Back in the Bayou: Mountaineers set for second straight New Orleans Bowl

Silas Albright and Moss Brennan

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The bright lights of the Big Easy aren’t new for the App State football team as they get ready to face the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl Saturday night. 

“I think it makes you feel comfortable, being in the same environment,” junior center Noah Hannon said. “It’s kinda like playing at home, you see the same things, you feel the same vibes and you get to prepare the same way that you do every other week.”

From providing a roof to citizens following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina to the infamous power failure during the halftime show of Super Bowl XLVII, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the site of the bowl game, is one of the most well-known venues in all of sports since it opened in 1975. Hannon talked about the advantage of knowing what it’s like to play there. 

“To get to come down here and experience the culture before and to play in the Dome, some people could look at that as a big stage and it could maybe get too big for them,” Hannon said. “But we’ve played in it before and we hope that we can use that to our advantage.”

Junior wide receiver Jalen Virgil also talked about the experience of playing in the same bowl in back-to-back seasons. 

“I think it’s pretty cool because everybody knows how everything goes,” Virgil said. “It’s been pretty much identical to how it was last year in terms of us traveling around. It was cool just knowing what we were doing. It’s been a great experience, just like how it was last year.” 

Last season, the Mountaineers faced Middle Tennessee State University in the New Orleans Bowl where they won 45-13 — the largest margin of victory in the bowl’s nearly 20-year history. 

The team was dealing with uncertainty at the head coaching position as former head coach Scott Satterfield announced he was going to coach at Louisville before the bowl game. App State announced former assistant head coach and defensive line coach Mark Ivey would be the interim head coach for the bowl game, but there was still much uncertainty as the Mountaineers were searching for a new head coach.

“Last year, nobody was sure about whether coach Ivey and some other guys on the staff would come back,” Virgil said. “This year, we’re pretty sure the majority of the guys are going to come back.” 

This year was much the same as former head coach Eliah Drinkwitz left the program after the Sun Belt Championship game to coach at Missouri. 

But unlike last year, this season’s bowl game has stability at the head coaching position as Shawn Clark was named head coach less than a week after Drinkwitz left. 

Virgil said one of the biggest differences between last year is that they know coaches will be back next season. 

“It’s kind of comfortable just knowing that he’s going to be there with us and not just him just trying to finish out the job, you know, he’s here for the long run,” Virgil said. 

Clark played at App State for four years as an offensive lineman and graduated from App State in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. 

“We’re just excited for where the program’s going under Coach Clark,” Hannon said. “Love Coach Clark to death. I think he’s going to be awesome for the program and we look forward to see where we go from here.”

The Mountaineers have also enjoyed some of the food that New Orleans is famous for at places they didn’t have time to try on their first go round.  

“I just turned 21 in July, so I got a chance to go there and try a couple of different spots. Tried out Willie’s Chicken (Shack). I’m a huge fan of Popeye’s, but Willie’s chicken got some of the best chicken I’ve ever tasted in my life,” Virgil said. “Like finger lickin’ good.”

The No. 20 Sun Belt champion Mountaineers (12-1) will take on Conference USA runner-up UAB (9-4) Saturday night at 9 p.m. ET (8 CT) on ESPN.