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Rock Bottom To Mountain High - How App State Became The Sun Belt's Most Feared Team In Six Weeks

When Taylor Lamb's pass was intercepted in the end zone by a Liberty defender back on October 11th, it sunk Appalachian State to a new low. The loss sunk the Mountaineers to 1-5 in their inaugural FBS campaign, and it seemed like more losses were to come.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

For many App fans, that Liberty loss pushed them over the edge. Message boards filled with people calling for the jobs of 5-13 head coach Scott Satterfield and his staff. After not having a losing season in 20 years, App State looked destined for two in a row.

Satterfield, a former App offensive Coordinator and QB, took over the reins from Jerry Moore December 2012. In March 2013, the school announced a move to the Sun Belt and FBS for the 2014 season. Then it all went horribly wrong.

Early home losses to North Carolina A&T and Charleston Southern derailed the final FCS season. Senior QB Jamal Londry-Jackson never fully recovered from off-season knee surgery and was benched mid-way through the season for Sophomore Kam Bryant. Despite winning three of their final five games, the team finished 4-8.

Nearly the entire staff came back the following year and they brought in one of the top Sun Belt recruiting classes, but the question remained if Satterfield could win games. Predictions for 2014 were all over the place as no one could tell how the team would react to the inaugural FBS schedule.

After a season-opening blowout loss to Michigan and a home win over Campbell, the Apps saw their first true test in a trip to Southern Miss.

Satterfield pulled a shocker, benching Bryant in favor of freshman Taylor Lamb. Bryant had been the unquestioned starter going into the season, but performed poorly at Michigan. The two split snaps versus Campbell, and while Lamb looked like the better passer, Bryant still looked like the starter.

Versus the Golden Eagles, Lamb played admirably. Despite winning the statistical battles, special teams did in the Apps. Kicker Zach Matics missed three field goals (one blocked) and after pulling within 21-20 with six seconds left, the ensuing extra point was blocked, giving Southern Miss the victory.

Five days later on a Thursday night, the Apps walked into the hostile environment of their most hated rivals, Georgia Southern. The Eagles had updated their option rushing attack under new coach Willie Fritz and the Apps had trouble containing it. Down 24-14 in the third quarter, Lamb led a drive into the red zone, but on a 4th down, Satterfield elected to go for it with the kicking situation a hot mess.

Lamb's option keeper was sniffed out and the ball turned over. A partially-blocked punt gave the Apps another red zone chance, but Lamb quickly threw a goal line interception. It was the last time the Apps threatened as the Eagles won 34-14.

Another kicking game blow was dealt as Matics was injured, forcing Punter Bentlee Critcher to handle kicks as well. WR Simms McElfresh was made the new place kick holder, the third player in three games to be in that role after starter Logan Hallock tore his ACL against Campbell, and Critcher was promoted.

October would bring App State's first Sun Belt home game against South Alabama. On a frigid night in Boone, the Jaguars used their senior-laden stars to jump out 20-0 in route to a 47-20 victory. The Apps had trouble containing USA's physical style of play, and fans feared most of the Sun Belt would do much of the same.

The following week would be the Homecoming loss to FCS Liberty. The loss pushed the team to 1-5 and App State seemed destined for another losing season. While the offense had made great strides, the defense was ineffective and giving up long pass plays and being gashed on the ground late.

Next was a trip to Troy, and while the Trojans had struggled themselves, the announcement of Larry Blakeney's retirement galvanized the team against a hapless Mountaineer squad. Troy marched the opening drive down the field for a score, and it seemed like a long afternoon was in store for the Apps. However the first offensive play for App State resulted in a touchdown pass from Lamb to Malachi Jones. After that, it was all Apps.

The defense was more aggressive than ever, blitzing the QB in many different ways. DC Nate Woody's 3-4 was missing the right personnel during 2013 and had gotten worse in the first half of 2014. In the Liberty game, senior linebacker Brandon McGowan went down for the year, and freshman Eric Boggs has performed beyond what anyone expected in his place.

Freshman OLB Devan Stringer also established himself and Latrell Gibbs ,who had two picks versus Troy, has become a starter in the secondary. Youth had been served on the defensive side of the ball, and the 53-14 victory over Troy was a pleasant surprise. Pessimism remained, but App State could feel good for one weekend.

