BOONE, N.C. — UL-Lafayette took a page from Appalachian State’s playbook Saturday at the inaugural Sun Belt Conference football championship game — and for three quarters, the Ragin’ Cajuns had a chance to beat the Mountaineers at their own game, with defense and ball control.
But a huge interception set up a fourth-quarter App State touchdown, and the Mountaineers held off the Cajuns’ upset bid in taking a 30-19 win to claim their third straight Sun Belt title.
Appalachian State (10-2), now headed to the Dec. 15 New Orleans Bowl on Dec. 15 after sharing titles the past two years, claimed a pair of interceptions from UL-Lafayette quarterback Andre Nunez, who entered the game in the nation’s top 20 in both completion percentage and passing efficiency.
One of those interceptions halted a Cajuns drive at the Mountaineers 44 in the final two minutes of the first half, when the Cajuns were trying to cut into a 14-6 deficit. The other was even more costly, coming on the third play of the fourth quarter with UL-Lafayette in possession at midfield trailing only 20-16.
Nunez targeted Ja’Marcus Bradley in double coverage, and cornerback Tae Hayes returned his third interception of the season 32 yards to the Cajuns 44.
“They do a good job of pressuring the quarterback,” said first-year UL-Lafayette coach Billy Napier, whose team is bound for the Dec. 15 AutoNation Cure Bowl in Orlando, Florida, as Sun Belt runner-up. “There are a couple of decisions that Andre would like to have back, but he’s been very productive and a good leader for our team all year. Those are correctable, and that’s my job since I coach the quarterbacks.”
App State quarterback Zac Thomas made that turnover count when he faked a zone-read handoff on fourth-and-1. Two defenders hit running back Darrynton Evans in the backfield, and Thomas skirted the right side untouched for a 35-yard score that bumped the lead to 27-16 with 11:43 left.
“The D-end crashed and I thought I could beat the guy covering the tight end,” said Thomas, who had a similar 25-yard run up the middle 3:17 before halftime that gave the Mountaineers a 14-6 lead. “They were loading the box, but I was telling myself I wasn’t going to get tackled and I was going to get into the end zone.”
The Cajuns (7-6) came back with a 60-yard drive following Thomas’ second score, but they bogged down inside the 10-yard line and Kyle Pfau connected on a 24-yard field goal — his fourth of the game in four attempts — to make it an eight-point game with 6:01 left.
However, Thomas hit his only significant pass of the game one play after the ensuing kickoff, hitting Marcus Williams with a 34-yard dump-off to the Cajuns' 40. Six plays later, Chandler Staton nailed a career-long 43-yard field goal with 2:09 left.
For much of the game, UL-Lafayette’s much-maligned defense kept the Mountaineers in check. That unit held Thomas to 75 passing yards on 6 of 13 completions in an intermittent light rain. Evans finished with 111 yards on 17 carries as part of a 225-yard Mountaineers rushing attack, but App State was held to only 13 first downs.
“There’s been lots of days that (the defense was) getting criticized this year,” Napier said, “but we’ve seen great growth there. They’re one of the reasons we’ve made progress, one of the groups that’s made great improvement. They kept us in the game with great plays, made some great stops and they got them off the field and gave us the ball numerous times. We weren’t able to take advantage of those opportunities offensively.”
Pfau had field goals of 37 yards on the game’s first possession, a 45-yarder midway through the second quarter and a 23-yarder with five minutes left in the third period along with the fourth-quarter kick. The senior had his first career four-field-goal game, but Napier lamented the fact that the Cajuns only got into the end zone one time.
"We held them to field goals instead of touchdowns, and that was a huge difference,” said App State coach Scott Satterfield. “Their offensive line is the best we’ve played and their running backs are tough and hard to bring down.”
Cajuns running back Trey Ragas finished with 101 yards on 18 carries as part of UL-Lafayette’s 216 yards rushing, nearly double App State’s normal rushing yards allowed (a league-leading 124.4). His seventh 100-yard rushing game of the season set a school record.
Ragas' 20-yard burst one play after Raymond Calais’ 61-yard kickoff return early in the third quarter set up Nunez’ eight-yard scoring run that brought the Cajuns within 17-13.
On the next series, end Bennie Higgins and linebacker Chauncey Manac combined to stop Evans on a fourth-and-1 at the App State 34 — but UL-Lafayette was hit with three straight pre-snap penalties and eventually had to settle for Pfau’s third field goal.
Slaton’s second 42-yard field goal on the last play of the third quarter made it a four-point game before the pivotal interception.
“It came down to little things,” said Ragas, a sophomore from New Orleans who goes into the bowl game as the Sun Belt’s leading rusher (1,141 yards). “We didn’t execute when it was needed. We needed to lock in and focus on our assignments and we let the noise get to us.”