Previewing App State/WKU in Boca Raton Bowl

Monday, December 20th
December 17, 2021
WKU Beats App State in Boca Raton Bowl
December 20, 2021
Previewing App State/WKU in Boca Raton Bowl


BOCA RATON, Fla. — A week in sunny Florida will conclude with App State attempting to secure yet another bowl win.

The Mountaineers, who posted double-digit victories during the regular season under the direction of head coach Shawn Clark, will take a 10-3 record into their Boca Raton Bowl matchup with Conference USA member Western Kentucky (8-5) on Saturday at 11 a.m. The game at FAU Stadium will be available on ESPN.

“It’s going to be a great football game in Boca,” Clark said. “It’s really going to be about execution, and the team most excited to play is going to win the game. Our guys are looking forward to it. Western has a great football team — we have a lot of respect for those guys.”

The game involves a pair of division champions that went 7-1 in league play and had one-possession losses in their conference title games. Since making their FBS debut in 2014, the Mountaineers have earned a bowl berth in each of their seven postseason-eligible seasons and posted an FBS-best bowl record of 6-0 — making them the only current FBS program with no losses in more than two appearances.

On the field, with one of the nation’s top Group of Five defenses, App State will be facing the nation’s top passing attack.

App State is No. 2 nationally with 109 TFLs (8.2 a game) while also ranking in the top 20 in scoring defense (No. 16, 19.3 points), total defense (No. 18, 325.5 yards), pass efficiency defense (No. 12, 114.7), INTs (No. 10, 15), defensive TDs (No. 6, four), red zone defense (No. 15, 73.7%) and rush defense (No. 19, 118.8).

All-America CB Steven Jones Jr. has five interceptions (No. 2 in FBS) this season, while D’Marco Jackson, Nick Hampton (10.0 of 18.5 career sacks this year), Demetrius Taylor (7.0 of 26.5 sacks this year), T.D. Roof (3.0 sacks) and Trey Cobb apply a lot of the backfield pressure.

The Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year and a Senior Bowl pick, Jackson is third nationally in tackles among defenders from teams with 10-plus wins.
With 114 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, 6.0 sacks, 12 QB hurries, one interception, five PBUs and one forced fumble, he’s one of only two FBS players since 2000 with at least 110 tackles, 18.0 TFLs, 6.0 sacks and six passes defended in one year.

FBS passing leader Bailey Zappe has thrown for 5,545 yards (426.5 per game) with 56 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a 69.2 completion percentage this season to lead WKU’s offense. He needs 289 passing yards and five touchdown passes to set single-season FBS records.

Zappe, star receiver Jerreth Sterns (FBS highs of 137 catches for 1,718 yards) and two other receivers joined offensive coordinator Zach Kittley in leaving Houston Baptist for WKU following the 2020 season. Kittley coached Patrick Mahomes in an “Air Raid” offense at Texas Tech for three seasons and has agreed to become Texas Tech’s offensive coordinator — he will coach in the bowl game.

“Everyone knows they have a high-powered offense and a lot of weapons,” Clark said. “It starts with their quarterback. I’m an offensive line coach by heart, and they have a great offensive line, receivers and running backs.

“I don’t think you can stop their offense, you just try to contain it as much as you can and live to play another play. We know they’re going to make plays because they’ve made plays all year long. Whatever happens, you play the next play and try to keep it in front of you.”

One additional way to assist App State’s defense is via a chain-moving, clock-eating, high-scoring offense.

Nate Noel ranks first among Sun Belt backs with 1,076 rushing yards this season, with Camerun Peoples (league-high 14 TDs) at 75.0 yards a game. 

Sacked just 13 times this season thanks to a strong offensive line, quarterback Chase Brice can throw to super seniors such as Thomas Hennigan, Malik Williams and Jalen Virgil. Western Kentucky’s defense ranks No. 2 nationally with 19 interceptions, and the Hilltoppers have accumulated 32 sacks, including eight from DeAngelo Malone (who has also totaled 88 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles).

The Mountaineers’ consistency in the run game is a program staple. App State has 10 consecutive years with a 1,000-yard rusher — among current FBS teams, Buffalo is No. 2 with a four-year streak — and Peoples needed 193 yards in the 2020 Myrtle Beach Bowl to extend the streak before delivering an NCAA bowl-record 317 yards and a record-tying five TDs on 22 carries in a 56-28 victory against North Texas.

App State will be playing a Conference USA team in a bowl for the fourth straight year, following victories against Middle Tennessee (2018), UAB (2019) and North Texas.

Friday morning at Jupiter Community High School, App State’s super seniors practiced for the final time, a milestone for team members who have been in the program for five or six years.

Hennigan and Williams, who started at Georgia in their first college games as true freshmen in 2017, took the field in the other’s jersey, with Hennigan in No. 14 and Williams wearing No. 5.

As their careers come to a close, App State is seeking to end another season by hoisting a bowl trophy.

“It doesn’t take long to watch a few snaps and know the kind of opponent you’re playing,” Clark said. “They’re excellent in all three phases, and we have our work cut out for us.”