WKU invites Appalachian State to shootout at Boca Raton Bowl

Field Level Media

December 15, 2021 at 7:42 am.

A clash of styles stands as a key plot line in Boca Raton Bowl on Saturday.

Appalachian State, which holds impressive defensive numbers, takes on offensive juggernaut Western Kentucky in Boca Raton, Fla., as bowl season gets underway this weekend.

It’s a chance to finish the season on a high note — and perhaps bag a few records — after disappointing ends to the regular season.

Both teams lost in conference championship games to wind up in Florida.

Western Kentucky fell 49-41 to UTSA in the Conference USA title, while Appalachian State dropped a 24-16 decision to Louisiana in the Sun Belt Conference final.

“We’ll try to win 11 games this year,” Appalachian State coach Shawn Clark said. “Get ready for the bowl game and finish this season out the right way.”

Appalachian State (10-3) ranks second nationally with 109 tackles for loss. That unit will be challenged by Western Kentucky (8-5).

It has been a season of ups and downs for the Hilltoppers, who followed a four-game losing streak by winning seven straight prior to the defeat in the conference title game.

“No matter what happens, I’m going to look back on this season and be really proud of these men,” Hilltoppers coach Tyson Helton said.

Two of the top active receivers in the Football Bowl Subdivision will be on the field. Western Kentucky’s Jerreth Sterns ranks first with 357 career receptions and Appalachian State’s Thomas Hennigan is third with 237. Sterns, a transfer from Houston Baptist, is a second-team All-American.

The Hilltoppers are pass-happy, with quarterback Bailey Zappe leading the country with 5,545 passing yards and 56 touchdown throws. That puts him 289 passing yards and five TD tosses away from setting single-season FBS records.

“That’s a good combination. That’s a great duo,” Helton said of Zappe and Sterns. “A very talented group of guys (on offense), not only Bailey and Jerreth, it’s a lot of other targets like a Mitchell Tinsley, Malachi Corley and a Daewood Davis.”

Zappe, a graduate transfer from Houston Baptist, was selected Conference USA’s Most Valuable Player.

Appalachian State will look to slow down the Hilltoppers with players such as linebacker D’Marco Jackson, the Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year.

On offense for the Mountaineers, Hennigan should extend his FBS record of career starts to 65. Camerun Peoples has a Sun Belt-leading 14 rushing touchdowns.

But more important, this might be Peoples’ best time of the year. Last season, he set an NCAA bowl record with 317 rushing yards in the New Orleans Bowl against North Texas in the Myrtle Beach Bowl. He also tied the all-time bowl record with five touchdowns. However, Appalachian State’s leading rusher this year is Nate Noel with 1,076 yards.

Appalachian State is 6-0 all-time in bowls. No other program with more than two appearances has an unblemished bowl record.

This marks Western Kentucky’s eighth bowl in a 10-season span. The Hilltoppers are 4-3 in bowls.

Appalachian State has defeated four bowl-bound teams (Coastal Carolina, East Carolina Georgia State, Marshall) this season.

“I’m very proud of our program and proud of where we are,” Clark said.

Appalachian State’s first trip to Florida this season resulted in a 25-23 loss at Miami in September.

Appalachian State is 4-1 against Western Kentucky, though the teams haven’t met since the 2000 Division I-AA playoffs, when the Mountaineers won.

Sun Belt teams are 10-3 in bowl games vs. Conference USA teams since 2012.