Mountaineers come up just short in Sun Belt title game

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 5, 2021

By Brett Martel

AP Sports Writer

LAFAYETTE, La. —  Billy Napier took his time walking off of Cajun field, soaking in the celebration of a league championship, and at times wiping his eyes, after his final game as coach at Louisiana-Lafayette before he takes over the Florida Gators.

Levi Lewis scored on a career-high 56-yard run and passed for another touchdown, and No. 20 Louisiana-Lafayette defeated Appalachian State 24-16 on Saturday in the Sun Belt Conference championship game. “I feel like we’ve been chasing this thing down for a long time,” said Napier, who coached the Ragin’ Cajuns to four straight Sun Belt West Division titles.

Napier was hired by Florida last weekend, but he insisted on being able to coach for the Cajuns in their conference title game before leaving the team to move on to its bowl game without him.

“Nothing’s more important to me than doing the job for the players on this team, and you’ve got to compliment the players for their ability to focus,” Napier said. “Our team was well prepared. There’s no question. We executed our plan tonight.”

Emani Baily rushed for 117 yards, highlighted by his 35-yard touchdown run on a third-and-9 play to give the Cajuns a two-touchdown lead early in the fourth quarter.

Lewis passed for 210 yards without a turnover and finished with 43 net yards rushing as Louisiana-Lafayette (12-1, 9-0 Sun Belt) lengthened its school-record winning streak to 12 games.

Cameron Peoples ran for a 43-yard touchdown in the first half for Appalachian State (10-3, 7-2), but the Mountaineers’ offense struggled to match its usual production.

Appalachian State QB Chase Brice, who averaged 241.8 yards passing per game during the regular season, completed 12 of 30 passes for 119 yards and was sacked three times — twice by Cajuns defensive lineman Zi’Yon Hill.

The only time this season that Appalachian State scored fewer than 16 points was a 41-13 loss at Cajun Field in October. Appalachian State coach Shawn Clark noted that the Cajun defense was able to stop the run while playing two deep safeties, adding that when an opponent can do that, “it’s going to be a long day.”

But Brice scrambled for several first downs and kept the Mountaineers’ hopes alive in the fourth quarter when he rolled out on fourth-and-10 and connected over the middle with Thomas Hennigan, who slipped tacklers to get into the end zone. The Mountaineers then went for two but the Cajuns pressured Brice into an errant throw.

App State got the ball back once more at its own 35-yard line, down eight with 29 seconds left, but outside linebacker Chauncey Manac stripped Brice near mid-field and recovered the fumble to seal the victory.

“It was a great football game,” said Clark, complimenting both his own team’s effort and the Cajuns’ execution. “We just couldn’t get into the rhythm that we’re used to.”

The Mountaineers’ only losses in conference play all season came against the Ragin’ Cajuns in Lafayette. It was the third time in four years Appalachian State had played in the Sun Belt title game.