TROY, Ala. — No. 25 Appalachian State wanted to start fast against Troy. Coach Eli Drinkwitz even said the Mountaineers hoped to “send a message that we were here to play” during Friday night’s 48-13 victory.
Earlier this week, App State (11-1, 7-1 Sun Belt) dropped one spot in the College Football Playoff rankings. They fell behind No. 24 Virginia Tech and further behind some of their Group-of-Five counterparts. As of Friday night, the Hokies had lost. So had No. 19 Cincinnati, a G5 team that had been ranked ahead of Appalachian all season.
When asked if the message was directed to the CFP committee at all, Drinkwitz made it pretty clear.
“We can only control what we can control. So if 34 wasn’t enough, hopefully 48 was,” said the coach, referencing the point total App State scored against Texas State last week.
App State penned its reminder by piecing together one of its more explosive games of the season. The Mountaineers defense had four sacks but kept a steady presence in Troy’s pocket all game. They broke up 10 passes, combined with a Des Franklin interception, to double Troy quarterback Kaleb Barker’s discomfort.
But the two players who illustrated just how much was going right for App State were Zac Thomas and Thomas Hennigan.
The former, App State’s starting quarterback the last two seasons and an Alabama native, went 28-of-34 passing with 326 yards — career highs for completions and passing yards — and four touchdown. The latter, a three-year starter at wide receiver, set career highs in both receptions (11) and yards (140).
Hennigan blew by his career marks roughly four minutes into the second quarter. And he was a steady driving force as the offense scored on its first five possessions.
“I’ve had a couple of big games in my career, but I think I’ve proved to a lot people tonight that I can be that every down receiver and be a guy that you can always go to in an offense,” Hennigan said.
On the Mountaineers opening drive, Thomas went to Hennigan on back-to-back plays before uncorking a 44-yard touchdown pass to Jalen Virgil. The following drive, Thomas went back to Hennigan twice more, moving the offense down the field before Darrynton Evans took off for a 52-yard rushing touchdown.
App State went to Hennigan 10 times during the Mountaineers first four possessions, including a play where he ran alongside Thomas in the option.
“That’s what kind of excites me the most. . . getting a carry, get a tackle on the interception,” Hennigan said, recalling an App State turnover just before halftime. “I’ll do whatever this team needs me to do if it means getting a championship back to Boone.”
The Mountaineers did that by jumping out early and taking shots. Thomas mentioned that the team hoped to “open some eyes.” Hennigan added that converting on some of those early shots helped Thomas lock in and, in turn, the whole offense.
“I think he enjoyed kind of coming out with this game plan and throwing the ball and being aggressive in the passing game,” Hennigan said of Thomas. “That’s one thing — maybe Chapel Hill and a couple other games — where we did that early.
"So you know it’s just like any position, any time you get on a role early, it’s just going to add to your momentum.”
Thomas said he didn’t expect to throw toward Hennigan so often Friday night. But more often than not, Hennigan was his first read. And more often than not, Thomas said, Hennigan was open.
The wide receiver was a major component of the scoring drives. He helped to open up his other teammates like Virgil (who had five catches and 95 yards) and Malik Williams (who had six receptions, 42 yards and two touchdowns). Hennigan's performance rang louder due to the season-ending injury to Corey Sutton the week previous. But it's not like Hennigan's impact, Thomas said, ever needs the spotlight.
“Honestly, I think he just accepts his role,” Thomas said. “He knows he’s a big-time player. He knows he makes those big time catches.
“If the touchdowns come, they come. If they’re not, they’re not. I mean, on third down, we probably going to go to him. He’s going to make the catch, contested or not contested.”
App State now plays host to Louisiana for the Sun Belt title game on Dec. 7. It will be the third matchup of the two teams in essentially the last calendar year. It’ll be the last chance for the Mountaineers to send a message of any kind before bowl season.
Hennigan was more coy when asked about the CFP committee. But the Mountaineers clearly made their point on the field.
“I mean, nobody’s perfect. Those guys, they look at a lot of things when they do those rankings,” Hennigan said. “And they saw something that one team had over us. Obviously that team lost today.
“But you know, it’s not our job to do the rankings. It’s our job to go out there and play and execute. For me, my mindset was getting out there and making sure we got the championship in Boone next Saturday and let the records take care of themselves.”