:30pm EST

TV/Video: ESPN

Radio: 97.3 FM North Wilkesboro, 96.5 FM/1450 AM Boone, 1320 AM Greensboro, 107.7FM/1450 AM Hendersonville, Varsity Network App

Cajun Field

Capacity: 41,426

Surface: Matrix Turf

Jeff Sagarin Ratings

App State: 77.21

UL: 74.88

Home: 1.71

App State is favored by the Sagarin ratings by .62 points

Line: App State -3

Series: App State leads 8-2

Last Meeting: App State 13, Louisiana 41, December 12, 2020, Lafayette, LA

We all saw this coming, didn’t we? When the Sun Belt released its preseason poll for the 2021 season, Louisiana was a near unanimous pick to win the west. Someone voted for Arkansas State. App State and Coastal were tied in total points, but Coastal managed six first place votes to App State’s four. Still pretty well done by the coaches, except for maybe one or two guys. Regardless, nobody is surprised we are here again, with App State and Louisiana playing for the conference title, the only two schools to ever play in a Sun Belt Championship game. For the first time, this game is being played in Lafayette. The home team has won both such contests, and also lost their head coach to a Power Five school. For Billy Napier, this is his third appearance. This will be App State’s third different coach in the game. These teams are pretty familiar with one another and pretty much know what to expect from the other side. It all comes down to playing ball.

Since the last time we saw the Cajuns, they have not lost. Same goes for the Mountaineers. On the season both teams have had six common opponents. Both are 6-0 against those teams. Louisiana played those opponents tighter than App State did. The Cajuns outscored those teams 153-119, while the Mountaineers took those games a little more personally. App State outscored those teams 258-75. Five of those six, Louisiana played their foes within one score, with Troy being the outlier. App State closest game came last week, a 24-point win over Georgia Southern. That has been what Louisiana has done most of the year outside of a couple games. Sure, they handled a few teams with ease, but its these six games that are most interesting. Not all of these games have the exact same circumstances. Such as, App played Southern late, against a third-string quarterback, where the Cajuns faced the Eagles during the last game of the Chad Lunsford era in September. App State also avoided Jake Bentley from South Alabama. The Cajuns had to mount a comeback against Georgia State, where App finished the Panthers off in the second half.

From bad quarterbacks and backup quarterbacks to one of the most successful in school history. That is the challenge for App State’s defense this week, when they face Levi Lewis for the eighth time. We discussed it earlier this season, and although he has not started all of those games, he has played a lot against App State. Keeping Lewis in the pocket is a must. Although he is not typical dual threat, he can and will run when he sees the opportunity. Lewis has four rushing touchdowns this year, in four different games. Three of those came against three of the better defenses in the conference, including App State. Since the last meeting against the Mountaineers, Lewis has been really effective in the air, with ten touchdowns passes to just two interceptions. In two of the four games in which Lewis did throw an interception, against Georgia State and Arkansas State, the Cajuns were really challenged. The last game Lewis threw a pick and was not challenged on the scoreboard, was against App State. It appears the Cajuns have been intentional in taking care of the football as the season wound down.

The Cajuns have done a good job spreading the ball among their offensive skill players all year long. In the matchup earlier this season, nine different Cajuns caught a pass, and four players received rushing attempts outside of Levi Lewis. On the year, eleven Cajuns caught ten or more passes and the leading receiver, Peter LeBlanc led the team with 33 catches for 350 yards. He was consistent for eleven of twelve games. Outside of the Georgia State game, where LeBlanc caught nine passes for 118 yards, he was held under 43 yards receiving in every other game. Freshman Kyren Lacy scored on a two-yard catch in the previous matchup against App, and was an end zone favorite. Despite just 21 receptions all season long, Lacy found the end zone five times on the year, and in each of the last three games to end the season. Similarly with the running backs, not one back has a majority of the carries. Chris Smith has 144 carries for 834 yards and Montrell Johnson has 135 carries for 776 yards. They have combined for nineteen touchdowns. In the last two games, Smith has 19 carries and Johnson has 16 attempts. That’s down from their season average. Those carries went to Emani Bailey, who was averaging roughly eight carries a game. Bailey had thirteen attempts in each of the last two games. Wisely the Cajuns have conserved their top two backs for this weekend while giving more work for their third back.

