NEW ORLEANS — Make
it a perfect five for five by App State's quintet of fifth-year seniors.
Whether the 20th-ranked Mountaineers were putting the ball in the air or scooping it off the turf, they extended their record-setting bowl streak and capped a record-setting season with a 31-17 win against UAB in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl on Saturday night.
Despite facing a two-touchdown deficit in the first five minutes, App State (13-1) scored 31 of the final 34 points with help from Zac Thomas' two touchdown passes to Thomas Hennigan and Tommy Dawkins' 2.5 sacks.
The Mountaineers took their first lead of the night when Darrynton Evans ran 31 yards for a touchdown after recovering a fumbled fourth-down sneak early in the third quarter, and they went ahead for good on linebacker Trey Cobb's tiebreaking 24-yard return of a fumble forced by Nick Hampton's sack midway through the same period.
With the win in Shawn Clark's head coaching debut, fifth-year seniors Akeem Davis-Gaither, Desmond Franklin, Victor Johnson, Collin Reed and Josh Thomas finished their careers with a 7-0 postseason record that included two wins in the Sun Belt Conference Championship Game and a 5-0 bowl record.
For fourth-year seniors such as Jordan Fehr and Noel Cook, they won a Sun Belt title every year they were in Boone.
“It's a great day to be a Mountaineer, baby,” Clark said. “Our team has a ton of poise, and it's been that way all year. Our team has great senior leadership.”
App State is the only FBS program with no losses or ties in at least five bowl appearances, and it has accomplished that feat in just five postseason-eligible seasons. The fifth straight bowl victory ended a season in which the Mountaineers became the first Sun Belt team and the first FBS team from the state of North Carolina to win 13 games.
Evans rushed for 161 yards while tying the Sun Belt record of 24 touchdowns in a season, and App State set league records for single-season points (543) and touchdowns (73). Defensively, Fehr led the way with 11 tackles in his final game, and the Mountaineers posted six sacks while holding UAB to 184 yards of offense after the first two drives.
Facing a quick two-touchdown deficit via a pair of 25-yard scoring passes by the Blazers (9-5), App State stayed the course and systematically worked its way back into the game.
Marcus Williams Jr. rushed for gains of 20 and 27 yards to set up a 34-yard field goal from Chandler Staton early in the second quarter, and UAB punted the ball back to the Mountaineers less than two minutes later.
Evans raced to the UAB 24 on a 57-yard run to begin App State's next series, and a UAB penalty for illegal leaping on a field goal attempt prolonged the possession. Two plays later, Zac Thomas dropped the ball in to Hennigan on a fade route for a 17-yard touchdown.
The Mountaineers' came up big on its two remaining series to end the first half, as cornerback Shemar Jean-Charles recorded his first career interception at the App State 20 and UAB punted from its 1 following a third-down sack from Elijah Diarrassouba.
Opening the second half with possession, App State moved to the UAB 39 on a 24-yard pass to Jalen Virgil and kept its offense on the field for a fourth-and-1 play from the 30. Thomas fumbled the ball on a QB sneak attempt, but Evans scooped up the loose ball in the backfield and ran untouched off right tackle for a 31-yard touchdown.
UAB tied the game at 17-all by making a 49-yard field goal midway through the third quarter, but Hampton and Cobb combined for the biggest play of the game on the Blazers' next series. Hampton knocked the ball loose on a sack of Tyler Johnston III, prompting Cobb to scoop up the loose ball and run 24 yards for a tiebreaking defensive touchdown.
The Mountaineers forced a three-and-out punt and moved ahead 31-17 with a nine-play, 85-yard touchdown drive. Facing a fourth-and-3, Thomas rolled right and threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to Hennigan, who wrestled the ball away from the UAB defender in the end zone.
App State could begin celebrating with cornerback Shaun Jolly forced and recovered a fumble in the last two minutes.
Afterward, Clark addressed the team, then called on App State alum and assistant coach D.J. Smith to lead the Mountaineers’ celebratory song.
It was another App State party in the Superdome. That’s all for a record-setting senior class, but a memorable beginning for Clark.