App State ends long layoff with impressive win

Appalachian State’s Mike Evans goes up to catch a 5-yard touchdown pass from Zac Thomas during the second quarter of Thursday’s win against Arkansas State. (Photo courtesy of Appalachian State)

The Appalachian State football team had a lot of pent up energy and aggression after two straight postponements and nearly a month of inactivity because of a COVID-19 outbreak among its ranks.

Thursday night, the Mountaineers took it out on Arkansas State.

Playing for the first time in 25 days, coach Shawn Clark’s team jumped out to an early lead and never looked back on the way to a 45-17 rout of Sun Belt Conference rival Arkansas State at Kidd Brewer Stadium.

Quarterback Zac Thomas tied a career high with four touchdown passes while also running for a 60-yard score to lead his team to its first victory since a win against Campbell on Sept. 26. Running back Daetrich Harrington also had a big game with 137 rushing yards on 18 carries to help App State (3-1) win its long-awaited conference opener.

Three thoughts

1. The Mountaineers showed no signs of rust after spending nearly a month on the sidelines. They scored touchdowns on each of their first three possessions of the night, going 85 yards on six plays on their opening possession, answering Arkansas State’s only first-half score by going 75 yards on just three plays before grinding out a 17-play, 88-yard march that ate nearly seven minutes off the clock. App State rolled up a 31-7 lead by halftime while outgaining its opponent 364-179, an advantage that might have been even greater if not for a pair of turnovers.

2. In addition to being balanced, the Mountaineers’ offense was also remarkably efficient on third down. Quarterback Zac Thomas and his unit were able to stay on the field and extend drives by going 10 of 15 on third down. And on one of the occasions when they didn’t convert, they ended up moving the chains by successfully going for it on fourth down. As far as the balance is concerned, App State finished the night with 521 total yards — 305 on the ground, 216 through the air.

3. The Mountaineers were just as dominant on defense, especially in the first half when they held Arkansas State to minus-4 rushing yards — a figure aided by three sacks. While App State’s offense was almost automatic on third down, the Red Wolves were literally the opposite, going 0 for 7 on possession downs. For the game, the Mountaineers amassed six sacks, 12 tackles for losses totaling 71 yards, two interceptions (both by linebacker D’Marco Jackson) while allowing Arkansas State to score on only half of its four red zone opportunities.

Number to know

20 — Arkansas State has been held to fewer than 20 points in a game only four times over the past three seasons. Two of the teams that accomplished the feat were SEC powers Alabama and Georgia. App State has done it the other two times.

Player of the Game

Zac Thomas, App State quarterback — The dual-threat senior completed 16 of his 23 passes for 216 yards while tying his career high with four touchdown passes. He also set a career high by rushing for 82 yards, 60 of which came on one touchdown run in the third quarter. Thomas now has 53 touchdown passes for his career with the Mountaineers, fourth on the school’s all-time list.

They Said it

“Our guys like to compete. That was kind of the message today: Go compete, to see where we are as a program. And our guys did that. We did a great job on defense, came out and started fast on offense. But credit goes to our players. They practice this way week in and week out, and tonight the fruits of their labor came to fruition.

— App State coach Shawn Clark

Critical Thinking

The Mountaineers have been out of sight and out of mind since losing a 17-7 decision on the road to Marshall all the way back on Sept. 19. They’ve played only once since then, routing FBC opponent Campbell before having their first two Sun Belt Conference games postponed.

Thursday, however, Clark and his team sent a message to their rest of their league that they’re still a force to be reckoned with by dominating one of the conference’s best offensive teams. They did it with the kind of balance between offense and defense that should help keep them in the hunt for a fifth straight Sun Belt title.