College football’s midweek slate for the 2019 season officially begins on Wednesday night with Appalachian State meeting Louisiana in a matchup of the Sun Belt’s top teams. These two programs met twice last year, with the Mountaineers winning 27-17 in an October regular season matchup and again 30-19 in the Sun Belt title game.
New Appalachian State coach Eli Drinkwitz arrived in Boone after a successful stint as NC State’s offensive coordinator and has maintained this program where the last coach (Scott Satterfield) left off in 2018. As expected, a dynamic offense leads the way for Drinkwitz’s first team in Boone. Quarterback Zac Thomas leads a group that’s averaging 47 points a game in 2019. The Mountaineers are off to a 4-0 start and already have a huge non-conference victory at North Carolina. If Appalachian State can run the table, this team will be in the mix to rank as the top Group of 5 team in December.
Louisiana started its season with a close loss against Mississippi State in New Orleans (38-28) but has reeled off four consecutive victories to enter Wednesday night’s game at 4-1. The Ragin’ Cajuns earned victories against Liberty and Texas Southern and picked up huge road wins versus Ohio (the preseason favorite in the MAC) and Georgia Southern (a 10-win team last year).
Appalachian State and Louisiana have six previous meetings, with the Mountaineers owning a 6-0 edge in the series.
Appalachian State at Louisiana
Kickoff: Wednesday, Oct. 9 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Louisiana -2.5
When Appalachian State Has the Ball
As expected under Drinkwitz, Appalachian State’s offense hasn’t missed a beat in 2019. This unit led the Sun Belt by averaging 37.3 points a game last fall and ranks first in the conference going into Wednesday night’s matchup at 47 points a contest. Additionally, the Mountaineers rank second in the league in yards per play (6.8) and are first in red zone offense.
Quarterback Zac Thomas earned first-team All-Sun Belt honors this preseason and it’s no surprise the junior is off to a fast start. Through four games, Thomas has completed 71.9 percent of his throws for 802 yards and seven scores to just two picks. Thomas ran for over 500 yards last season and recorded 57 yards on just six attempts in the win over North Carolina. Thomas Hennigan (21 catches) has been Thomas’ favorite target through the air, but Corey Sutton is back after serving a two-game suspension to start the season. Sutton paced the team with 44 receptions in 2018 and already has 12 through two games this fall. With Hennigan, Sutton, Malik Williams and Jalen Virgil on the outside, Appalachian State has more than enough weapons to test a Louisiana secondary that ranks first in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense.
While Thomas is the offense’s top player, Appalachian State has ranked first or second in the Sun Belt in rushing offense for five consecutive years and is positioned for a finish there once again in 2019. Darrynton Evans (471 yards) enters Wednesday night averaging a healthy 7.03 yards per carry this year, with Daetrich Harrington and Marcus Williams also in the mix.
Louisiana’s defense has showed marked improvement since giving up 40 points a game in 2017. The Ragin’ Cajuns cut that total to 34.2 a contest last year and lead the Sun Belt in fewest points allowed (21.4) in 2019. This unit has been a bit susceptible to the run (158.6 ypg allowed) but has generated 12 sacks and is only giving up 5.1 yards per play.
Statistics early in the college football season can be skewed, but the early returns suggest there is real improvement on Louisiana’s defense. However, Appalachian State’s offense will test that theory. Can the Ragin’ Cajuns slow Evans and the ground game? Or will the Mountaineers find plenty of running room, setting up Thomas to attack all over the field with another effective and efficient performance through the air?
When Louisiana Has the Ball
It’s no secret what Louisiana wants to do on offense. The Ragin’ Cajuns enter Wednesday night’s game ranked first nationally by averaging 314 yards on the ground per contest. Coach Billy Napier’s group had to navigate some injuries along the offensive line this year but still posted 163 on the ground against Mississippi State in the opener and two 400-yard games (Liberty and Texas Southern).
Napier and his staff have no shortage of options waiting to tote the rock on Wednesday night, and the talent in the backfield allows the Ragin’ Cajuns to have fresh legs in the fourth quarter. Trey Ragas is averaging 9.79 yards per rush and leads the team with 548 yards. Elijah Mitchell isn’t far behind with 402 yards and nine touchdown runs. Raymond Calais (273 yards) and Army transfer T.J. Wisham (133) are also in the mix. The strength of Appalachian State’s defense is its front, which is anchored by lineman Demetrius Taylor and linebackers Noel Cook, Jordan Fehr and Akeem Davis-Gaither.
Thanks to a prolific ground game, quarterback Levi Lewis has averaged around 24 pass attempts per contest. The junior was effective in limited time from 2017-18 before winning the starting job this offseason. Lewis played well in the loss against Mississippi State (24 of 39 for 267 yards) and has not tossed a pick over the last three games. He’s also completing 64.8 percent of his passes and has three connections of 50 yards or more in 2019. Ja’Marcus Bradley (22 catches) and Jamal Bell (21) are the go-to options for Lewis, but no other player on the roster has more than eight receptions this year. Appalachian State's defense allowed only eight passing scores in 2018 but has already surrendered 10 through four contests. If Louisiana's ground game is effective, Lewis and his receivers should have opportunities to push the ball downfield.
Appalachian State’s defense held Louisiana to just 140 rushing yards in the October matchup and 216 (on 44 attempts) in the Sun Belt title game. However, the Mountaineers have been a little more generous in giving up rushing yardage this year. This unit held teams to 3.5 yards per rush last fall but that number has climbed to 4.3 in 2019. That trend carries to the entire unit, as Appalachian State’s yards per play is 5.94 (up from 4.4 last year). After leading the Sun Belt in scoring defense last fall, the Mountaineers are giving up 29 points a contest.
Will Appalachian State’s defense once again win the battle up front and limit Louisiana’s ground game? Or will the Ragin’ Cajuns get the ground game on track, setting up Lewis to hit throws downfield in manageable down and distance all night?
This will be the third meeting between these two teams since the start of the 2018 season. And there’s a good chance this game won’t be the only time the Mountaineers and Ragin’ Cajuns meet in 2019. Appalachian State has an edge at quarterback and on defense, but this matchup will come down to whichever team can stop the run and avoid turnovers in a close contest. Louisiana has made significant strides under Napier’s watch, but a small edge goes to the Mountaineers on Wednesday night.