BOONE, N.C. — Saturday’s game at The Rock revolves around another ring chase for Appalachian State and its small but valuable class of seniors.
With kickoff scheduled for shortly after 2:30 p.m. in Kidd Brewer Stadium, the winner between App State (8-2, 6-1) and Troy (9-2, 7-0) will host next weekend’s inaugural Sun Belt Championship Game as the East Division champ.
The outcome also determines whether it’s the home finale for 13 players who will be honored on Senior Day: Jalin Moore, MyQuon Stout, Austin Exford, Chandler Greer, Okon Godwin, Brad Absher, Tobias Edge-Campbell, Anthony Flory, Elias McMurry, Tae Hayes, Dominique Heath, Zeb Speir and Brody Barrett.
The first seven players on that list are fifth-year seniors who committed to Appalachian during its final FCS season. The Mountaineers started 1-5 in their FBS debut but have responded with 44 wins in their last 55 games overall, including a 33-4 conference record that has contributed to back-to-back Sun Belt titles.
“We’re just so tight,” Flory said. “We always break it down on ‘Family’ because we mean that. We’re a family, and when you’re around guys this long, you can’t help but build a bond with them.”
To earn the right to host Louisiana, Arkansas State or ULM next weekend and continue the pursuit of a third straight Sun Belt title, App State must defeat a Troy team that has won 11 of its last 12 conference road games.
With plenty of shared respect between head coaches Scott Satterfield and Neal Brown, it’s an ESPN+ matchup that features:
* the Sun Belt’s top two defenses — App State leads the league at 15.9 points and 282.8 yards allowed per game, followed by Troy’s 21.2 points and 348.5 yards
* the league’s top two run defenses — Troy leads the league at 124.5 rushing yards allowed per game, followed by App State’s 130.5
* the Sun Belt’s two most productive running backs — App State’s Darrynton Evans is first at 113.4 rushing yards per league game as part of his 860 total rushing yards, followed by B.J. Smith’s 108.9 yards per league game as part of his 1,040 total yards
Both teams have dealt with serious injuries, as Evans became the lead running back after Moore suffered a season-ending ankle injury during App State’s second Sun Belt game. Zac Thomas returned to the lineup two games game after missing nearly two complete games, including App State’s only league loss, with an injury. He was named the Sun Belt’s Offensive Player of the Week thanks to his 309 total yards (282 passing) and four touchdowns (three passing) in a 45-17 win against Georgia State last Saturday.
Troy quarterback Sawyer Smith made his first start Oct. 13 following a season-ending ACL injury to Kaleb Barker, and recent injuries have affected each one of the Trojans’ top three receivers.
All of those similarities set up one interesting contrast: Since losing 56-20 against Boise State in their opener, the Trojans haven’t allowed more than 27 points. With Thomas as the primary quarterback, App State’s lowest output is 27 points, and it’s scored at least 35 points in every other game with him leading the offense.
One of those trends should change Saturday, and the outcome will determine who hosts the first-ever Sun Belt Championship Game on Dec. 1.
“For us, you take the same approach,” Satterfield said. “It is a big game, but last week’s game was big, too, because if you don’t win that one, this one doesn’t mean as much. We’ve been in this mode for really this whole month of November, the fact that you have to go out and play well in order to have an opportunity. It all comes back to the preparation.”