Sun Belt showdown: UL Ragin' Cajun, Appalachian State football offenses clash

Tim Buckley
The Daily Advertiser

They have the top two scoring offenses in the Sun Belt Conference, by far.

So it is understandable that when UL and Appalachian State get together Wednesday night for a key ESPN2-televised Sun Belt game at Cajun Field, the respect will be mutual.

From Trey Ragas, Elijah Mitchell and Levi Lewis on UL’s side to Darrynton Evans and Zac Thomas on Appalachian State’s, the figures expected to be most-prominent in Wednesday’s rematch of last year’s SBC championship game, the offenses they play in and the coaches who run them draw nothing but praise from the opposition.

“(UL) Coach (Billy) Napier’s done an outstanding job,” first-year Appalachian State coach Eliah Drinkwitz said earlier this week. “You can tell he’s taken his influences from Todd Graham.”

More:It's not just 'another game' for Cajuns

More:UL's Chauncey Manac 'impacts every game he plays in'

UL running back Elijah Mitchell runs through the Appalachian State defensive line during last season's Sun Belt Conference championship game. The Ragin' Cajuns and Mountaineers meet again Wednesday night at Cajun Field.

Napier, the Ragin’ Cajuns’ second-year head coach, is a former offensive coordinator under Dabo Swinney at Clemson and ex-receivers coach under Nick Saban at Alabama, who was Graham’s offensive coordinator at Arizona State before taking over at UL.

“He brought from Arizona State the unbalanced formations, the tempos, the establishing the runs out of multiple personnels,” Drinkwitz said during a Sun Belt conference call.

“Obviously they rush the football very well. But their quarterback is playing at a high level. He throws the ball. They’ve got tremendous speed on the perimeter.”

Led by running backs Ragas and Mitchell, 4-1 UL leads the nation in rushing yards per game at 314.0.

Ragas, who leads the country at 9.79 yards per carry, ran for 131 yards and two touchdowns in the Cajuns' last outing a Sun Belt-opening win at Georgia Southern. Mitchell’s nine rushing touchdowns, including two at Georgia Southern, are the fourth-most nationally.

Related:Cajuns see Wednesday game as huge opportunity

But with Lewis averaging another 196.0 passing yards per game, there is balance to a Cajun offense whose 540.0 yards per game ranks seventh among all FBS programs.

“They’re a complete offense,” Drinkwitz said.

“I think that’s the biggest thing, is there’s not one area that you’re like, ‘Well, they’re hiding this.’ I mean, they’re really good at all facets of the game, and he (Napier) has got a real good command for calling it.”

Appalachian State running back Darrynton Evans (3) celebrates in the closing moments of the Mountaineers' victory over UL in the 2018 Sun Belt Championship on Dec. 1 in Boone, North Carolina.

Countering for Appalachian State are Evans and Thomas, who’ve helped the 4-0 Mountaineers average 47.0 points per game — 2.6 more than UL’s 44.4, and 10.6 than third-best Georgia State.

That’s the fifth-highest average in the country.

Evans ranks second nationally in all-purpose yards (176.25 per game) and — boosted by a 234-yard effort in an early September win over Charlotte — 11th in rushing yards at 117.8 per game, which is 8.2 more than 16th-place Ragas.

More:How to watch Appalachian State vs. UL football on TV, stream online

A junior, he was the MVP of last season’s Sun Belt title game — when he ran 17 times for 111 yards, and returned UL’s first kickoff 97 yards, in the Mountaineers’ 30-19 win over the Cajuns — and a first team All-Sun Belt pick, beating out, among others, Ragas and Mitchell.

“We know exactly who he is,” Napier said of Evans, who ran 26 times for a career-high 183 yards and one touchdown while also pulling in a 20-yard TD pass in Appalachian State’s regular-season win over UL last year.

“And there’s no question why he’s having production. They’re feeding him the ball, and he’s a very talented runner that’s got good players around him.

“Certainly when given opportunities he can make plays,” Napier added. “We know exactly what we’re getting into there.”

More:Cajuns announce football coach Billy Napier's contract extension

The case is similar for Thomas, the MVP of last season’s New Orleans Bowl win over Middle Tennessee for Appalachian State and the 2018 Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year.

A dual-threat type who has a cast of capable receivers led by Thomas Hennigan, Malik Williams and Corey Sutton, Thomas is averaging 200.5 yards passing and another 25.8 rushing this season.

“He can get loose on you on the ground,” Napier said. “The guy can scramble. He can extend the plays. And in the zone read, quarterback run world he’s got enough finishing speed to where he can go the distance.

“I think he’s improved as a passer in particular this year so far. The numbers would reflect that.”

Cajuns linebacker Jacques Boudreaux wholeheartedly concurs.

Related:UL's Boudreaux ready to make a statement

“He can hurt you running the ball with his legs,” Boudreaux said, “and I think he’s become a better passer.

“So far, from what I’ve seen, the last couple games (wins over Coastal Carolina and at North Carolina) it looks like they’re trying to spread the ball out a lot.

“They’re a good outfit,” Boudreaux added. “And I like to believe we’re a good outfit too.”

One big difference between the two, though, is that UL is in the second season of its system under Napier and Appalachian State its first under Drinkwitz, who was offensive coordinator at North Carolina State from 2016-18, at Boise State in 2015 and, as co-coordinator, at Arkansas State of the Sun Belt in 2013.

“So this is a veteran group that’s in a new system,” Napier said of the Mountaineers, “and certainly their head coach is an accomplished play caller and coordinator on offense.

“They’ve got plenty of things that we’ll have to prepare for.”

More:UL's Shane Vallot living a dream ahead of national TV game

The same can be said for Appalachian State and Drinkwitz, who said UL does have “an advantage on us” because Napier has had more time to work with his team.

That perhaps in mind, Drinkwitz — who took over after Scott Satterfield left for Louisville — also suggested Wednesday’s game may be decided more by performance and execution than system.

“It’s gonna come down to fundamentals, technique and doing your job exactly like you’re coached to do,” Drinkwitz said of combating the Cajun offense. “That’s what we’ve got to do. There’s not gonna be some sort of secret scheme that we can pull out.”

More:Will Cajuns, Sun Belt ever pursue a regional approach?