App State falls off the mountaintop after loss at Marshall

The Mountaineers saw their hopes for an undefeated season and consideration for a New Year's Six bowl end Saturday as their normally powerful offense sputtered in a with a 17-7 loss

Marshall quarterback Grant Wells rolls out of the pocket to make a throw against Appalachian State during Saturday's game in Huntington, WVa (Sholten Singer/The Herald-Dispatch via AP)

Appalachian State’s longshot chances at earning a spot in the College Football Playoff got a lot longer earlier this week when the Big Ten announced its decision to play an eight-game schedule starting in November rather than waiting until spring.

Whatever hopes the Mountaineers still had ended Saturday with a 17-7 loss at Marshall.

The game was added as a replacement for a canceled trip to Wisconsin and was a homecoming of sorts for first-year App State coach Shawn Clark, who grew up in nearby Charleston, West Virginia. But it turned out to be a bittersweet return thanks to a Marshall defense that that limited the Mountaineers to 96 yards rushing and no points over the final three quarters.

Three thoughts

1. Marshall caught everyone’s attention last week for its offense in a 59-0 rout of Eastern Kentucky. But while the passing of redshirt freshman quarterback Grant Wells made most of the headlines, the Thundering Herd’s defense turned out to be the star of this show. In addition to the work against the run, Marshall sacked quarterback Zac Thomas three times and forced two turnovers while holding an offense that averaged 38.7 points per game last season to a single touchdown.

2. While most of the Mountaineers’ offensive weapons are back, including Thomas, top receiver Thomas Hennigan and most of its offensive line, the one top player that didn’t return turned out to be an important one Saturday. First-team All-Sun Belt Conference selection Darrynton Evans decided to leave after his junior year. His replacements, Camerun Peoples and Daetrich Harrington, had a productive opening performance in a win against Charlotte last week, leading a rushing attack that piled up 308 yards. But against Marshall, Peoples had just 57 and Harrington 30 while the Thundering Herd’s Brendon Knox rushed for 138 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries.

3. As hard as App State has worked to get ranked over the past few years, it’s found it harder to stay ranked once it make the polls. Last year, the Mountaineers lost their first game — at home against Georgia Southern — after cracking the rankings. They came into this Saturday’s game tied for No. 23 in the Associated Press Top 25. They’ll almost certainly drop out in next week’s poll.

Number to know

5,262 — The number of passing yards Thomas has compiled in his Mountaineers career. He threw for 268 yards in the game and surpassed the 5,000 mark early in the first half. In doing so, he moved from 10th on the all-time school list to No. 8, surpassing Randy Joyce (5,114 yards from 1981-84) and Pat Murphy (5,141 from 1965-68).

They said it

“All of our goals are in front of us. Our goals are to win the Sun Belt championship and go to a bowl game. I told the guys I’m proud of the way they competed, but we kept shooting ourselves in the foot.”

— App State coach Shawn Clark

Player of the Game

Trey Cobb, App State linebacker — The junior picked up 14 tackles for the Mountaineers. He also had a pass deflection and two quarterback hurries to lead a defense that played well enough to win the game despite losing several key players to injury during the game.

Critical Thinking

The Mountaineers could have taken the easy route in scheduling once their previously planned games against Wake Forest and Wisconsin were wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic. But instead of picking up an FCS opponent or even a home game in an effort to preserve its chances for an undefeated season and New Year’s Six bowl, coach Shawn Clark’s team took a chance by taking to the road against another good mid-major program.

It obviously didn’t work out well. Of even greater concern was the difficulty App State had in running the ball. One of the keys to its productive offense during the three seasons Thomas has been the starting quarterback has been its ability to keep defenses off guard with balance. If the Mountaineers can’t run the ball effectively moving forward and become more one-dimensional, Saturday’s loss might not be the only one.