Appalachian State coach Steve Satterfield this week downplayed his team’s earlier win over UL-Lafayette, saying the Ragin’ Cajuns have improved since the Mountaineers defeated them 27-17 on Oct. 20.
Cajuns coach Billy Napier, meanwhile, points to that game as a turning point for his squad, even if loss snapped a two-game win streak.
“We’ve seen lots of growth from our players since then, in terms of the type of culture we want to have,” Napier said. “I think everybody in the entire organization has gotten better at doing their job, and that’s starting to show up.
“But how much better we are relative to Appalachian State, I don’t know that. They’re the measuring stick in this league, in my opinion — in how they’re put together, how they play together in all three phases and what type culture they have.”
Napier and the Cajuns will find out if they’ve improved Saturday when the face the Mountaineers (9-2, 7-1) in the inaugural Sun Belt Conference championship game. And they know the challenge, since App State leads the Sun Belt in both scoring offense and scoring defense.
The Mountaineers showed that in the earlier meeting when Darrynton Evans rushed for 183 yards and scored two touchdowns, part of a 266-yard rushing attack. He also caught a touchdown pass from dual-threat quarterback Zac Thomas with 2:11 left before halftime to give the hosts the lead for good at 17-10.
Then, on the second play after halftime, Evans broke a 65-yard run that set up his second score.
Meanwhile, the Mountaineers defense held the Cajuns to only one touchdown before UL-Lafayette cut into the final deficit with a score with 1:03 left. The Cajuns had possession at the Mountaineers' 12-yard line one possession after Evans’ second score, and they threatened to make it a one-score game — but Elijah Mitchell was stopped on a fourth-and-2 late in the third period.
“That was like six weeks ago,” said Satterfield, whose team has shared the Sun Belt title each of the last two seasons and has never lost to UL-Lafayette since joining the league in 2014. “After six weeks, team change a little bit. People get dinged here and there a little bit with injuries, but mostly you kind of grow as a team in that time. Since we played them in the middle of the season, they’ve kind of settled in on who they are as a football team, and we have too.”
After struggling in September, UL-Lafayette averaged 481 yards per game in winning six of its final eight regular-season games, claiming the Sun Belt West Division with last Saturday’s 31-28 win at UL-Monroe. But against the Mountaineers, the Cajuns rush attack was held to 140 yards, nearly half their season average (230.8).
“They’re good at defending every type of play,” Napier said. “You don’t hold opponents under 300 yards of total offense a game (a Sun Belt-leading 278.2 average) if you’re not good at everything. They know exactly who they are, they know how they’re put together, they have good answers and they’re just multiple enough to create issues for you.”
Even with the earlier loss in Boone, North Carolina, Napier said the fact that the Cajuns (7-5, 5-3) were competitive was a major step forward. App State had won the previous four meetings by an average of 27.5 points per game.
The Mountaineers blanked UL-Lafayette 24-0 in 2016 at Cajun Field and then ended the Mark Hudspeth era last Dec. 2 with a sound 63-17 thumping in the Cajuns’ season finale.
“The year prior, I’m not exactly sure what happened up there, but it wasn’t much of a game,” Napier said. “This year, that was the moment that our players said, 'Hold up: same place, same team, and maybe we are a little bit different. Maybe all these things that we’d been doing are working.' They hadn’t seen a result that goes along with the work at that point in time, so maybe that’s where it clicked.”
One week later, the Cajuns stunned heavy West Division favorite Arkansas State 47-43, taking a win that eventually was the tie-breaker difference in the West. The Cajuns’ only loss since then was a 26-16 setback at Troy. App State beat the Trojans 21-10 last Saturday in a showdown for the East Division title.
Appalachian State's only Sun Belt loss was at Georgia Southern 34-14 — a game Thomas missed because of injury.
Since then, with a healthy Thomas, the Mountaineers have won four in a row.
“They’re definitely a different team with him,” Napier said of Thomas, who has accounted for 26 touchdowns this season. “Since he’s been back, they’ve been lighting it up pretty good. The key thing about him is they have the ability to use all their weapons when he’s in there.”