Familiarity in football is super important. It’s the reason why you see teams like BYU struggle with Georgia Southern a week ago. Same reason App State slowly killed off the Eagles last week. Eventually talent wins out. App and Southern know each other all too well. The game was never in doubt, just the final. In the end, App State let up a field goal, which broke their second half scoreless streak. Still, that is four games giving up just three second half points. A continuation of that trend would be quite welcome on Saturday. Thomas Hennigan, Malik Williams and Jalen Virgil were responsible for the touchdowns, all coming on big plays. Virgil going back-to-back on kickoff returns in consecutive years against Southern will become highlights we see for years to come. Yet, it’s the App State defense that has stolen the show for the last several weeks. The Mountaineers have allowed 240 yards rushing in the last four games combined. In October, the Mountaineers gave up a season-high 246 yards rushing to the Cajuns. It is clear that Louisiana wants to run, and App State needs to continue its recent dominance in defending the run.

There are two train of thoughts here. You either believe the first matchup mattered, or it did not. Mattered as in, that data can be used as a predictive indicator of future matchups. Or, it was an absolute fluke, or as some football types would say, just one of those days. App State had a lot of those days this year that were completely opposite of what happened that night. Louisiana, in turn had a couple games this year that resembled that night. But, that game was abnormal. Both teams have played half of a season since then. App State has looked good enough since that night to make me a believer. Both teams have had their offenses struggle at times, but have been carried by their defenses. The Cajuns seem to struggle offensively for longer periods of time. It might take the App State offense some time to wake up, but when they do, it comes in bunches. Despite that, over the course of the season, the Mountaineers scored 100 or more points in every quarter this season. App State scored 223 points this year in the second half. Their opponents scored 227 points all year. This is not an argument for most points scored in the other twelve games wins this weekend, but more to state that several weeks ago, the App offense never got it going. Those are just facts. Had the Mountaineers turnover margin been -2 in that game, it might have had a chance. Being down -4 in that category is undoable. Many statistical models over time have come to a consensus that winning the turnover battle is the easiest path to win a football game. A minus-four turnover margin in a single game sets your chance of winning any game at about 10%. Louisiana is a top five team nationally in turnover margin, but that has more to do with turning the ball over themselves just eight times all year. The Cajuns were +12 on the season in turnover margin, and one-third of those turnovers gained, happened in one game. What is the likelihood of another one-off game like that happening again? Smaller than you can imagine. App State has shown all year it can fight off a turnover or two in hole, depending on the opponent, but anything more than that on Saturday will be too much. We all want to see a game decided on the field between two elite defenses. The Mountaineers have found ways down the stretch to score anyway they need to, whether by special teams or defense. They’ll find their way to lifting another trophy soon after.

The First Pick

Cayenne 21

Mountaineers 24

Appalachian Football vs Louisiana (Sun Belt Championship)

Appalachian State (9-2, 7-1 Sun Belt) vs. Louisiana (7-5, 5-3 Sun Belt)

Saturday, December 1st, 2018 12:00pm est

TV/Video: ESPN

Radio: Boone/Blowing Rock: WATA 1450 AM & 96.5 FM; North Wilkesboro/Hickory/Charlote WKBC 97.3 FM; Asheville WZGM 1350 AM; Hendersonville WHKP 107.7 FM & 1450 AM; Charlotte/Gastonia WCGC 1270 AM; Charlotte WAVO 1150 AM; Raleigh/Durham Buzz Sports Radio 96.5 FM, 99.3 FM, The Ticket 620 AM; Greensboro/Winston-Salem/High Point WSJS 101.5 FM & 600 AM

Satellite Radio: Sirius 119, XM 202

Kidd Brewer Stadium 

Capacity: 30,000

Surface: Fieldturf

Jeff Sagarin Ratings

App State: 76.00

Louisiana: 58.94

Home: 2.28

App State is favored by the Sagarin ratings by 19.5 points (rounded)

Sportsbook: App State -17

Series: App State leads 5-0

Last meeting: App State 27, Louisiana 17, October 20, 2018 Boone, NC

WxCrum Forecast: Rain chances increasing throughout day, Temps near 50

For the first time in Sun Belt history, two schools will be playing their ninth conference football game for a pretty huge trophy, and the right to play in the New Orleans Bowl. Our Mountaineers were good enough all season to be the first to ever host the conference championship game. That was the goal when the game was announced. It was the goal when the format for qualifying was announced. It was the goal prior to every conference game being played. App State lost a home game in September, but getting a make up date in December is almost as sweet. With another ten win season in reach, another trophy to place in the case, comes the ending of another record breaking season on the mountain. It’s been a great ride but it’s not over yet. We all have a duty to give this team our ALL one last time at The Rock.  

