UL's Napier: App State is Sun Belt success standard

Tim Buckley
The Daily Advertiser

It’s not Arkansas State, not Troy, and not UL either.

UL head football coach Billy Napier watches his team on the field as the Ragin' Cajuns play their Homecoming game against the New Mexico State Aggies at Cajun Field on Oct. 13, 2018.

Instead, it’s Appalachian State that Billy Napier – a first-year head coach in the league – looks to first when he’s talking about the Sun Belt Conference’s best.

The Mountaineers, Napier said during his weekly media gathering Monday, “basically, in my opinion, have been the standard in this league relative to sustaining success.”

Appalachian State, which 3-3 UL visits Saturday afternoon, has only been playing Sun Belt games since 2014, when it was transition up from the FCS to the FBS level of NCAA play.

More:Records fall, points pile up in Cajuns win over NMSU

But the Mountaineers are 29-5 in SBC play since then, including 2-0 this year and 7-1 each of the last three full seasons.

They shared the Sun Belt championship with Arkansas State in 2016 and with Troy last year.

Oh, and they’ve won each of their postseason games since becoming bowl-eligible – beating Ohio of the MAC in the 2015 Camellia Bowl, Toledo of the MAC in the 2016 Camellia Bowl and Toledo again in the 2017 Dollar General Bowl.

“(They) play real football – you know, they block and tackle well,” Napier said. “They’ve got good team. They rush the ball. They stop the run. They play good on special teams.

“Really, if you look at it, they’ve been a mainstay in this league since they’ve gotten in it. So, a lot of respect for their staff and their players and what they’ve established there.”

Appalachian State, 4-1 overall, lost its season-opener in overtime at Penn State, but has been on a roll ever since.

The Mountaineers have outscored their last four opponents – Charlotte, FCS Gardner-Webb, South Alabama and Arkansas State – 204-32 overall, including 65-0 in the second half.

Coming off a 35-9 win at preseason Sun Belt West Division favorite, they’re currently ranked fourth nationally in scoring offense at 48.4 points per game, eighth in scoring defense at just 15.4 points per game allowed, seventh in yards allowed per game (288.2), 11th in offensive yards per game (496.8) and No. 1 in special teams touchdowns with four.

More:Napier says Sun Belt success hinges on Cajun improvement

Appalachian State also leads the Sun Belt in scoring offense, scoring defense, total offense, total defense, rushing offense, rushing defense, pass efficiency defense, kickoff returns, sacks against, opponent first downs, opponent third-down conversions and opponent fourth-down conversions.

They've received plenty of Top 25 votes, 55 in the USA Today coaches' poll and 51 in the AP writers' poll, leaving them just on the outside looking in.

And even after App State’s loss of star senior running back Jalin Moore – the 2016 Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year, and a back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher with NFL potential – to a nasty-looking ankle fracture and dislocation against Arkansas State, the Cajuns really do seem to have great respect for the Mountaineers.

“They’re really good guys. They’re a really good team,” starting offensive tackle Robert Hunt said Monday. “They’re well-put together. They’re assignment-sound.

“Everything they’re told to do, they do it to a ‘T.’ … They do the little things very well, so you’ve just got to make sure we do the (same).”

At 40-10 in their last 50 games, the Mountaineers join Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Wisconsin as the only FBS programs with at least 40 victories in their last 50 games.

On the map for upsetting Michigan in 2007, its last of three straight FCS national-title seasons, Appalachian State also had a one-point loss to Wake Forest last season and lost in overtime at then-No. 9 Tennessee in 2016.

More:UL football, what you need to know

“That is a very good football team – a physical football team, smart, disciplined, all of the above, and it shows,” Cajuns safety Deuce Wallace when asked what he remembered from UL’s 63-14 season-ending loss at Appalachian State last season.

“They compete with these Power 5 schools year in and year out, and the simple fact is we have a matchup on our hands this weekend.”

The strength of Appalachian State, Napier suggested when asked, is centered in the trenches.

“There’s no question: That’s why they’ve had a good team each and every year,” he said. “They’re good up front, on both sides.”

That established, the Cajuns head to Boone, North Carolina, in the right frame of mind after snapping a three-game losing streak and winning back-to-back games, with a 42-27 win at Texas State followed by a 66-38 victory over New Mexico State in which they set school records for first downs with 37 and total offensive yards with 759.

“We all know who they are,” Hunt said. “Like, everybody in the conference knows. We know who App State is. We all see ’em.

“But, honestly, I think this team, man – we’re very good. We’ve got a good locker room. Everybody’s talking. We’ve all got confidence in ourselves, and believe in ourselves.

Related:Breakdown of the NMSU win

Column:Forget explaining the score — simply relish the execution



UL quarterback Andre Nunez was named Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Week on Monday after going 19-of-25 for 315 yards and five touchdowns against New Mexico State, and he shared  Louisiana Sports Writers Association Offensive Player of the Week honors with LSU quarterback Joe Burrow. … UL center Cole Prudhomme and guard Kevin Dotson both were named this week to Pro Football Focus’ ‘National Team of the Week’ on offense. … Napier said defensive lineman Zi’Yon Hill (shoulder) and linebacker Lorenzo McCaskill (ankle), who both returned from injuries to play against NMSU, will be “modified” this week, as will starting nickel back Terik Miller (knee), who didn’t play Saturday. … Napier also said injured starting Jack linebacker Chauncey Manac “didn’t do much” in practice Sunday night and is “questionable” for Saturday, while receiver Keenan Barnes – who has missed back-to-back games – is “still trying to get to the bottom of his knee situation.”

Column:Taking time to appreciate Cajuns quarterback Nunez