Another Ring Game at The Rock. And a repeat champion. No. 21 App State claimed its fourth consecutive league title and celebrated a Sun Belt Championship Game victory on its home field for the second straight year thanks to a 45-38 win against Louisiana on Saturday afternoon.
Three early touchdowns from belt-winning MVP Darrynton Evans gave the Mountaineers a 21-0 lead late in the first quarter, and captain Josh Thomas’ first career interception return for a touchdown accounted for one of three turnovers forced by a senior on App State’s defense. The Mountaineers led 42-17 late in the third quarter and maintained at least a 14-point lead until the Ragin’ Cajuns cut into a 45-31 deficit on a touchdown pass with 1:19 remaining.
During the postgame celebration with fans on the field at Kidd Brewer Stadium, the poker chip that first-year head coach Eliah Drinkwitz unveiled during a May 28 team meeting resurfaced.
“Our motto was to ‘Keep the chip,’ ” Drinkwitz said. “The natural human tendency when you achieve something over a long period of time is to let up, and our football team needed to keep that motivation, keep the chip 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. If we were going to repeat as champions, we had to put in the same amount of work, 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’re definitely excited about that.”
By prevailing in the first-ever matchup of Sun Belt teams with double-digit wins, App State (12-1) became the first FBS program from the state of North Carolina and the first Sun Belt program to post a 12-win season. App State also recorded its fourth win this season against a team ranked in the top 45 of ESPN’s FPI (Football Power Index).
Evans added a second MVP belt to his collection with 162 all-purpose yards against the Ragin’ Cajuns (10-3) and the three scores that increased his season total to 23. Zac Thomas’ two TD throws contributed to his 174 total yards, including 143 through the air, and the Mountaineers got scoring runs of 25-plus yards from both Marcus Williams Jr. (78 rushing yards) and Daetrich Harrington (team-high 89 yards) as they rushed for 267 yards as a team.
“This team, with everybody buying in and everybody doing their job, it makes my job easier,” Evans said.
“Hats off to the Lafayette running back group — they’re a great group and one of the best in the nation, but also here at App, me, Marcus, Daetrich and even Cam Peoples when he comes back next year, we feel like we’re the best running back group in the country. We work, we compete with each other and we push each other to be that group.”
Defensively, in addition to Josh Thomas’ pick-six, E.J. Scott recovered his own forced fumble to trigger the early outburst and Desmond Franklin recovered a fumble forced by Noel Cook. Akeem Davis-Gaither recorded a team-high 10 tackles and Demetrius Taylor added his seventh sack of the season.
Six plays into the game, Zac Thomas delivered a third-and-15 screen pass to a well-protected Evans, who benefited from downfield blocks from center Noah Hannon and receiver Malik Williams while sprinting down the sideline for a 58-yard touchdown. The fireworks smoke had barely cleared by the time App State came away with its first turnover.
Three plays into Louisiana’s first series, immediately after a 43-yard pass, Scott pounced on a loose ball after he disrupted a potential backfield handoff from quarterback Levi Lewis.
“They let me go, so there wasn’t anything to read, and I just went,” Scott said. “I just took advantage of it, and when I looked back, I saw it and just had to jump on it. It was definitely a momentum play.”
The Mountaineers took over at the Louisiana 47, and Thomas’ 25-yard quarterback keeper set up an 8-yard touchdown run from Evans with 9:38 left in the first quarter. App State’s defense then forced a three-and-out punt, and App State converted a pair of fourth-and-short runs on a 14-play, 76-yard march that covered nearly seven minutes.
Thomas’ 5-yard touchdown pass to Evans on a third-and-goal play, followed by Chandler Staton’s extra point, pushed the lead to 21-0 with 1:43 left in the first quarter.
Louisiana ended the scoring spree with a touchdown less than a minute later, as Lewis threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to Peter LeBlanc. App State responded with a five-play, 75-yard drive that ended with Williams Jr.’s 29-yard touchdown run for a 28-7 lead. The two teams traded touchdowns again, with Elijah Mitchell rushing for a 1-yard touchdown and Harrington busting loose for a 25-yard touchdown run, and the Mountaineers held a 35-14 lead until Stevie Artigue drilled a 53-yard field goal in the closing seconds of the first half.
Louisiana had chances to cut into its deficit early in the second half, but App State’s defense came up with back-to-back takeaways that helped push the lead to 42-17. Franklin recovered Cook’s forced fumble at the Mountaineers’ 26 to erase one scoring threat, and Louisiana regained possession at its 8 with Ryan Huff and Tyler Bird combining on punt coverage tackle deep in Louisiana territory.
Two plays in into the next series, Josh Thomas picked off an over-the-middle throw and sprinted untouched toward the front-left pylon on his 16-yard return for a touchdown. After his first touchdown, he embraced fellow fifth-year senior Collin Reed on the sideline.
“When I caught it, I saw the O-linemen, and I just tried to run away from them as fast as I could,” Thomas said. “Making plays like that, it all happened so fast, it was just a blur. It’s one moment at Kidd Brewer that I needed, and it was great.”
App State had a little more work to do before the celebration could begin.
Staton’s fourth field goal in two championship game appearances, a 35-yard kick with 8:12 remaining, increased App State’s lead to 45-24. Louisiana scored a touchdown with 4:18 left and then with 1:19 remaining, but the onside kick went out of bounds.
A hobbled Reed returned to the field to some cheers as App State ran out the clock, and the fifth-year senior group of Reed, Franklin, Davis-Gaither, Thomas and offensive tackle Victor Johnson ended their careers with a 27-4 record at The Rock.
“It just shows you what kind of leadership we have,” Zac Thomas said. “The players we have, the seniors, we took it in when Drink first got here in spring practice that we had one goal in mind, and that was all the same goal we wanted was to win the conference championship. The seniors did a good job of leading, and we bought into them, and they bought into us. We just kept performing. We’re a really good football team. You can see that, so it’s very rewarding to go out there and win another one, back-to-back. You can’t ask for anything better than that.”