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Just keep digging: App State’s 2023 football season review

Landon Williams
Junior running back Anderson Castle breaks through a tackle against James Madison Nov. 18, 2023.

After a disappointing 6-6 season in 2022, App State football looked to rebound in 2023, but a 3-4 start saw the potential of falling short again. Through battling adversity with encouragement from head coach Shawn Clark’s philosophy of “keep digging,” the Mountaineers responded with a five-game win streak and a Sun Belt Championship appearance, leaving optimism toward the 2024 season. 

A shaky beginning

App State started the season with a home matchup against FCS-opponent Gardner-Webb. A slow offensive start and 10-7 deficit to the Runnin’ Bulldogs late in the second quarter gave fans worry about this year’s team. 

That all changed when junior quarterback Joey Aguilar entered the game, replacing redshirt freshman quarterback Ryan Burger after he suffered a season-ending broken finger.

Aguilar’s first pass resulted in a 32-yard touchdown in front of Miller Hill as the student section celebrated the game-changing play. The Mountaineers defended Kidd Brewer Stadium with a 45-24 victory as Aguilar gained support of the App State fanbase with his four touchdowns. 

With an unexpected quarterback leading the way, the first-year transfer was tested in Chapel Hill against No. 17 North Carolina. Aguilar lived up to the expectations, but fell short in a 40-34 overtime defeat.

The Black and Gold rebounded in front of a sold out record-tying crowd in Boone for Family Weekend against East Carolina, then traveled to Wyoming the following week. With full control late in the fourth quarter, the Mountaineers stumbled against Wyoming, losing a 19-7 lead after gaining over 400 yards on offense.

The next week saw a 41-40 shootout ending with late-game heroics from Aguilar driving the team downfield and junior kicker Michael Hughes knocking a 54-yard field goal through the uprights as time expired. 

Sitting at 3-2, the season seemed to be turning around for App State, but back to back one-score losses to Coastal Carolina and Old Dominion saw the Mountaineers fall to 3-4. 

With fans questioning a change in coaching due to defensive struggles, Clark implemented a new defensive scheme and encouraged his young team to “keep digging” as he believed his team was close to breaking through toward success.

Coming together at the right time

The Black and Gold responded and rattled off a five-game win streak, including three 20-plus point victories and a 26-23 overtime upset against No. 18 James Madison.

The undefeated Dukes hosted College GameDay and were celebrated around the college football world leading up to their home matchup against App State. The Black and Gold spoiled James Madison’s party, giving the Dukes their lone loss of the season as Aguilar threw for 318 yards against one of the nation’s highly-ranked defenses. 

During the five-game win streak, the Mountaineers defense exceeded expectations in allowing 46 points in a three-game stretch and forced 12 turnovers since the new scheme’s implementation.

The turnaround from 3-4 to 8-4 was rewarded with an appearance in the Sun Belt Championship as the Black and Gold were the Sun Belt East Division Champions. 

While the Mountaineers fell short against the 10-2 Troy Trojans in the championship, the maturity of an inexperienced team and culmination of a locker room were seen as a success.   

“Very proud of our football team,” Clark said. “We were 3-4 in October and we went on a five-game run. It’s because kids like these, kids we recruit for our football program, believe in each other and believe in what we do.”

App State ended the season with a 13-9 victory in the Cure Bowl against Miami (OH), giving the program their seventh bowl victory and third under Clark. 

A promising future

The success of a young team brings the potential of taking another step forward the following season with several key players returning. This includes Aguilar who ranked fourth in the nation in passing touchdowns with 33, and junior wide receiver Kaedin Robinson who caught 10 touchdowns. The duo led App State to rank 25th in the nation in scoring offense. 

While 13 Mountaineers entered the transfer portal, Clark has recruited seven incoming transfers and 17 three-stars among their 19 high school commits. More transfers and high school recruits will be announced throughout the off-season. 

The Sun Belt has seen several head coaching changes including James Madison, Troy and Coastal Carolina. This leaves the Black and Gold with a prime opportunity to take advantage of inexperienced teams and build momentum off 2023 and head into 2024 as the potential Sun Belt Conference favorites. 

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About the Contributors
Chance Chamberlain
Chance Chamberlain, Associate Sports Editor
Chance Chamberlain (he/him) is a senior journalism major, media studies minor. This is his second year writing for The Appalachian.
Landon Williams, Photographer
Landon Williams (he/him) is a Junior majoring in Commercial Photography from Winston Salem, NC. This is his second year with The Appalachian. 
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