NEW ORLEANS — The R+L New Orleans Bowl turned into a season-ending coronation for the Sun Belt champions.
Malik Williams and the rest of the Mountaineers threw quite a Black and Gold party in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Williams delivered two trick-play touchdowns on wide receiver passes, including one to quarterback Zac Thomas, and the defense made several important stops under tough circumstances to help Appalachian State maintain its perfect bowl record with a 45-13 victory against Middle Tennessee on Saturday night.
With App State alum Mark Ivey serving as the interim head coach, college teammate Shawn Clark making aggressive play calls for the offense and 23-year App State assistant Dale Jones coordinating the defense, the Mountaineers (11-2) rolled after persevering through a slow start against the Conference USA runners-up.
“We knew, as tough as these players were, if they smelled any fear or weakness or confusion out of us, you can't fake it,” Ivey said. “We decided we'd have fun with it and make sure they'd get exactly what they've been getting all along. If we did that, they'd give us exactly what they've been giving. That's what they did, and they were phenomenal.”
App State is the only FBS program with no losses or ties in at least four bowl appearances, and it has accomplished that feat in just four postseason-eligible seasons. It also matched the 2015 team for the best final record since the transition.
Appalachian led 24-6 at halftime Saturday even though Middle Tennessee (8-6) reached the App State 30 on four first-half drives, with Josh Thomas' red zone interception in the first quarter serving as a key momentum swing, and senior Okon Godwin accounted for 2.5 of the defense's six sacks. Anthony Flory, Demetrius Taylor and Chris Willis contributed in that category, and Tae Hayes also posted a first-half interception.
In addition to becoming the first App State quarterback to catch a touchdown pass in at least 35 yards, New Orleans Bowl MVP Zac Thomas threw three touchdown passes, including his ninth and 10th connections of the season with Corey Sutton. With Thomas Hennigan catching Williams' first touchdown pass and Henry Pearson also scoring on a Thomas throw, the Mountaineers totaled five TDs through the air.
Darrynton Evans rushed for 108 yards to go over 100 for the seventh time in the last nine games, and true freshman Camerun Peoples' 63-yard score on his second carry of the night gave the Mountaineers a 38-6 lead midway through the third quarter.
“The culture we have here at App State, you really can't explain it,” said two-year captain MyQuon Stout, whose work at nose tackle played a key role for a defense that didn't allow 20 points in any of the team's 11 wins. “It's great coaches, great staff, great players. We break it down on ‘Family' every day, like two or three times a day. We really care about each other and work hard for each other.”
App State's first two touchdowns came on passes from Williams, but two turnovers in the first five offensive plays created an uphill battle for the Mountaineers.
Middle Tennessee, which had missed a 47-yard field goal to cap the game-opening series, followed a quick interception on App State's first series with a 24-yard field goal. The Blue Raiders faced a second down from the Appalachian 5 before Godwin and Noel Cook combined on a tackle for loss, and Desmond Franklin broke up a third-down pass to the end zone.
A fumble on the second play of App State's next series gave Middle Tennessee possession at the Mountaineers' 21, but Cook's pressure contributed to an interception by Josh Thomas at the 15 as left-handed quarterback Brent Stockstill rolled to his right.
“Making turnovers, that's just what our defensive backs have talked about all year,” Thomas said. We're real greedy when it comes to picks.”
Zac Thomas' 35-yard completion to Jalen Virgil was the big play on a drive that ended with a 22-yard field goal from Chandler Staton, whose kick followed a long snap from fill-in true freshman Max Durschlag.
Hennigan and Tyler Bird helped stuff a fourth-and-2 rush on a fake punt from the Middle Tennessee 43 a few minutes later, and Hennigan gave the Mountaineers the lead for good with a 30-yard touchdown on an accurate deep throw from Williams, the former high school quarterback who had caught a backward pass from Thomas near the right sideline.
That was the second time in two seasons that App State had scored with Hennigan catching a pass from Williams, whose next TD throw of the night followed a Hayes interception that resulted from Elijah Diarrassouba's quarterback pressure.
“Before the game, Coach (Justin Watts) told me I was going to have two passing touchdowns before this game was over,” Williams said. “After that, I told Zac it felt better throwing him a touchdown than receiving one from him.”
In last year's bowl win, Williams tried to throw a short touchdown pass to quarterback Taylor Lamb but kept the ball for a score when Lamb was unavailable as a target. On Saturday, after taking a reverse handoff from Evans, Williams rolled right and lofted an 8-yard touchdown pass to Thomas in the right side of the end zone for a 17-3 advantage with 6:38 remaining in the half.
The only other touchdown with an App State quarterback reaching the end zone on a pass play in recent memory occurred in 2010, when DeAndre Presley was credited with a TD “reception” on a play in which he recovered his receiver's fumble against Chattanooga and ran the final 33 yards with the ball.
“I've had my eyes on that play for a while, so today it was the perfect call,” Thomas said.
Evans' 62-yard run set up Pearson's 1-yard touchdown reception in the final minute of the half, and Middle Tennessee advanced to the Appalachian 16 before settling for a 33-yard field goal as time expired in the second quarter.
Clark, App State's run game coordinator and offensive line coach before Scott Satterfield's departure created the need for a new play-caller, had planned to coach from the seventh-floor booth for one half and then make a decision about the second half. He stayed upstairs instead of returning to his familiar spot on the sidelines, in part so he could maintain his bigger-picture approach to directing the offense.
