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Joey Aguilar
Joey Aguilar completed 28 of his 39 passes for 275 yards.
photo courtesy of Appalachian State Athletics

Appalachian State Football Falls in Sun Belt Championship

App State’s inspired run to an East Division title gave way to a hard-fought defeat in the Sun Belt Championship Game on Saturday, as host Troy pulled away in the second half to claim a 49-23 victory in rain-soaked Veterans Memorial Stadium.

The Mountaineers (8-5) overcame a 14-0 deficit to tie the score early in the third quarter and had possession near midfield while trailing 21-17 entering the fourth. Two touchdowns six seconds apart from Troy (11-2), with a defensive fumble return off a sack immediately following a run-heavy touchdown drive from the Trojans’ offense, produced an 18-point margin.

App State was making its fourth Sun Belt Championship appearance in the sixth year of the game, including the second time in the last three seasons for head coach Shawn Clark. The only other FBS programs in the country with four conference championship game appearances in the last six seasons are Alabama, Boise State, Clemson, Georgia, Oregon and Utah.

On Sunday, App State will learn where it goes and who it faces for its eighth bowl appearance at the FBS level.

Kanye Roberts rushed for two touchdowns, and Joey Aguilar completed 28 of his 39 passes for 275 yards while increasing his season total to a school-record 3,546 passing yards. Santana Hopper’s first-quarter sack highlighted a defensive-minded start to the title game, but Troy’s running game found its footing as the night progressed.

Kimani Vidal was named the game’s MVP after rushing for 233 yards and five touchdowns.

Neither team scored until Vidal reached the end zone on a 7-yard run with 5:33 left in the first half. The Mountaineers used only 50 seconds on a three-and-out series before the Trojans extended their lead on a four-play, 55-yard drive that ended with Vidal’s 36-yard touchdown run.

Trailing 14-0 with 3:15 left in the half, App State had a critical answer, helped by Nate Noel’s second-and-10 run for 16 yards and Aguilar’s 40-yard pass to Dalton Stroman to move the ball inside Troy’s 19.

Noel’s fourth-and-1 carry for 2 yards to the 8 and his 7-yard reception on the next play set up Roberts’ 1-yard touchdown run with 39 seconds remaining before halftime. Roberts was initially ruled down short of the end zone, but the call was changed to a touchdown following an on-field review.

Receiving to start the second half, the Mountaineers withstood a late-half threat from Troy’s offense and marched 82 yards on 11 plays to begin the third quarter. Roberts gained 44 yards on his five rushing attempts during that possession, gaining 19 yards immediately before he reached the end zone for the second time on a 6-yard carry.

Less than two minutes later, Troy regained the lead on Chris Lewis’ 51-yard touchdown reception that was aided by a cornerback who slipped on the wet turf at the time of the catch. Just like it did after scoring for the first time in the previous half, the Trojans forced a three-and-out punt with a seven-point lead, but Milan Tucker recovered the muffed kick deep in Troy territory. Michael Hughes’ 41-yard field goal cut the deficit to 21-17.

App State faced a fourth-and-1 scenario from its own 48 to begin the fourth quarter, but a false start coming out of the break triggered a punt. Troy responded by driving 81 yards in 10 plays, as Damian Taylor rushed four straight times for 28 yards before Vidal runs on each of the next six plays netted 53 yards, including 2 on the touchdown that gave the Trojans a 28-17 lead with 10:57 remaining.

Troy took control by scoring a defensive touchdown on the first play of App State’s next possession. Don Callis blitzed off the end, knocked the ball out of Aguilar’s hand before a pass attempt, secured the bouncing ball at the 10-yard line and cruised into the end zone.

The Mountaineers weren’t finished, as Aguilar drove App State’s offense down the field and nearly scored on a short keeper at the goal line. He lost control of the ball right before breaking the plane, but tight end Eli Wilson recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchdown.

An unsuccessful two-point try left the score at 35-23 with 5:34 remaining, and Vidal scored an insurance touchdown after the Trojans recovered an onside kick. He added another score in the closing minutes, setting the stage for a celebration in front of their home crowd.