App State faces unbeaten Coastal Carolina in pivotal game

The Chanticleers have supplanted the Mountaineers as the top team in the Sun Belt

Quarterback Chase Brice and running back Camerun Peoples will try and help Appalachian State reestablish itself as the team to beat in the Sun Belt Conference when the Mountaineers host No. 14 Coastal Carolina on Wednesday in Boone. (Wilfredo Lee / AP Photo)

When Shawn Clark inherited the Appalachian State football program, the Mountaineers were riding a streak of five straight bowl wins, four Sun Belt titles in a row and two Eastern Division crowns.

Clark kept the bowl streak going, guiding App to a Myrtle Beach Bowl win over North Texas last year. The Mountaineers fell to second in the East, however, and third in the Sun Belt.

Clark’s arrival in the head coach’s office just happened to coincide with the arrival of Coastal Carolina on the national college football scene. In their fourth year in FBS, the Chanticleers went 8-0 in the conference, finished the year No. 14 in the nation and took App State’s twin titles as best in the Sun Belt and small conference darling of the college football nation.

Clearly, there’s more than enough room for two small conference schools in the national picture. Unfortunately for Clark and App State, however, there’s probably not enough room in the Sun Belt East to accommodate both.

“All our goals are in front of us,” Clark said in his Monday press conference. “To do that, we have to win the East. Well, the East is here Wednesday night.”

Coastal Carolina, unbeaten at 6-0 on the season and once again No. 14 in the nation, comes to Boone to take on the Mountaineers in an ESPN2 game on Wednesday night.

“What better way to evaluate the program than to play that level of competition,” Clark said.

For the first half of the season, no one has been on Coastal’s level. The Chants have scored 50 points in four of their six games, including the last three, and had “only” 49 in another. They’ve won two of their last three by 50-point margins and have another two wins by more than 30.

Coastal leads the nation in scoring offense at 48.8 points per game. They’re third in the country in rushing yards per game (263.5) and second in total offense (554.2).

On defense, they rank in the top 10 nationally in points allowed (15.0), passing yards allowed (11.5) and total defense (280.7).

App State, meanwhile, is doing some self-evaluation coming off of a blowout loss at Louisiana last Tuesday. The Mountaineers lost to the Ragin’ Cajuns 41-13 in another game televised on ESPN2.

“We got our butts kicked,” Clark said after the game. “There’s no other way to sugarcoat it. … All in all, it wasn’t good. We’re going to find out what kind of team we have when we get back to Boone.”

So far, Clark is pleased with what he’s seen since the team got back from Louisiana.

“The way we got back to practice this week was exceptional,” he said. “We’re ready to get the bad taste out of our mouths.”

That doesn’t mean he’s not looking at what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again.

“We’re evaluating everything,” he said. “The way we left Boone. The way we traveled. Where we slept. What we ate for pregame meal. We can’t have that in this program. We didn’t play our style of football. That was evident by the score.”

The biggest issue Clark saw with the play on the field was turnovers. Quarterback Chase Brice threw two interceptions and lost a fumble. Jahmir Smith also lost a fumble. Three of the turnovers resulted in Louisiana touchdowns.

“You can’t turn the football over four times in any game,” Clark said. “We looked at it this past weekend, and teams that lost the turnover battle lost 82% of the games last weekend.

“On defense, we have to do a better job of stopping guys and (preventing) long drives,” Clark added.

While there was plenty to fix on both sides of the ball, Clark also wanted to make sure the team didn’t lose confidence.

“Going back to 2016, when we first won the conference, we had at least one conference loss in all of those seasons,” he pointed out. “We’ve got to let that game go. The Louisiana game is gone. We can’t get it back. The sky is not falling. All of our goals are still in front of us.”

On Wednesday night, the team that is currently in the spot App State aspires to be will also be in front of the Mountaineers.

“We’re tied with Coastal,” Clark said, pointing out that each team is 1-0 in the Sun Belt East, and they’d have identical conference records if App State wins on Wednesday. “Whoever wins this game is in the driver’s seat.”

And whoever loses will have more evaluation to do.