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Anderson Castle
Anderson Castle, a Watauga High School grad, ran for a career high 119 yards in the win.
photo courtesy of Appalachian State Athletics

Appalachian State Football Wins Rain Soaked Cure Bowl

Joey Aguilar took a final rain-soaked snap, went down to one knee and then sprinted toward the puddles near midfield of FBC Mortgage Stadium.

Yardage was hard to come by for both offenses during an Avocados from Mexico Cure Bowl played in a torrential downpour, but Aguilar and his teammates covered plenty of ground with their open-field runs that preceded a slip-and-slide celebration on UCF’s natural grass Saturday night.

With Aguilar passing for a hard-to-fathom 211 yards and scoring App State’s only touchdown on a 9-yard keeper in the third quarter, the Mountaineers won 13-9 over MAC champion Miami (Ohio) to close a 9-5 season.

In addition to an MVP performance from Aguilar, the Mountaineers benefited from two first-half field goals by Michael Hughes, a career-high 119 rushing yards from Anderson Castle, 118 receiving yards from Kaedin Robinson and three fumble recoveries from a defense that limited Miami to 227 total yards, including just 44 through the air.

The Mountaineers held a four-point lead when the RedHawks (11-3) gained possession from Mitchell Lake’s 53-yard punt and marched from their own 9 into App State territory in the closing minutes. Freshman outside linebacker Nate Johnson forced a fumble at the tail end of a run in which several defenders swarmed to the running back, and safety Ronald Clarke picked up the unclaimed ball before teammate EJ Jackson took possession from Clarke.

App State started its final drive at its 42 with 2:39 left, and five straight Castle runs — including gains of 10, 25 and 8 yards in the middle three — helped produce a pair of first downs to run out the clock.

Drenched head coach Shawn Clark — from both the rain and a cooler bath — raised his arms triumphantly as the Mountaineers, sitting at 3-4 overall on Oct. 21, finished the season with six wins in their final seven games and improved the program’s FBS bowl record to 7-1.

“All the credit goes to our players,” Clark said. “They came to work every single day, put extra time in in the film room, did all the extra things we had to do be successful. Very proud of everyone inside that building. They stuck together. We locked arms. We said, ‘We have the pen to our story.’ No one can dictate how this story ends except us.”

The teams combined to fumble 13 times — over an inch of rain fell during the 3-hour, 21-minute contest — but App State lost only two of its seven fumbles. And despite throwing an interception on the first play from scrimmage, Aguilar entered halftime at 147 passing yards, with Robinson making catches on eight of Aguilar’s 18 completions in the game.

Santana Hopper recorded a sack and recovered a fumble, and Nick Ross also recovered a fumble while matching Caden Sullivan with a team-high 10 tackles. Ross tied the program record by playing in his 66th career game, including his third bowl victory.

Despite the early turnover on the interception, App State’s defense held the RedHawks to a 34-yard field goal before Hughes kicked a 29-yard field goal to cap a 71-yard drive and a 22-yard field goal to close an 88-yard drive.

Aguilar completed a 52-yard pass to Robinson on App State’s first scoring drive, and Castle’s 26-yard run on a third-and-13 play from the Miami 36 followed three drive-igniting completions from Aguilar on the next scoring possession.

“The rain, it was not too much of a big factor for us,” Aguilar said. “In Boone, we practice with snow, rain, cold, wind, all in one day. The rain is just another factor for us to go outside and have fun and get wet.”

Ross and Hopper had second-quarter fumble recoveries to give App State good field position on a field that was no longer in good condition, but the RedHawks stopped fourth-and-short plays inside the Miami 20.

The intended receiver slipped on the wet grass on a fourth-and-2 pass from the 17 after Ross had recovered the ball at midfield, and the Mountaineers took over at the Miami 28 following Hopper’s recovery with 1:28 remaining in the half. The RedHawks stopped a fourth-and-1 run from the 19 with 34 seconds left and took a knee to bring a rough-and-tumble half to an end.

Miami opened the second half with a drive to App State’s 28 before Jackson stopped a fourth-and-2 run for a gain of 1 yard. Kanye Roberts had a pair of 14-yard runs leading up to a third-and-8 completion to Eli Wilson to set up Aguilar’s 9-yard touchdown run.

It took more than 40 minutes for a touchdown to be scored, and Montez Kelley’s drive-opening sack led to a three-and-out punt with App State leading 13-3, but the Mountaineers lost a fumble on the second play of their next series.

Rashad Amos’ 23-yard touchdown run on the next play cut App State’s lead to four points with 2:05 left in the third quarter, but a mishandled hold contributed to an unsuccessful extra point.

The Mountaineers maintained their slim lead the rest of the way and beat an FBS opponent with double-digit wins for the fourth time, including the second time in the last four games.

App State kept digging, even if the Mountaineers needed a snorkel to reach a ring-worthy destination to close out 2023.

“It means everything to leave out a champion,” Ross said. ” At App State, I came to compete for championships. To leave out a champion just means everything to me.”