BOONE, N.C. — The trophy presentation included a stormed field, colorful beads and even a custom-made MVP belt.
Appalachian State’s post-title celebration in rainy Kidd Brewer Stadium had a touch of Mardi Gras — mountain style.
Hosting the first Sun Belt Conference Championship Game, App State won 30-19 against Louisiana to claim its third straight league title and earn an automatic bid to face a Conference USA team in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl on Dec. 15.
Appalachian sophomore Darrynton Evans surpassed 1,000 rushing yards on the season during a belt-hoisting, award-winning performance in which his 218 all-purpose yards included 111 rushing yards and a 97-yard kickoff return.
Sophomore quarterback Zac Thomas had two rushing touchdowns of at least 25 yards, and the Mountaineers (10-2) allowed just one touchdown while forcing the Ragin’ Cajuns (7-6) to kick four field goals. All three of Chandler Staton’s second-half field goals for App State exceeded 40 yards, including a 43-yarder that pushed the lead to 11 points with 2:09 remaining, and the Mountaineers could begin to celebrate when Clifton Duck broke up a fourth-down pass with 1:23 left.
Students rushed the field in Kidd Brewer Stadium after senior Zeb Speir, a former walk-on, took a final knee and embraced classmate Brad Absher. Senior captain MyQuon Stout lifted the championship trophy to cheers from teammates and App State fans.
“We faced adversity just like any good football team does throughout a season, but these guys just continued to rally each and every week,” said App State head coach Scott Satterfield, who improved to 44-7 against Group of Five opponents and 35-6 against Sun Belt opponents. “I told them in the locker room that winning is hard. It’s hard to win, it’s hard to win championships. These guys right here, they fight each and every day to try to make it happen. I told them that all that hard work paid off today with the Sun Belt Championship. They can’t say that we shared this one. This one is outright, and so we are very excited about that.”
App State was clinging to a 20-16 lead early in the fourth quarter when linebacker Anthony Flory’s pressure set up Tae Hayes’ interception on a deep throw, and Hayes returned the ball 32 yards to the Louisiana 44. Stopped on an earlier fourth-and-short play, the Mountaineers faced fourth-and-inches from the Louisiana 35 when Thomas faked a handoff to Evans and scored his 10th rushing touchdown of the season.
“Me and Coach (Frank) Ponce, on the headset, we talked about, in the beginning, I wasn’t playing good football,” said Thomas, who rushed for 59 yards and threw for 75. “He said, ‘You’re going to have to make some plays on your feet.’ A lot of credit to the O-line. They were blocking, and I was making reads and pulling (the ball) and getting upfield as much as I could.”
Louisiana responded to Thomas’ second touchdown by marching 60 yards and, after safety Austin Exford stopped a third-and-goal run from the 3 for a loss of 4 yards, Kyle Pfau made a 24-yard field goal with 6:01 remaining. Holding an eight-point lead, Thomas started the next series by spinning away from pressure and hitting a wide-open back Marcus Williams Jr. in the left flat with a pass that ultimately gained 34 yards.
Williams gained 17 yards on three straight carries to put App State in field goal range, and Staton made his longest kick of the season to cap that series. He also set a career high with his three field goals.
“Our special teams, we’ve really leaned on them this season,” Satterfield said. “That’s probably one of the big bright spots that we’ve had this year.”
The title game ended with confetti falling. It began with fireworks.
After the Ragin’ Cajuns kicked a 37-yard field goal to close the game’s opening possession, going down the right sideline, Evans set up Williams’ 1-yard touchdown with his return from the App State 2 to the Louisiana 1. It was similar to how the season opener at Penn State began, as Evans scored on a 100-yard kickoff return before App State’s offense had taken the field.
“I had a flashback, honestly,” Evans said. “I really was waiting for the ball to go out of bounds, but it just took a weird bounce, and I was like, ‘All right, I’ve got to field it.’ The guys up front did a good job blocking, and I saw a hole.”
Evans’ block created a running lane for Thomas on his 25-yard touchdown run that gave App State a 14-6 lead late in the second quarter, and Staton converted a pair of 42-yard field goals in the third quarter.
Coming after Evans ran for 48 yards on the second play of the third quarter, Staton’s first field pushed the lead to 17-6, and Louisiana quarterback Andre Nunez scored on 8-yard run not long after Raymond Calais returned the kickoff 61 yards. A fourth-and-1 stop by Louisiana’s defense at the App State 34 set up another short field, leading to a 23-yard field goal that cut the Mountaineers’ lead to 17-16, and Staton ended the third quarter with his second field goal.
Hayes’ eighth career interception, one of two App State interceptions thanks to Josh Thomas’ second-quarter pick, ended a fourth-quarter series that had approached midfield with the Ragin’ Cajuns trailing by only four points. Hayes finished with a career-high nine tackles in his final home game, and Flory’s pressure was part of an 11-tackle performance for another senior.
That group has been part of 40 victories over the last four years, as App State reached double-digit wins for the third time in five FBS seasons.
“I couldn’t be more blessed to go to this university, and everybody here just puts their best foot forward,” Hayes said. “We’ve always thought that we deserved a championship, so I’m just happy for everybody.”