Appalachian State quarterback Zac Thomas scored on an 8-yard bootleg with 1:55 left, his second touchdown of the game, providing the Mountaineers all the margin they needed in a 17-7 victory over UL in Wednesday night’s nationally televised rematch of last year’s Sun Belt Conference championship game.
The Mountaineers (5-0, 2-0) improved to 7-0 all-time against the Ragin’ Cajuns and remained one of four unbeaten teams among the nation’s Group of Five conferences and one of 16 in the FBS.
UL (4-2, 1-1), meanwhile, saw a four-game win streak snapped in what was billed as a meeting between two of the nation’s most prolific offense but quickly turned into a defensive struggle.
The Cajuns entered ranked first nationally in yards rushing per game and sixth in offense at 540 yards per game but were held to less than half that mark with 254 yards. Meanwhile, the reigning Sun Belt champion Mountaineers were averaging 47 points per game, good enough to rank fifth nationally, but were hampered by poor field position most of the night.
In fact, Cajuns punter Rhys Byrns pinned the Mountaineers deep inside their own 5 on each of their first two possessions and also had a 61-yard punt for a touchback late in the first period. But each time, App State was able to get out of the deep hole, and Thomas single-handedly led the Mountaineers on a 95-yard drive after the second of those punts.
His 47-yard strike to Corey Sutton on the drive’s second play and his own 27-yard bootleg on the next snap set up his own 7-yard keeper for his second touchdown of the year with 5:05 left in the first period.
However, a sack on Thomas after the touchback forced a punt and eventually gave the Cajuns possession at their own 35 early in the second quarter. Two completions from Levi Lewis to Bam Jackson keyed a drive and an interference penalty in the end zone put the ball at the Mountaineers 2, but two Cajuns rushes and a fade route came up short and Elijah Mitchell was stacked up on fourth-and-goal at the App State 1.
Appalachian State managed to drive out of the shadows of its own goal post for the third time before having to punt with four minutes left in the half, with Xavier Subotsch getting his turn to punt the Cajuns to their own 6. From there, though, UL had its best march of the night, going 94 yards including bursts of 21 and 12 yards from Raymond Calais that got the hosts out of the deep hole.
The Cajuns eventually reached the Mountaineers 14, from where Lewis found a wide-open tight end Nick Ralston for his third touchdown catch of the year 8 seconds before halftime to forge the 7-7 tie.
UL forced another punt on App State’s first possession after halftime, and another Lewis-to-Jackson connection converted a third down into Mountaneers territory. But the drive bogged down, and Kenneth Almendares’ 42-yard field goal attempt was blocked by App State’s George Blackstock.
That became more important when the Mountaineers followed the block with a drive to the Cajuns 23. Chandler Staton drilled a 40-yard field goal with 5:26 left in the third period to give App State the lead for good.
Neither team managed a first down over the next five possessions — five straight three-and-outs — before App State took over at its own 3 after another Byrns punt. This time, the Mountaineers were able to filp the field and more with a mammoth 19-play, 97-yard march that took 10:11 off the clock. On second down from the Cajuns 8, Thomas fooled UL’s defense with the winning bootleg.
The Mountaineers converted three third downs and two fourth downs in the drive, including a key fourth-down pass interference call on Cajuns cornerback Eric Garror that put the ball at the UL 10 two plays before the winning score.