Midweek college football returns to the schedule, as Appalachian State travels to Lafayette to take on Louisiana for a Tuesday night showdown in the Sun Belt. Coastal Carolina will have a lot to say about the title picture in this league, but it wouldn't be a total surprise to see the Mountaineers and Ragin' Cajuns meet once again in the conference championship in December.
With nine or more victories every year since 2015, Appalachian State has emerged as one of the top Group of 5 programs in the nation. The Mountaineers have just one finish in the Top 25 since moving to the FBS level in '14, but coach Shawn Clark's team could threaten that mark thanks to a strong start this fall. Appalachian State started its season with a win over East Carolina in Charlotte and suffered a two-point defeat in a road trip to Miami in Week 2. However, since that game, the Mountaineers are 3-0, racking up quality victories over Marshall and Georgia State. Tuesday's game against Louisiana marks the beginning of a crucial two-game stretch for Appalachian State. After this game against the Ragin' Cajuns, the Mountaineers have to prepare for a massive showdown against Coastal Carolina on Oct. 20.
Billy Napier brought immediate improvement to Lafayette after arriving in 2018, and there's just one missing piece on the résumé. The Ragin' Cajuns have won the Sun Belt West Division for three consecutive years but have yet to win the conference championship and outright title. With a veteran roster returning in '21, Louisiana was a popular pick to win the league this preseason, and all of the goals are still intact for this team despite a loss to Texas in Week 1. The Ragin' Cajuns have won four in a row since that defeat, including a 28-20 decision at Georgia Southern and a 20-18 victory against South Alabama on Oct. 2.
Appalachian State holds an 8-1 series edge over Louisiana. The Ragin' Cajuns' only victory over the Mountaineers came last season in a 24-21 victory. Each of the last five meetings between these two teams was decided by 11 points or less.
Appalachian State at Louisiana
Kickoff: Tuesday, Oct. 12 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Appalachian State -5
When Appalachian State Has the Ball
The Mountaineers bring one of the Sun Belt's top offenses to Lafayette on Tuesday night, averaging 35.2 points a game and 6.5 yards per play. Balance is the name of the game for Clark's group. Appalachian State's ground attack is churning out 197.2 yards a game, and former Clemson/Duke signal-caller Chase Brice has helped the passing attack rank third in the Sun Belt in terms of total production per contest (284.2).
Brice's arrival was a key pickup for Appalachian State after Zac Thomas finished his eligibility with the conclusion of the 2020 season. The transfer has been steady through each of Appalachian State's five games, connecting on 68 percent of his passes for 1,360 yards and eight touchdowns to just three picks. Brice threw for a season-high 326 yards in the win over Georgia State on Oct. 2 and ranks second among Sun Belt signal-callers by averaging 8.9 yards per attempt. Helping to ease Brice's transition into the starting role has been a deep collection of playmakers on the outside. Corey Sutton paces the team with 32 receptions for 473 yards, while Thomas Hennigan and Malik Williams have combined for 44 catches so far this fall.
The ground game has been a consistent source of strength for Appalachian State since the program moved to the FBS level. The Mountaineers have had a player rush for 1,000 yards for nine straight years and are on pace to make it 10 consecutive in '21. Nate Noel (511 yards) and Camerun Peoples (353) will share carries, with Noel bringing a little more big-play ability (6.4 yards per carry to 5.3), while Peoples has scored eight times on the ground.
After leading the Sun Belt in fewest yards per play allowed (4.92) last fall, Louisiana's defense has slipped on the stat sheet so far this season. The Ragin' Cajuns are allowing 5.82 yards per snap through five games, with four opponents going over five. But after allowing 38 points to Texas in the opener, this unit has not allowed an opponent to score more than 24 in each of the last four games. Stopping Appalachian State’s ground game should be the top area of focus for Louisiana on Tuesday night. The Ragin’ Cajuns have allowed at least 196 rushing yards to the Mountaineers in every matchup between the two teams under Napier. The defense ranks eighth in the Sun Belt against the run, but it’s worth noting most of the damage came against Georgia Southern’s option attack (278 yards), while the other four opponents managed 170 yards or less. Keeping Appalachian State in third-and-long situations would help Louisiana’s defense get off the field more, as it ranks eighth in the Sun Belt in third-down defense.
When Louisiana Has the Ball
Production on Louisiana's offense is down a bit from last season, but Napier's team has found a way to win four in a row. The Ragin' Cajuns scored 49 in a victory against Ohio in mid-September, with the offense producing at least 28 points in the other three wins this year. Coming into Tuesday night's game, Louisiana is averaging 5.9 yards per play and ranks seventh in the Sun Belt in scoring (23.6 points a game).
The ground game holds the keys to success for Louisiana's offense. After averaging 213 rushing yards a game last season, the Ragin' Cajuns are posting 166 yards per contest in '21. After rushing for less than 100 yards against Texas and Nicholls State, Napier's squad gashed Ohio for 310, posted 129 against Georgia Southern, and 225 versus South Alabama on Oct. 2. Several running backs will see time on Tuesday night, including Emani Bailey (249 yards), Montrell Johnson (232), and Chris Smith (231). Quarterback Levi Lewis also contributes on the ground (122), but the offense hasn't produced much in the way of big rushing plays, as the longest carry went for just 35 yards this fall.
Lewis has been a steady presence under center for Napier the last few seasons, and his efficiency is a big reason why this offense has ranked at the top of the Sun Belt. The senior has completed 62.7 percent of his passes this fall and tossed only one pick over 150 attempts. Also, outside of a lackluster performance against South Alabama (49 yards), Lewis has thrown for more than 212 yards in every game. The Ragin' Cajuns have a deep collection of targets for Lewis, with Dontae Fleming (13) and Kyren Lacy (10) leading the team in receptions going into Tuesday's game.
Appalachian State's defense led the Sun Belt in scoring defense (20.0 ppg) last fall and is off to another strong start in '21. The Mountaineers are again holding teams to 20 points a contest and limiting offenses to 5.3 yards per play. Louisiana's rushing attack against Appalachian State's defensive front is likely to play a huge role in the outcome of this matchup. The Mountaineers aren't giving up much (3.6 yards per carry allowed) on the ground this year, which will be a challenge to Napier's offense.
On paper, Tuesday night's matchup in the Sun Belt is a toss-up. Similar to last season, Louisiana has lived on the edge a bit this year with three victories coming by eight points or less. Appalachian State lost by two against Miami and beat Marshall by a point but dominated in its three other victories. The Ragin' Cajuns aren't playing with the same level of efficiency on offense that they had last season, which has to change in order to win against Appalachian State. An x-factor to watch: Louisiana starting kicker Kenneth Almendares is out for the year, and backup Nate Snyder missed two field goals and an extra point in the win over South Alabama. The Mountaineers appear to be more well-rounded at this point, as the balance on offense and a standout defense tip this one in favor of Clark's team.
Prediction: Appalachian State 27, Louisiana 24
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