TROY, Ala. — An unblemished road record secured, App State now turns its attention to hosting another Sun Belt Conference Championship Game.
Zac Thomas threw for a career-high 326 yards while accounting for five touchdowns, including four through the air, as the now 20th-ranked Mountaineers won 48-13 at Troy on Friday night.
As the East Division winner with the head-to-head tiebreaker against West Division winner Louisiana, App State (11-1, 7-1) will face the Ragin’ Cajuns (10-2,7-1) in Boone this coming Friday in a title-game rematch that begins at noon and airs on ESPN.
“We came out and just played really fast and started fast,” head coach Eliah Drinkwitz said. “We knew we wanted to come out and set the tone of the game and send a message that we were here to play. Getting homefield advantage was something we felt strongly about wanting, and I’m proud of our guys. I’m especially proud of Zac Thomas with the way he played. I know it was a special game for him coming back to his home state and being a captain.”
With impressive victories at North Carolina, Louisiana and South Carolina already in hand this season, App State clinched its first perfect road record since 1995 by converting its first 10 third-down chances, recording four sacks and intercepting two passes against the Trojans (5-7, 3-5) at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
The Mountaineers’ 6-0 away record includes the most wins for any of the seven teams nationally without a road loss, and they’re the first FBS team to go 6-0 on the road since Western Michigan’s Cotton Bowl team in 2016.
App State also tied the Sun Belt record for single-season victories, as it has accounted for three of the four 11-win seasons in league history.
“Tonight was the first time as an offense that we really clicked on all cylinders,” Thomas said. “We were running the ball, and we were throwing it when we wanted to. We couldn’t be stopped. On third down, we’re 10-for-12. That’s just remarkable as an offense.”
In addition to the big night for Thomas, who completed 28 of his 34 pass attempts, Darrynton Evans’ three touchdowns pushed his season total to 20 during a game in which he rushed for 82 yards on 13 carries. Thomas Hennigan set career highs with 11 catches for 140 yards, Malik Williams caught two touchdown passes and Jalen Virgil scored a long touchdown as part of his 95 receiving yards.
Defensively, Nick Hampton produced one of the four sacks against Sun Belt passing leader Kaleb Barker while amassing a team-high eight tackles, and Desmond Franklin’s interception return created a short field for App State’s third touchdown. Willie Edwards made his first career interception in the fourth quarter.
“He’s a really good player,” App State safety and Montgomery, Ala., native Josh Thomas said of Barker. “That was one of our main focuses, to get pressure on him and not let him sit back there and just hold the ball, because he can pick a defense apart when he has a lot of time. Getting to him, making him feel the pressure, playing tight coverage, those were our main goals.”
After Troy kicked a short field goal to end its game-opening drive, the Mountaineers moved ahead for good on Zac Thomas’ 44-yard touchdown pass to Virgil. Jordan Fehr’s sack forced a three-and-out before Evans moved into the top 10 on the program’s career rushing list with a 52-yard touchdown.
Franklin nearly intercepted a pass while standing in the end zone as the Trojans’ next series began at their 2-yard line, but he came up with an interception on the very next play after cornerback Shaun Jolly knocked the ball loose from the intended receiver. Franklin’s 20-yard return to the 8 set up a 5-yard touchdown run from Thomas.
Hampton and Akeem Davis-Gaither recorded sacks early in a 75-yard touchdown drive for Troy that trimmed App State’s lead to 10 points entering the second quarter, and the Mountaineers increased their advantage to 27-10 on Williams’ 8-yard touchdown catch.
D’Marco Jackson’s third-down sack caused another three-and-out, and three straight completions to Hennigan preceded a 9-yard touchdown run from Evans for a 34-10 lead midway through the second quarter.
“Any time as a receiver you get that many targets, you’re always going to be happy for the opportunity,” said Hennigan, who set new career highs for catches and receiving yards by halftime. “I’ve had a couple big games in my career, but I think I proved to a lot of people tonight that I can be that every-down receiver and be that guy you can always go to in the offense.”
Williams hauled in his second touchdown of the night on a 6-yard pass from Thomas early in the third quarter, and App State pushed the margin to 48-13 on Thomas’ 25-yard touchdown pass to Evans on the first play of the fourth quarter.
“Any time you can get a big-time game like that in front of your home crowd, it does measures, not only for you as a player, but for your fans,” Thomas said. “What we’ve done this year, we’ve done some great things, and getting it back in Boone for our fans, it’s a credit to them for showing out whenever it’s been bad weather. We’re just ready to get back to The Rock for this championship game.”