“I knew if I was on the sideline I'd be more involved watching the offensive line than trying to watch the whole game,” Clark said. “For me personally, I had to get away from it. (QB coach) Pete Thomas did a great job, and it was the offensive staff calling the plays. I told them that it can't be hectic on the headset. We're going to think about it, and we're going to take our shots, and we're going for broke.”
The view from the top of the Superdome remained just as clear after halftime.
The Mountaineers marched 75 yards in 10 plays to begin the third quarter, with Sutton catching a 17-yard touchdown pass from Thomas, and back-to-back sacks of Stockstill led to a punt that paved the way for Peoples to make his bowl debut.
Able to not lose a year of eligibility because he was playing in just his third game, Peoples gained 1 yard on his first carry before breaking free down the right sideline on his 63-yard score.
“The feeling is indescribable,” Peoples said. “I've been preparing all year, waiting on it. With the redshirt rule, I've been patient, waiting my turn. To get in, see that opening, I'm asking God to give me everything in my legs and let me get in this end zone. The bulls up front, they did a great job, so it's really just a team thing.”
Middle Tennessee posted a third-quarter touchdown to cut into its deficit, but App State's defense applied constant pressure to Stockstill the rest of the way, and Sutton capped the scoring on an 11-yard touchdown with 13:06 remaining.
Willis and Godwin recorded sacks on the next series, enabling App State's coaches to play senior quarterback Zeb Speir, senior receiver Brad Absher and many other reserves in the closing minutes.
As time wound down, players repeatedly chanted Ivey's name. He was even lifted into the air and carried across part of the field.
As the celebratory, Ivey-led song suggests, it wasn't nothin‘ but an App State party.
That's all for a memorable, record-setting 2018 season
“For me personally, this was my last game,” Godwin said, “and I just wanted to leave everything on the field.”
App State is the only FBS program with no losses or ties in at least four bowl appearances, and it has accomplished that feat in just four postseason-eligible seasons. It won the Dollar General Bowl in 2017 following back-to-back Camellia Bowl wins in 2016 and 2015.
Thanks to a 34-0 shutout of Toledo in 2017 and a 45-13 win against Middle Tennessee, App State has outscored its last two bowl opponents 79-13.
The Mountaineers are 47-11 in their last 58 games. They won the last six games of their FBS debut in 2014 before going 11-2 in 2015, 10-3 in 2016, 9-4 in 2017 and 11-2 this season.
App State's 41 wins in the last four seasons lead Group of Five programs and is tied for sixth place nationally, topped only by Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Georgia.
App State had five touchdown passes Saturday and allowed just eight all season.
App State finished with season with 37 offensive plays of at least 30 yards and only 10 plays of at least 30 yards allowed. The Mountaineers allowed just one play of at least 50 yards — a 57-yard gain by Georgia Southern.
Of the 22 starters for App State on offense and defense Saturday, only one offensive starter and three defensive starters were seniors.
App State didn't allow 20 points in any of its 11 wins this season. Discarding a non-offensive touchdown by Coastal Carolina, Appalachian's defense allowed an average of 10.5 points in the team's victories.
With 73 interceptions in the last four seasons, App State ranks first nationally, one ahead of San Diego State's 72. Josh Thomas and Tae Hayes intercepted passes Saturday.
Senior defensive end Okon Godwin recorded career highs of 2.5 sacks and 3.0 tackles for loss in his final college game. His previous single-game highs were one sack and 1.5 tackles for loss.
Outside linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither had a team-high 10 tackles to give him 105 for the season.
True freshman defender Hansky Paillant made his App State debut in the fourth quarter.
App State lost only five fumbles all season, and its running backs didn't fumble a single time in 417 rushing attempts that gained 2,533 yards. The running backs in 2018 were Jalin Moore, Darrynton Evans, Marcus Williams Jr., Camerun Peoples, Daetrich Harrington, D'Andre Hicks and DeMarcus Harper.
For the fifth straight year, App State's offensive line will rank in the top 25 nationally in both rushing yards per game and fewest sacks allowed. The Mountaineers rushed for 233 yards Saturday and didn't allow a sack.
Running back Darrynton Evans rushed for 1,187 yards as a sophomore even though he didn't become App State's primary back until the fifth game, when Jalin Moore suffered a season-ending injury. Evans had at least 100 rushing yards in seven of the Mountaineers' last nine games.
With two touchdown receptions, Corey Sutton increased his season total to 10, the highest mark at App State since Brian Quick had 11 in 2011. Sutton's total ranks fifth in App State's single-season records.
Zac Thomas finished his first season as an FBS starting quarterback with 2,039 passing yards, 21 touchdown passes and just six interceptions. He rushed for 504 yards.
Left tackle Victor Johnson returned to the starting lineup after missing the Sun Belt Conference Championship Game with an injury, giving him 38 starts in 39 games over the last three seasons, but Cole Garrison filled in at left tackle after the first series.
Senior long snapper Elias McMurry, who had held that position for each of the last 51 games, sat out the bowl win with an injury. True freshman Max Durschlag snapped on field goals and extra points, and true freshman Keaton Forbes snapped on App State's only punt.
Clayton Howell's only punt was a 60-yard kick that A.J. Beach downed at the 1-yard line.