The Sun Belt’s midweek October slate continues on Wednesday night, as Appalachian State hits the road for a matchup against UL Lafayette. The Mountaineers were the overwhelming favorite in the Sun Belt this preseason and maintain that edge through the first month of the season. The Ragin’ Cajuns are looking to get back on track after a disappointing 2015 campaign, and a win on Wednesday night would certainly help coach Mark Hudspeth’s team inch closer to a bowl berth in 2016.
Appalachian State enters this matchup at 3-2 but both losses came against Power 5 opponents (Tennessee and Miami). The Mountaineers nearly defeated Tennessee (20-13) but fell 45-10 against Miami in Boone, N.C. Coach Scott Satterfield’s team is 1-0 in Sun Belt play after a 17-3 win over Georgia State. Appalachian State is led by a strong defense and the steady play of quarterback Taylor Lamb. The Mountaineers led the Sun Belt by averaging 6.7 yards per play in 2015 but have slipped to 5.3 in 2016. A revamped receiving corps has hindered the development of the passing game, and Appalachian State is 10th in the Sun Belt in third-down conversions.
As mentioned above, UL Lafayette is looking to get back on track after a 4-8 record in 2015. So far, the jury is still out on whether or not this team will rebound back into the postseason. The Ragin’ Cajuns were handled by Boise State in the opener and scored back-to-back wins over McNeese State and South Alabama. However, Hudspeth’s team has lost two games in a row in overtime and a loss on Wednesday would drop UL Lafayette to 2-4 overall with games remaining against Georgia, Georgia Southern and Arkansas State. There’s very little margin for error if the Ragin’ Cajuns want to go bowling.
Appalachian State holds a 2-0 series edge over UL Lafayette. These two teams have met in each of the last two years, with the Mountaineers winning 28-7 in 2015 and 35-16 in 2014.
Appalachian State at UL Lafayette
Kickoff: Wednesday, Oct. 12 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Appalachian State -10
Three Things to Watch
1. The Quarterbacks
The advantage under center for this matchup is clearly in favor of Appalachian State. Taylor Lamb threw for 2,387 yards and 31 scores last season and has passed for 827 yards and six touchdowns through five games in 2016. Lamb is working with a revamped group of receivers, so it’s no surprise the Mountaineers have watched their production dip slightly in the passing game. However, Lamb and the offense should have plenty of opportunities to stretch the field on Wednesday night. UL Lafayette ranks ninth in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense and has surrendered 11 passing scores. Lamb is also efficient (61.7%) and has tossed only four picks on 120 attempts this year. The Mountaineers have been dealing with some injuries in the receiving corps, but tight end Barrett Burns (10 catches) and receiver Shaedon Meadors (10 catches) are reliable targets.
On the other sideline, UL Lafayette is looking for more consistency from starter Anthony Jennings. The LSU graduate transfer has completed 60.7 percent of his throws but has tossed six interceptions and was benched in the last game against New Mexico State. Jalen Nixon replaced Jennings against the Aggies but suffered a season-ending injury. With Nixon sidelined for the rest of the year, the job is clearly Jennings to lose once again. Jennings will have his hands full against Appalachian State’s secondary, which ranks third in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense and is helped by a front seven with 10 sacks through five games. The Ragin’ Cajuns need Jennings to make smart decisions and utilize his rushing ability to have a chance at the upset.
2. Two of the Sun Belt’s Top Ground Attacks
This matchup features two of the Sun Belt’s top rushing offenses, as well some of the best individual running backs in the conference. Appalachian State ranks third in the Sun Belt (213 ypg), while UL Lafayette checks in fourth at 179.8 yards per game. The Mountaineers have a deep backfield, which is headlined by Marcus Cox and rising star Jalin Moore. Cox has missed the last two games due to injury and is questionable to go on Wednesday night. Even if Cox is sidelined, Moore is capable of carrying this offense. The sophomore rushed for 257 yards in a win over Akron and 149 against Georgia State. The Ragin’ Cajuns are second in the Sun Belt against the run and are limiting opponents to 2.9 yards per carry. Can the standout Appalachian State offensive line and Moore keep up their production on the ground?
UL Lafayette senior Elijah McGuire is one of the nation’s top Group of 5 running backs and is halfway (517 yards through five games) to earning his third consecutive 1,000-yard campaign. McGuire has been dealing with a few injuries and was limited to six carries against New Mexico State. As evidenced against McNeese State (139 yards) and South Alabama (223), McGuire’s health has a major impact on this offense. The Mountaineers will counter with a strong front seven, including standout linebackers Kennan Gilchrist, Devan Stringer, Eric Boggs and John Law. Look for Appalachian State to stuff the run and force Jennings to win this one through the air.
3. The Turnover Battle
As the underdog in this matchup, UL Lafayette is going to need a couple of takeaways to pull off the upset. In 2016, the Ragin’ Cajuns have struggled in the turnover department, forcing five takeaways but also losing eight. Jennings and the offense have to do a better job of limiting the giveaways, as Appalachian State is plus-five through five contests. The Mountaineers have yet to record a negative margin in a game this season and recently posted a plus-three mark against Georgia State. UL Lafayette needs a plus-two or plus-three turnover margin (with points off turnovers) to overcome some of the personnel advantages Appalachian State brings to Cajun Field.
Appalachian State is only a game better (3-2 to 2-3) in the win column this year, but the Mountaineers are more battle-tested and still the favorite to win the league. A win by UL Lafayette would boost bowl hopes that are fading after losing to New Mexico State. Both teams prefer to win with the ground attack, and there is no shortage of talent in either backfield. McGuire needs a big performance after a limited showing against the Aggies, while the Mountaineers are expecting another heavy workload from Moore with Marcus Cox sidelined. Appalachian State has two clear advantages: Quarterback and the defense. Assuming the Mountaineers don’t turn it over a couple of times and give the Ragin’ Cajuns a short field to work with, Satterfield’s team should win this one by at least a touchdown.