For the second year in a row, Louisiana and Appalachian State will meet in Boone, N.C. to decide the Sun Belt Championship. The Mountaineers won 30-19 over the Ragin’ Cajuns in Boone to claim the conference title last season. Counting regular season matchups, this is the fourth time these two teams will play over the last two years.
First-year coach Eli Drinkwitz picked up where Scott Satterfield left off and maintained Appalachian State’s place as one of the top Group of 5 teams in the nation. The Mountaineers still have an outside shot at a New Year’s Six bowl with an 11-1 record and two wins over Power 5 teams – South Carolina and North Carolina – this season. Appalachian State’s only defeat came to Georgia Southern on Halloween night, and Drinkwitz’s squad finished the regular season by winning each of its final three games by 22 points or more.
The encore has been better than the debut for Billy Napier at Louisiana. The Ragin’ Cajuns finished 7-7 with a division title and bowl trip last fall but capped the program’s first 10-win season by holding off ULM last Saturday. Napier’s team lost the opener to Mississippi State 38-28 in New Orleans but reeled off four wins in a row before falling to Appalachian State 17-7 in early October. Louisiana has won six in a row since the defeat to the Mountaineers, including a road victory at Arkansas State (37-20) and a 53-3 blowout against Troy.
Appalachian State holds a 7-0 series edge over Louisiana. The Mountaineers are also 4-0 at home against the Ragin’ Cajuns.
Louisiana at Appalachian State (Sun Belt Championship Game)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 7 at Noon ET
Spread: Appalachian State -6.5
When Louisiana Has the Ball
The ground game is the unquestioned strength of Napier’s offense. Louisiana has one of the deepest backfields in the nation, as three players have rushed for at least 700 yards this season. Elijah Mitchell paces the attack with 1,007 yards, with Raymond Calais (818) and Trey Ragas (777) not far behind. Ragas led the team in rushing last year but has been slowed a bit by injury in 2019. Freshman Chris Smith has chipped in 334 yards (10.4 ypc), and quarterback Levi Lewis has added 127 yards on the ground this fall. The trio of Mitchell, Calais and Ragas has combined for 31 rushing scores in 2019.
While the running game is the preferred method of attack for Napier’s offense, quarterback Levi Lewis is quietly having a standout year. The junior has connected on 65.4 percent of his passes for 2,450 yards and 20 touchdowns. Lewis has tossed only three interceptions over 306 attempts and hasn’t thrown a pick since the middle of October. Ja’Marcus Bradley (48 catches), Jamal Bell (31), Jarrod Jackson (19) and Peter Leblanc (24) are the top targets on the outside and will have their hands full against an Appalachian State secondary ranked No. 1 in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense.
In the first meeting between these two teams, Appalachian State held Louisiana to just 254 yards (4.5 a play) and seven points. The Mountaineers allowed only 123 rushing yards and did not allow a run longer than 22 yards. Additionally, this group sacked Lewis three times and stopped the Ragin’ Cajuns two times on fourth down. Drinkwitz’s group has been stellar all season, ranking second in the Sun Belt in scoring defense (18.8) and first in fewest yards per play allowed (4.9). Appalachian State also leads the conference in rush defense, which will be the focal point of Saturday’s game once again. Can the Mountaineers stop Ragas, Mitchell and Calais on the ground and get Louisiana’s offense in obvious or long-yardage passing downs?
When Appalachian State Has the Ball
Appalachian State’s offense leans on the run (508 run attempts to 328 passes this year), but the production on the stat sheet is balanced. The Mountaineers have accumulated 2,712 rushing yards and 2,533 through the air. After leading the Sun Belt in scoring last season, Drinkwitz has maintained this program’s place atop the stat sheet once again. Entering Saturday’s game, Appalachian State ranks first in the conference in scoring (38.9 ppg), averages 6.3 yards a snap and leads the Sun Belt with 20 plays of 40 yards or more.
Quarterback Zac Thomas had a standout debut as the team’s starter last season and has been even better in 2019. Thomas enters Saturday’s game completing 63.8 percent of his throws for 2,427 yards and 24 touchdowns to six picks. The junior has been at his best late in the year, torching Troy for 326 yards and four scores last week and tossing four touchdowns in a win over Georgia State on Nov. 16. The junior’s ability to make plays or escape the pocket (387 rushing yards) with his legs could be especially valuable against Louisiana’s defense (27 sacks) on Saturday. With Corey Sutton sidelined for the year due to a knee injury, Thomas Hennigan (54 receptions) and Malik Williams (51) have emerged as the go-to options on the outside.
Appalachian State has had a 1,000-yard rusher in all six seasons at the FBS level. Darrynton Evans topped 1,000 yards last fall and earned Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2019 after recording 1,250 yards and 16 touchdowns over 217 attempts. However, he’s not the only weapon in the backfield for Drinkwitz. Similar to Louisiana, the Mountaineers boast a deep collection of running backs to deploy. Marcus Williams (520 yards), Raykwon Anderson (223) and Daetrich Harrington (204) could all see snaps on Saturday.
While Louisiana’s offense and standout backfield gets most of the attention around the Sun Belt, the defense has made huge strides this season. After giving up 34.2 points a game in 2018, this unit cut that total to 17.8 this year. Additionally, the Ragin’ Cajuns are giving up just 5.4 yards a play (down from 6.3) and rank second in the conference in pass efficiency defense. This unit is still a little vulnerable (172.3 ypg) against the run, but the performance in 2019 has been better than last fall (219.1 ypg). Stopping the run will be crucial to Louisiana’s hopes of a win on Saturday afternoon. In the first meeting, the Ragin’ Cajuns allowed only 196 yards on the ground but couldn’t get a stop late in the fourth quarter with the game on the line. Napier’s group should have extra help to slow down Appalachian State on Saturday, as lineman Zi’Yon Hill and linebacker Ferrod Gardner are expected to play after missing last week’s game due to injury.
Appalachian State has won each of the last three games in this series by at least 10 points. With that trend in mind, along with the fact the Mountaineers have lost only one home game over the last two years, it’s easy to see why Drinkwitz’s team is favored by nearly a touchdown. It might be too simple, but this game is likely to come down to whichever team establishes the run and is able to stuff it on defense. Over the last three times these two teams have played, Appalachian State has averaged 222.3 rushing yards, while Louisiana has managed only 159.6. If the Ragin’ Cajuns want to win, that number has to change. With Lewis playing at a high level at the end of the season, along with an improved defense, Louisiana has an excellent shot at the upset. However, it’s not easy to win in Boone.