Since the last time these two teams played, the Cajuns have won four of their five games, with the only loss coming to Troy 26-16, a nearly identical score as the previous App State game. That stretch included a shootout victory over Arkansas State which helped propel the Cajuns to where we are today. That head-to-head win gave them the needed tiebreaker to advance. Wins over Georgia State and South Alabama were semi-expected, but both of these Sun Belt cats gave the Cajuns some fits. Georgia State trailed by just two points entering the fourth quarter and South Alabama had the game tied in the third quarter and the margin cut to ten points in the fourth. Both of those wins were at Cajun Field, while the ultimate clinching game against UL-Monroe included a buzzer-missing field goal by the Warhawks.

Louisiana is going bowling, which many experts did not project heading into the season. The Cajuns were 3-4 when they left Boone the last time, which did not leave much margin for error for bowl eligibility, much less an appearance in the conference championship game. Oddly, the Cajuns are playing for said title after allowing more points this season then they have scored. In their defense, they have allowed just 31.4 points per game in their last five contests, which is down from their overall season average of 34 points per game.

The Louisiana offense has not changed since the last time the Mountaineers have seen them. The three-headed rushing attack is led by Trey Ragas who has 1040 yards and eight touchdowns. Elijah Mitchell tacks on 866 yards and twelve touchdowns and Raymond Calais is not far behind with 711 yards and six touchdowns. Ragas got just four carries against Georgia State, making way for Calais, who had three touchdowns in that game to go along with 186 yards. Ragas also had a light day against South Alabama with ten carries for 53 yards. However, he bounced back with a season high twenty-three carry day last week vs. UL-Monroe which was also enough to give him his sixth 100-yard rushing day of the season. Calais seems to be the hotter hand of late, based on usage, but all three of these backs can get it done.

Senior Andre Nunez continues to rotate with sophomore Levi Lewis every fourth series. It’s something that Billy Napier has stuck with throughout the season. That leaves Nunez  with most of the statistics. In the first meeting, Nunez threw for 108 yards against the Mountaineers. No interceptions, no touchdowns. It was the first game of the season where Nunez did not throw a touchdown pass. Two games later, Nunez was unable to throw a touchdown pass against Troy. That’s the only two games all season that happened. Despite Nunez’s nineteen touchdown passes, five came against New Mexico State, the week before the Cajuns played the Mountaineers. Since the last meeting with App State, Nunez finished the season with eight touchdown passes to six interceptions, throwing a pick in every game except Georgia State. 

This game was not an offensive spectacle for the Mountaineers, but it also did not have to be. It was clear that controlling the clock was an important factor. The Mountaineers held an eleven minute edge in time of possession. Gaining 201 yards on the ground on forty-five attempts was plenty to keep Troy off the field. It was the most rushing yards the Troy defense had allowed all season, besting UL-Monroe’s 200-yard performance. Darrynton Evans’ 58 yard run was the longest run the Trojans had given up all year. App needed that because the 113 yards passing was the fewest Troy had given up all season. Really, this game belonged to the defense. The four turnovers the Mountaineers forced was the tied for the most of the season against Troy. The longest punt return Troy allowed, was to Clifton Duck. And it was the only game Troy threw two interceptions, and their fewest points scored (10) all season. 

At this point of the season, it’s pretty clear how both teams plan on winning the game. The Louisiana approach is to wear another team down with the running game, keep opposing offenses off the field and keep their thin defense as fresh as possible. The fewer plays they have to defend, the less points they give up. The Cajuns scored 31 or more points in their seven wins, for an average of 45.5 points per game. In their 5 losses, they averaged 19 points, never scoring more than 28. Look at those numbers and think about the game App State likes to play. They like to keep people from scoring (15.4 ppg). They like to stop the running game (3.4 ypc). That 3.4 yards per carry that App has given up all season long is exactly how many they allowed to Louisiana in the first game (41-140). The job the Mountaineers did on the Troy running game last week might have been a sneak preview for this weekend. If the App defense is dialed in, this could be a long day for the Cajuns. Although App State scored just three touchdowns last week, and just 27 points the last time out against Louisiana, I’m kind of expecting a statement game from the Mountaineer offense. The home field advantage is huge in a game like this, especially considering four of the five Ragin’ Cajun losses this season have come on the road. The Cajuns have also not left the state of Louisiana for a game in four weeks, while the Mountaineers will be playing their third straight home game. The conference championship trophy is already in Boone. It won’t be leaving any time soon. 


The First Pick

Mild Peppers 14

Mountaineers 37