BOONE, N.C. — App State Football will play its 100th FBS game with a focus on first.
The division-leading Mountaineers (7-2, 4-1) continue their pursuit of an East title and Sun Belt Conference championship Saturday with a Heroes Day home game against South Alabama (5-4, 2-4) in Kidd Brewer Stadium. As of Friday morning, a limited number of tickets remained for a game that will also be available via ESPN+.
“Our guys are excited for the opportunity to play South Alabama here at The Rock,” head coach Shawn Clark said. “We’re expecting a great crowd, and we know this is a championship game.”
Seven years ago, on Oct. 4, 2014, App State played its first Sun Belt home game when the Jaguars visited Boone. The Mountaineers lost 47-21 to drop to 1-4 overall and 0-2 in their new league, but they quickly rebounded and will be looking to improve to 78-22 overall since the transition. App State’s 77 wins since 2014 are the sixth-highest total nationally, behind just Alabama (99-9), Clemson (95-13), Ohio State (90-10), Oklahoma (84-17) and Georgia (81-20), with the second-highest total in the Sun Belt during the same span belonging to Louisiana (60-38).
App State returns to The Rock on Saturday with consecutive wins against Coastal Carolina, ULM and Arkansas State. Facing West Division teams with first-year head coaches, the Mountaineers led 49-7 at halftime against ULM and scored the final 34 points in a 48-14 win at Arkansas State.
“Our guys realize that every game since (Louisiana) has been a championship game,” Clark said. “Just to watch the detail in practice, how they’ve prepared, they are playing to have fun, and I think that’s important. They’re not playing tight and not playing to not mess up. We’re playing to do well.”
Led by first-year head coach Kane Wommack, previously a defensive coordinator during stints with both the Jaguars (2016-17) and Indiana (2018-20), South Alabama has the second-best overall record in the West Division while needing one more win to become bowl eligible. South Alabama lost starting quarterback Jake Bentley to an injury early in a 31-24 loss at Troy last weekend, and this weekend’s probable starter is Desmond Trotter, a freshman starter when App State won in Mobile in 2019.
South Alabama’s offense features a dynamic receiver in 6-foot-3 Jalen Tolbert, who has 1,032 receiving yards on 58 catches this year after also going over 1,000 yards last season. The Mountaineers’ defense has been opportunistic with interceptions and takeaways, as they’ve picked off six passes and recovered two fumbles the last two weeks. Standout cornerback Steven Jones Jr. produced four interceptions and three pick-six TD returns in those two games.
At linebacker, D’Marco Jackson is one of only two FBS players this season (joining Utah’s Devin Lloyd) with at least 80 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, five sacks and one interception, while Nick Hampton has totaled 5.0 sacks and 9.0 tackles for loss in the Mountaineers’ first five Sun Belt games.
South Alabama has a familiar name at offensive coordinator in Major Applewhite, while Wommack is well-respected for his defensive mind. The Jaguars are allowing an average of 22.1 points, 117.2 rushing yards and 202.2 passing yards per game.
South Alabama has a productive cornerback of its own in Darrell Luter Jr., who has intercepted three passes and broken up 10 more to give him 13 passes defended this year, good for fourth place among FBS defenders. Fifteen defenders have contributed to 24 sacks for a defense that will attempt to slow down a balanced App State offense directed by quarterback Chase Brice (251.2 passing yards per game).
Sun Belt rushing leader Nate Noel needs 111 yards to extend App State’s streak of consecutive years with a 1,000-yard rusher to 10 — the Mountaineers have the longest active streak among current FBS programs — and Camerun Peoples has scored 13 rushing touchdowns this season in just seven games. The running game and passing game benefited from strong tight end play at Arkansas State — Miller Gibbs had perhaps the best game of his career, as he blocked well overall, had a key block on a trick-play touchdown and caught a touchdown pass from Brice.
South Alabama started 3-0 and has decisive league wins against Georgia Southern (41-14) and Arkansas State (31-13). Before last weekend’s loss to Troy, it fell 20-18 against Louisiana, lost in four overtimes at Texas State and dropped a 41-31 game against ULM.
“Coach Wommack and his staff have done an unbelievable job with those guys of getting things turned around,” Clark said. “It’s from the direction of the head coach from watching those guys. They’re playing to his personality, which is very aggressive.”