The Appalachian State Mountaineers (3-2, 2-0 Sun Belt) came out of their Sun Belt matchup against the New Mexico State Aggies (2-4, 0-2 Sun Belt) with a 45-31 win to improve to 22-2 over their last 24 Sun Belt games and 41-13-2 in their annual homecoming games.
Appalachian was coming off of a bye week after a tough loss to Wake Forest and the highlight of the game proved to be the strong showing from the Mountaineers’ dynamic cornerback duo of sophomore Clifton Duck and junior Tae Hayes, who combined for an eye-popping six interceptions, which broke the school record set in 1973 and 2008.
It was a tight one for the most of the game with a lot of sloppy play, but 21 unanswered points in the final seven minutes of the game proved to be just enough for the Mountaineers to pull out the victory over the Aggies.
“It’s good to be 2-0 in the Sun Belt,” head coach Scott Satterfield. “We are real proud of our guys in the fourth quarter and that’s how you want to play late in the game. Our defense was incredible with six interceptions.”
Wide receiver Ike Lewis returned the opening kick-off out past the Mountaineers’ 40-yard line, before coughing up the ball on the first play from scrimmage to make fans a little nervous. Lewis had the ball punched out of his hands and it was recovered by the Aggies just outside of the red zone on the 24 yard-line.
App’s defense held strong against New Mexico State and a swatted pass from Desmond Franklin consigned the Aggies to a field goal attempt that would go wide left.
Appalachian’s answering drive could not find any steam and they had a quick three-and-out.
“We were coming in the game knowing we had to run the football but we were so bad at third down,” Satterfield said. “We had been pretty good at that throughout the season so we have to go back and look at the film to see what happened.”
The Aggies would respond with a thirst for blood, driving smoothly down the field before a pass from Aggies quarterback Tyler Rogers put them up 7-0 over the Mountaineers. The Mountaineers couldn’t finish off the next drive either, with it ending on a missed 46-yard field goal from Michael Rubino.
New Mexico State’s offense continued to prove to be efficient against the Appalachian defense until it came up for its first big play of the game. Junior cornerback Tae Hayes intercepted the ball and set up the offense for a drive that would end with a 26-yard field goal from Rubino to bring the score to 7-3.
With 1 minute 39 seconds left in the first quarter, team captain and senior starting safety A.J. Howard was flagged for targeting when he had a nasty hit on an Aggie receiver, he was then ejected after a review of the play. Despite losing a major piece of their defensive unit, Appalachian stood strong and held the Aggies scoreless.
“Our corners have been playing really well all year,” Satterfield said. “When we lost A.J., I give credit to coach Sloan and other safeties who had to come in and play and they did a great job coming and filling in with the thin depth.”
On the Aggies’ next drive, Duck snagged his seventh career interception, the Mountaineers’ second of the game. Just as they had before, Appalachian converted turnovers to points as junior running back Jalin Moore plowed his way into the endzone on a tough 3-yard run to give the Mountaineers a 10-7 lead.
Early in the second, Hayes pulled in his second interception of the game, and once again the offense capitalized when senior running back Terrence Upshaw punched in a touchdown to bring the score up to 17-7.
App State made their way into the red zone with the opportunity to score before senior quarterback Taylor Lamb threw an ill-advised pass right into the hands of an Aggie receiver. With less than a minute left Rogers scored on a quarterback keeper and pulled the Aggies to within three. Despite a 17-14 lead that the end of the first half, the Mountaineers had only mustered nine yards passing.
The third quarter was a defensive struggle, as only a field goal was scored by New Mexico State. The two teams went into the fourth quarter tied at 17 and that is when the two offenses exploded.
“We knew we had to make the best of plays and everyday we go out and get after each other,” Hayes said.
New Mexico State started the quarter by driving the ball down to score on a tough run by Aggies Larry Rose III, taking the score to 24-17. On the Aggies’ next drive, Hayes pulled in his third interception of the game, setting up the offense for Lamb to score on a 38-yard rush despite finishing the game with two interceptions and 48 passing yards.
The Aggies were quick to counter with a lightning fast drive to bring the score to 31-24.
After tying the game at 31 via an Upshaw touchdown run, the Mountaineers called for a surprise onside kick. It seemed to work at first, but the referees called in favor of the Aggies as one of their players called for a fair catch before the Mountaineers could recover it.
It wouldn’t be the Aggies’ ball for long, after Clifton Duck intercepted his second pass of the day. True freshman receiver Malik Williams passed the ball on a trick play at the end of the drive to fellow freshman receiver Thomas Hennigan for a 27-yard touchdown to take a 38-31 lead.
The Mountaineers’ went into rushing mode after the score, trying to grind away a result spearheaded by Moore, who had almost 130 of his 243 rushing yards in the fourth. Heading into the game, Moore hadn’t been putting up the numbers that people expected of him yet this season, but today was the day his hard work paid off.
“There was a lot more pressure on me coming into this season, based on what I had done last season,” Moore said. “Everybody picking you to be the two-time offensive player of the year, of course I get down on myself. I worked hard way in the off-season and expected bigger things. But things are picking up and it’s all about being patient.”
Moore exploded for a 56-yard run with a little over two minutes left in the game to increase the Mountaineers’ lead to 45-31 and put the nail in the coffin.
The Aggies attempted to drive down the field to try and come back, but a pair of familiar faces put an end to any hope of a comeback. Hayes nearly got his fourth interception of the game, but was ruled out of bounds.
On the very next play, it was Duck who came away with the ball yet again, giving him his third, ending the game. The duo’s six interceptions set a new school record for interceptions in a game by the Mountaineers, something head coach Scott Satterfield was very grateful for.
“Our defense kept us in the game with the interceptions, they did an incredible job, but I tell you, Tae Hayes and Duck, our two corners, three and three a piece for a school record six is just incredible,” Satterfield said. “A couple quarters throughout the game our offense didn’t do anything.”
The Mountaineers will look ahead to next week’s game at Idaho. The Vandals are 2-3 and are coming off of a 21-16 loss to UL Lafayette.
Story By: Ian Taylor, Sports Reporter
Photos By: Hayley Canal and Lindsay Vaughn