LAFAYETTE, La. — Appalachian State remained undefeated by showing its grit and putting together a timely, clock-consuming touchdown drive to cap a defensive slugfest.
In a nationally televised matchup of two of the nation's highest-scoring teams, the Mountaineers pulled out a 17-7 victory at Louisiana on Wednesday night.
App State (5-0, 2-0 Sun Belt) held a three-point lead when it regained possession at its 3-yard line with 12:06 remaining. Two fourth-down conversions prolonged a 19-play, 97-yard touchdown drive that took 10 minutes, 11 seconds off the clock.
Zac Thomas scored his second touchdown of the night when he high-stepped into the end zone to end a 7-yard keeper with 1:55 remaining, and the Mountaineers could begin celebrating when a fourth-down pass from the Ragin' Cajuns (4-2, 1-1) fell incomplete in the final minute.
"That drive said a lot about our offense, and we owe it all to our defense," Thomas said. "They played lights-out, and we owed it to them for keeping us in the game. That was our payback to them for a great job that they did."
With Thomas' first 7-yard touchdown run giving App State an early lead and Chandler Staton's 40-yard field goal breaking a third-quarter tie, the Mountaineers held Louisiana more the 37 points below its scoring average.
The lengthy fourth-quarter drive continued thanks to Thomas' 4-yard strike to Thomas Hennigan on a fourth-and-4 pass from the UL 38. The Mountaineers then faced a fourth-and-5 situation from the Louisiana 25 with less than three minutes left, and Corey Sutton drew a penalty for pass interference near the end zone to extend the series.
"We're always going to attack success," App State head coach Eliah Drinkwitz said. "We're never going to fear failure. I knew if I put the ball in our best players' hands, we were going to get it done."
Offensively, Thomas rushed for 63 yards and completed 11 of his 17 passes for 147 yards. Darrynton Evans added 69 hard-earned yards on the ground as App State totaled 196 rushing yards, or 73 more than Louisiana, which was averaging 314.0 rushing yards per game entering the ESPN2 contest.
Senior linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither led App State's stingy defense with 10 tackles, including 2.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage, and Noel Cook added eight stops. Defensive end Demetrius Taylor had a sack, a fourth-down stop on a goalline stand and a quarterback hurry to force a three-and-out.
"It was just flying around," Davis-Gaither said. "We hadn't done it enough all season until this game, just flying around and sending all 11 hats to the ball. I think it showed up."
A low-scoring first half included an opening-series sack from Taylor and a third-down hurry from Taylor to force a second punt. The Mountaineers began their second series at their own 5 and marched 95 yards in seven plays, highlighted by a 47-yard completion to Sutton into Louisiana territory and then a 27-yard scramble from Thomas.
Strong blocks from Sutton and tight end Collin Reed helped Thomas race around left end for a TD midway through the first quarter, and the score remained 7-0 until Louisiana quarterback Levi Lewis threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Nick Ralston with eight seconds left before halftime.
The goalline stand early in the second quarter had kept the Ragin' Cajuns off the scoreboard, as Jordon Earle and Trey Cobb limited Trey Ragas to a 1-yard gain on a third-and-goal carry from the 2. Louisiana went for the touchdown, but Taylor and Cook stopped Elijah Mitchell for no gain.
"We couldn't let them in," Taylor said. "Our emphasis on this week was to limit them to field goals in the red zone, because we tried to improve on that. It was just time to prove that we had been working."
Louisiana moved into field goal range early in the third quarter before George Blackstock blocked the 42-yard attempt, which was returned 11 yards to the App State 25 by Josh Thomas. True freshman Raykwon Anderson's 23-yard run on first down advanced the ball close to midfield, and Zac Thomas used his legs on consecutive third-down conversions to set up Staton's 40-yard kick.
The final touchdown drive was all about steady play-making and fourth-down confidence. When Thomas headed toward the end zone with no one around him, he was able to score in style.
"It doesn't get better than that," he said. "That's the best feeling in the world."
After an off Saturday, App State returns to action Oct. 19 with a homecoming game against ULM.