NEW ORLEANS — Darrynton Evans ran for 161 yards, including a 31-yard touchdown after he scooped up a fourth-down fumble, and No. 20 Appalachian State defeated UAB 31-17 in the New Orleans Bowl on Saturday night.
The Mountaineers (13-1) scored twice in the third quarter on quarterback fumbles. Evans’ go-ahead score came first when Zac Thomas lost the ball on a fourth-and-1 sneak. Later, outside linebacker Nick Hampton stripped UAB quarterback Tyler Johnston, and inside linebacker Trey Cobb picked it up and returned the ball 24 yards to put Appalachian State in front 24-17.
Johntson, making his first start since injuring his knee Nov. 2 at Tennessee, passed for 298 yards and two touchdowns for UAB (9-5). Listed by odds makers as 17-point underdogs, the Blazers raced to a 14-0 lead in the first five minutes, only to be outscored 31-3 after that.
The game marked the head coaching debut for Appalachian State’s Shawn Clark, who took over after Eli Drinkwitz was hired by Missouri earlier this month. Clark is a former Appalachian State offensive lineman who’d been coaching the offensive line at his alma mater since 2016.
Now, he’s running a program that has a good chance to end the season ranked inside the top 20.
Thomas Hennigan caught two touchdown passes for Appalachian State. The first came after UAB linebacker Jordan Smith was assessed a personal foul for leaping toward the line of scrimmage on Chandler Staton’s missed 48-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter. Just two plays after the penalty, Thomas found Hennigan for a 17-yard TD that cut UAB’s lead to 14-10.
Hennigan scored his second touchdown when he wrestled an under-thrown, 27-yard pass away from cornerback Starling Thomas as both fell to the turf in the third quarter, widening Appalachian State’s lead to 31-17.
Zac Thomas finished with 142 yards and two TDs passing for the Mountaineers, who were the Sun Belt Conference champions and finished the season on a six-game winning streak.
Austin Watkins caught 10 passes for 159 yards and a touchdown for the Blazers, but most of that came on UAB’s first two possessions.
Watkins made a 35-yard catch on the first play of the game and followed up with a 12-yard gain on a receiver screen. That set up Johnston’s 25-yard pass to Hayden Pittman, who made a diving catch in the end zone to make it 7-0 a mere 1:14 after the opening kickoff.
Watkins, who entered the game needing 67 yards receiving to reach 1,000 for the season, surpassed that on his fourth catch, a 41-yard grab down the left side early in the Blazers’ second possession. Two plays later, Watkins had a 25-yard catch-and run for a touchdown to make it 14-0.
Appalachian State: The Mountaineers overcame relative struggles on offense with opportunism and athleticism. Their ability to win comfortably after falling behind by two touchdowns provided an example of why they were among the strongest and deepest mid-major programs in the nation this season.
UAB: The Blazers, with only one prior bowl triumph in program history, opened with an intensity that showed how much this game mattered to them. They kept it close until late in the third quarter, when mistakes and some bad bounces caught up to them.
Appalachian State could very well move up a few spots, depending on subsequent bowl results, for its highest ranking this season.
Appalachian State: Thomas and most other prominent players return to what will be a senior-laden squad looking to challenge for a New Year’s Day bowl under new coach Shawn Clark. They begin the season at home against Morgan State on Sept. 5.
UAB: The Blazers will carry high expectations into next season with a total of 18 starters coming back on offense and defense. They open with a Thursday night home game against New Mexico State on Sept. 3.