From promise to heartbreak; What went wrong for the Mountaineers in 2022?

Mountaineers+celebrate+after+the+win+with+the+section+of+App+State+fans+that+made+the+trip+to+Kyle+Field+Sept.+10.

Courtesy of Andy McLean

Mountaineers celebrate after the win with the section of App State fans that made the trip to Kyle Field Sept. 10.

Ethan Smith, Associate Sports Editor

For the first time since making the transition to FBS in 2014, App State failed to qualify for a bowl game after finishing the season at 6-6. A team filled with talented players and a veteran quarterback, the Mountaineers seemed poised to compete for a Sun Belt title and return to a bowl game. As the season progressed, it became more clear any expectations for this team were not going to be met. 

“I had high expectations for this season given the talent we had returning. It seemed like we couldn’t get consistency in several games,” App State class of 1987 alum Reggie Hill said.

The Black and Gold opened their season with a home-opening sellout defeat to North Carolina 63-61. The two teams combined for 1,231 yards of total offense and the Mountaineers scored 40 fourth quarter points before coming up short on the final plays of the game. Ultimately, the defensive struggles seen in this game would be a sign of things to come later in the season.

After their home opening loss, App State traveled to College Station, Texas for what became their first top-10 win since No. 5 Michigan in 2007, defeating No. 6 Texas A&M 17-14. Following the victory, fans rushed King Street and took a victory lap by diving into the Duck Pond on West Campus. The chaos that ensued in Boone would set the stage for ESPN’s College GameDay to come to Boone for the first time for the Mountaineers’ home matchup against Troy. 

App State fans dive headfirst into the Duck Pond in celebration of their win over Troy. (Courtesy of Bryce Fry)

“You can’t put a price tag on what College GameDay brought to our university, brought to the town of Boone and brought to our university,” head coach Shawn Clark said. 

The roller coaster start to the season continued against the Trojans with redshirt senior quarterback Chase Brice throwing a Hail Mary on the final play of the game to lift the Mountaineers over Troy 32-28

Despite starting the season 2-1, the early success did not continue as the team went 4-5 over its final nine games. 

The Mountaineers blew a 25-point lead to James Madison at home in the team’s fourth game of the season. App State then shutout The Citadel at home for its first shut-out victory since 2017. 

On the road, App State lost 36-24 to Texas State, a team that finished 4-8 on the season and fired their head coach. The Black and Gold were down 24-3 at halftime and struggled to play consistently on both sides of the ball. This loss was one of the most bizarre games the Mountaineers played this season. 

“The one that’s just kind of a head scratcher for me is Texas State. That’s the one that just kinda sticks out in my mind, like how did that happen?” former App State wide receiver Thomas Hennigan said. 

Following the loss at Texas State, the Mountaineers bounced back with back-to-back wins over Georgia State and Robert Morris. App State stood at 5-3 at this point in the season.

App State then dropped consecutive road games to Coastal Carolina and Marshall, marking the first time the team had dropped two contests in a row since 2017.

Heading into the final two games of the season, the team needed to win out in order to keep the consecutive bowl streak alive. 

The Mountaineers won the first of those games by defeating Old Dominion 27-14 on Senior Day.

With their season on the line, App State traveled to Statesboro, Georgia to play rival Georgia Southern, who was also playing for bowl eligibility. The Mountaineers lost in double overtime, ending the season in heartbreak. 

“We have to do a total assessment of our program and see who we really are,” said Clark following the loss.

The first change was made days after the team’s season ended with former defensive coordinator and long-time App State coach Dale Jones leaving the program. 

College GameDay co-host Pat McAfee sings RIAA Platinum single “Beer Never Broke My Heart” with Luke Combs Sept. 17, 2022. (Cameron Burnett)

The Black and Gold’s defense had been an area of concern throughout the season. Although the team ranked 37 out of 131 teams in total defense, App State allowed 347 yards of offense per game and opponents averaged 5.31 yards per play against the Mountaineers. Third downs situations were an area of struggle for App State since the start of the season.

“We have to get off the field on third down,” said Clark following the home opening loss to North Carolina. “We can’t get off the field on third down right now.”

Opponents converted 42.3% of third downs, ranking 102nd nationally.

In Sun Belt play, App State allowed 33.25 points per game including 51 to Georgia Southern in the final game of the season. The Mountaineers ranked 60th in passing yards allowed. 

The defense dealt with injuries at all three levels throughout the season. The linebackers had key players miss time such as senior linebacker Trey Cobb and junior linebacker Brendan Harrington missed the entire season after suffering a season ending injury in the first game of the season. Redshirt junior linebacker Nick Hampton missed the final two games dealing with injury. 

“I think there was injuries, I think there was a lack of depth, and then the lack of pass rush, so it was hitting all three tiers of the defense right there with the injuries in the linebacking core, lack of depth in the secondary and just not enough pass rush for the defensive line,” Hennigan said.

Despite the amount of talent on the offensive side of the ball, consistency remained an issue. Brice threw for 2,921 passing yards and 27 touchdowns to six interceptions. For the first time in 10 seasons, App State did not have a 1,000 yard rusher. Sophomore running back Nate Noel and redshirt junior running back Cam Peoples rushed for 604 and 593 yards, respectively. Sophomore wide receiver Christian Horn led the team with 600 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Dashaun Davis was second on the team with 441 receiving yards and three touchdowns. 

As the season progressed, the offensive play calling became more conservative. Instead of taking shots down the field, offensive coordinator and play-caller Kevin Barbay opted for more run-based and short passes.

“I feel like since the second-half of the James Madison game where we got really conservative and they ended up coming back and we ended up blowing that lead, I think from that point on we got really predictable,” Hennigan said. 

The 2022 team has already had some key departures. Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Christian Wells entered the transfer portal Nov. 29. Peoples and Hampton both declared for the NFL Draft. Starting senior tight end Henry Pearson and Brice graduated in the winter. 

Additionally, changes were made to their strength and conditioning program by bringing in a familiar face. App State brought back Matt Greenhalgh to oversee the football program’s strength and conditioning as director of strength and conditioning. Greenhalgh served as assistant director of strength and conditioning from 2014-17. 

“Boone is a special place, and I am looking forward to building upon the rich tradition of App State football,” Greenhalgh said. 

The Black and Gold hired Mike Cummings as their new offensive line coach Jan. 3. Former offensive line coach Geep Wade departed the program for the same position at Georgia Tech. Cummings most recently coached at Cincinnati and spent 16 years at Central Michigan. 

“I’m looking forward to working with the staff and players to continue this championship culture and make App Nation proud,” Cummings said.

After one season as offensive coordinator, Kevin Barbay accepted the same position at Mississippi State, leaving a vacancy in a key coaching position weeks before spring ball is set to start. 

App State announced Jan. 13 the hiring of long-time App State staffer Scot Sloan as defensive coordinator. Sloan served on the Mountaineer coaching staff from 2010-17.

“I am looking forward to meeting all of the players and to building a relationship with them,” Sloan said. “I can’t wait to take the field again at The Rock!”

The Mountaineers possess the talent to contend for a Sun Belt title once again but will need to find answers to the holes they have found themselves in.