App State falls short, loses to Louisiana in Sun Belt title game

The Ragin' Cajuns defeated the Mountaineers for the second time this season

Louisiana wide receiver Michael Jefferson scores a touchdown against Appalachian State defensive back Madison Cone during the Ragin' Cajuns' 24-16 win Saturday in the Sun Belt Conference championship game in Lafayette, Louisiana. (Matthew Hinton / AP Photo)

LAFAYETTE, La. — Levi Lewis scored on a career-high 56-yard run and passed for another touchdown, and No. 20 Louisiana capped off soon-to-be Florida coach Billy Napier’s time with the Ragin’ Cajuns by defeating Appalachian State 24-16 on Saturday in the Sun Belt Conference championship game.

Emani Baily rushed for 117 yards, highlighted by his 35-yard touchdown run on a third-and-9 play to give the Cajuns a two-touchdown lead early in the fourth quarter.

Lewis passed for 210 yards without a turnover and finished with 43 net yards rushing as Louisiana (12-1, 9-0 Sun Belt) lengthened its school-record winning streak to 12 games.

Camerun Peoples ran for a 43-yard touchdown in the first half for Appalachian State (10-3, 7-2), but the Mountaineers’ offense struggled to match its usual production while trying to play catch-up from its first possession.

Appalachian State quarterback Chase Brice, who averaged 241.8 yards passing per game during the regular season, completed just 12 of 30 passes for 119 yards and was sacked four times — twice each by Cajuns defensive lineman Zi’Yon Hill and edge rusher Chauncey Manac.

But Brice kept the Mountaineers’ hopes alive in the fourth quarter when he rolled out on fourth-and-10 and connected over the middle with Thomas Hennigan, who slipped tacklers to get into the end zone. The Mountaineers elected to go for two but Brice was pressured into an incomplete pass, leaving the Cajuns ahead by eight.

App State got the ball back once more at its own 35-yard line with 29 seconds left, but Manac stripped Brice as he was about to throw near mid-field and recovered the fumble to seal the victory.

Lewis made several big throws on the game’s opening series to give the Cajuns an early lead, starting with his 35-yard completion to Peter LeBlanc on third-and-7. Lewis kept the drive going with a 10-yard completion to Dontae Fleming while scrambling to his left on fourth-and-3. That set up Lewis’ 27-yard scoring strike over the middle to Michael Jefferson.

The Cajuns took a 14-0 lead on Lewis’ long TD run on a read-option play early in the second quarter.

Peoples’ 43-yard scoring run in the second quarter pulled App State within seven.

Lewis’ 30-yard pass to LeBlanc in the final minute of the half allowed the Cajuns to set up their first field goal attempt in four games from 33-yards. Nate Snyder made it with one second left to widen the Cajuns’ lead to 17-7 at halftime.

The Mountaineers nearly closed the gap when Corey Sutton got both hands on Brice’s 39-yard pass to the corner of the end zone, but cornerback Eric Garror ripped the ball out as both players crashed to the turf.

The Mountaineers’ only losses in conference play all season came against the Ragin’ Cajuns in Lafayette. It was the third time in four years Appalachian State had played in the Sun Belt title game, beating Louisiana the first two times in Boone, North Carolina.

Napier, who will skip the Cajuns’ to-be-announced bowl game so he can start his next job with the Gators, finished 40-12 in four years — 33-5 during the past three seasons. The Cajuns also won the Sun Belt West Division in all four of Napier’s seasons.