Another surprise was the establishment of a ground game. Marcux Cox had played well in his sophomore campaign, but many assumed his role would become less prominent as the passing game became better established. But Cox excelled once Tight End Drew Bailey was moved to his new role at fullback.

The offensive line experienced constant-change for the first month of the season, but Offensive Line Coach Dwayne Ledford finally found that right mix against Troy, starting some younger players like Beau Nunn, Colby Gossett, and Parker Collins over established upperclassmen.

After a bye week, the Mountaineers returned to Boone to face hapless Georgia State. In windy and snowy conditions, the Mountaineers broke the Panthers' spirit quickly and rolled to a 44-0 victory. The game was punctuated late in the first half when, after lining up for a field goal, Georgia State called all three timeouts to ice the kicker.

After the third one, App State faked the field goal and McElfresh took the snap in for an easy touchdown and a 27-0 halftime lead. Interim AD Rick Beasley, who played for App State in the late 70's, said it was the first fake field goal he's ever seen at App State.

The Panthers had an FBS-low 64 total yards of offense on the day while the Apps had 567, including 469 on the ground. The win continued to build momentum and confidence for the young App State team facing a test against UL-Monroe.

Against a team renowned for getting after the QB, the Apps didn't allow a single sack while getting six of their own. App State went down 20-7 in the second quarter, but quickly scored two touchdowns to take a 21-20 lead into the break, partially due to this ridiculous catch by Meadors. The second half was a defensive slugfest until ULM scored to take a 29-28 lead with 1:42 left. The Apps then marched down field, allowing Critcher to make the 39-yard field goal for a 31-29 victory and a three-game win streak.

After a bevy of close losses in 2013, and losses to Southern Miss and Liberty, Satterfield's first close win exorcised some demons for the Mountaineers. It was the Apps' first-ever win versus a team from the state of Louisiana, and more importantly, moved the team to 4-5 and made a winning season a possibility. But App State would soon face the buzzsaw of their schedule.

First up was a road trip to three-time defending Sun Belt Champs, Arkansas State. Again, the Apps went down early, this time 20-6 in the second quarter, but then something special happened. App State took the game over against a team that was bigger and more experienced. The defense got through, making sacks and key tackles. The offensive line plowed the road for Cox, and Lamb made timely throws.

From mid-way through the second to just over four minutes left in the game, the Apps out-gained the Red Wolves 400-43 and went up 37-20. That included Cox fumbling into the end zone late in the second quarter. Arkansas State fought back late with two quick scores, but couldn't complete the comeback. App State pulled the upset 37-32, and were 5-5.

The future was bright, but the second-half of the buzzsaw loomed. UL Lafayette had shared the Sun Belt title with Arkansas State last season,  were undefeated in league play, and on a six-game win streak. It was Senior Day for the Cajuns, and they rarely lost at home.

With an early punt return for a touchdown, solid punts by Critcher (who didn't have to worry about kickoffs due to Matics return) and a commitment to the ground game, App State pulled off a 35-16 statement win. The usually physical Cajuns were gauged over and over. Many thought App State would have to air it out to have a chance, but Satterfield stuck to the ground game. For an offensive line that had been maligned for the last three-plus years, the turnaround was solidified by pushing the bigger Cajuns players around.

Until the Cajun game, there were excuses for App State's opponents. Troy and Georgia State were lackluster, ULM was in a down year, and Arkansas State had too many injuries. But the win over UL-Lafayette in Cajun Country made it official.

App State is the most dangerous team in the Sun Belt right now.

It's too late for a conference championship, which Georgia Southern can claim sole ownership of with a win over ULM. A 6-5 record was expected by some, but no one could have guessed the manner in which it would happen.

The last game of the year is a home contest versus 1-9 Idaho. The Vandals bring a solid passing attack, but App State will be double-digit favorites. Fans will expect a win and anything less than a blowout will bring criticism, but it's a lot better than a losing streak.

With only handful of senior contributors graduating, most of the squad will return for the 2015 season. App State will be in contention for the 2015 Sun Belt title and expected to attend their first FBS bowl. And to think, six weeks ago most Mountaineers fans were just hoping for one win.