App State looks to reclaim Sun Belt crown

The Mountaineers face the Ragin’ Cajuns with a chance to avenge one of their two losses this season

Appalachian State quarterback Chase Brice throws against Coastal Carolina on Oct. 20. (Matt Kelley / AP Photo)

The Sun Belt Conference football championship won’t be the only thing on the line when Appalachian State returns to Louisiana on Saturday.

Coach Shawn Clark and his team will also have a shot at redemption.

A lot has changed in the seven weeks since the Mountaineers suffered a 41-13 beatdown at the hands of the Ragin’ Cajuns on Oct. 12 in by far their worst performance of the season. That’s evident in the point spread for the rematch.

App State is a three-point favorite.

“The key here is that we understand nothing that happened in that (earlier) game is going to affect this one,” Louisiana coach Billy Napier said.

Recent developments, however, could have a major impact as the teams prepare for their third conference championship showdown in the past four years.

While the Mountaineers are playing their best football of the season, having won six straight and holding their past three opponents to a combined 17 points, 20th-ranked Louisiana is dealing with the distraction of a lame-duck coaching staff.

Napier will be leaving the program after Saturday’s game to take the job at Florida.

How much the upheaval will influence the Ragin’ Cajuns, either positively or negatively, is yet to be seen. But with a title on the line and an opportunity to send their coach out in a blaze of glory, Louisiana should be expected to give App State its best shot.

“The one sign of a great program is that they’re not trying to reinvent the wheel every single week. Their core is not going to change,” Clark said. “They’re executing at a high level; they have all year long.”

Western Division champion Louisiana (11-1) hasn’t lost since an opening week setback at Texas. The Mountaineers, meanwhile, bounced back from their disappointment in Lafayette to knock off then-No. 14 Coastal Carolina a week later.

The win not only put App State (10-2) in control of the Sun Belt East, but it also helped create a momentum that has continued to build.

While quarterback Chase Brice, 1,000-yard rusher Nate Noel and their balanced offense have been operating in high gear since committing four turnovers and going 0 for 11 on third down in their first meeting with Louisiana — averaging 42 points per game in wins against Louisiana-Monroe, Arkansas State South Alabama, Troy and Georgia Southern — the defense has been the biggest reason for the Mountaineers’ resurgence.

Linebacker D’Marco Jackson ranks second in the conference with 103 tackles, and cornerback Steven Jones has returned three of his league-leading five interceptions for touchdowns to lead a unit that is tops in the Sun Belt at just 319 yards allowed per game.

“After the Louisiana game, we came back and regrouped,” Clark said. “We didn’t coach well that game, we didn’t play well that game. We went back to keeping things a little more simple.

“Probably the biggest thing we’ve done is we’re rallying to the football and we’re playing fast right now. If you turn the tape on from the last 4-5 games, our team speed has really shown, and it’s given us a chance to be successful.”

That speed and simplicity will be tested on Saturday against a Louisiana offense that has already run roughshod over the Mountaineers once this season.

Quarterback Levi Lewis threw for 209 yards, while Montrell Johnson led a rushing attack that rolled up 245 yards and five touchdowns on that Tuesday night as the Ragin’ Cajuns jumped out to a 20-3 lead after one quarter and were never seriously threatened.

As bad as that game was for the Mountaineers, Clark said he doesn’t plan to use it as motivation for his team heading into the rematch.

“Our players know we didn’t play well, our coaches know we didn’t coach well,” he said. “We’re treating this like any other game. It might be a championship game, but it’s about being 1-0.”

Napier doesn’t expect any surprises from App State, either.

“I think there’s some minor adjustments,” he said. “The one thing about Appalachian State is they know who they are. They’ve been very consistent in their performance, not only this year but as a whole. They’ve got a blueprint that works. It’s more about execution to them than making wholesale changes.”

The Mountaineers’ consistency has been especially impressive because of the wholesale changes that have been made.

Clark is the team’s third coach since 2018. Despite that turnover, App State has won or shared the Sun Belt title in four of the past five seasons. Last year’s championship game between Coastal Carolina and Louisiana was canceled because of a COVID-19 outbreak.

“For us, we’re not going to change what we do,” Clark said. “We have a couple of run plays, a couple of pass concepts and we try to execute at a high level. I think they’re going to do the same thing at Louisiana.”