North Texas, Appalachian State kick off bowl season in Myrtle Beach

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Appalachian State is accustomed to memorable finishes.

A chance for another dramatic ending awaits the Mountaineers in the inaugural Myrtle Beach Bowl. Appalachian State will take on North Texas on Monday afternoon at Conway, S.C.

"Anytime you go to postseason play, you have a chance to play for a championship," Appalachian State coach Shawn Clark said. "A bowl game is a big deal."

The game will take place at Coastal Carolina's Brooks Stadium. Appalachian State lost a regular-season Sun Belt Conference game Nov. 21 in this location. The Mountaineers will use the visiting locker room that they're familiar with and have the potential edge of familiarity.

Appalachian State (8-3) and North Texas (4-5), which was fourth in Conference USA's West Division, meet for the first time.

"I think it's great for your program," Clark said. "It's going to be on national TV. It's a way to showcase our program and our university."

Accepting a bowl bid was always on the table for the Mountaineers, who relish the opportunity to play again and still have team members home for the Christmas holiday. This marks the sixth bowl in six seasons in which Appalachian State has been eligible for bowls since moving to this level.

"We were full 'go' the whole time," Clark said. "It's a way to send our seniors out on the right note."

It won't be the normal bowl experience. The team is spending only two nights on the road for this trip.

North Texas is no stranger to bowl games, claiming a postseason spot for the fourth time in five seasons under coach Seth Littrell. Overall, it's the Mean Green's 12th bowl and ninth in a 20-year period.

"Through all the uncertainty that we've had all season, I'm happy that we are able to continue our season for one more game and we are extremely excited for the opportunity to play in the Myrtle Beach Bowl," Littrell said.

"This has been a challenging year for sure, but we've tried to stay focused on the things that we can control, and the resiliency of this team has been outstanding. To have a chance at a bowl game to finish the season is validation for this team and I'm extremely proud of them."

The Mountaineers are 5-0 all-time in bowls, though recent outings came as league champions. Like the past two years in the New Orleans Bowl, Appalachian State takes on a Conference USA opponent again in the postseason.

The game comes just nine days after the Mountaineers concluded the regular season by winning 34-26 at Georgia Southern.

"It's the first game this year we came out healthy, which was nice," Clark said.

Appalachian State was second in the Sun Belt's East Division this year after holding at least a share of the league title the past four years.

North Texas won three of its final five regular-season games, including a 45-43 decision Dec. 11 against UTEP with Austin Aune throwing five touchdown passes. Four of those were caught by Jaelon Darden.

Darden, a senior receiver, leads the Mean Green in career receptions (230), receiving touchdowns (38), receiving yards (2,782) and single-season touchdown catches (19).

"Statistics don't really mean nothing to me, but I just want my coaches and teammates to look at me and say, 'He was a great player and gave everything he had,'" Darden said. "That's how I want to leave my legacy here more than anything."

Littrell said: "He deserves (the records and recognition) because of the amount of work he puts in. If you've been around him, you know he's a special player but what makes him special is what he does off the field when no one else is around just working out."

Clark made his head-coaching debut in Appalachian State's 2019 bowl game after Eli Drinkwitz departed to take the Missouri job.

"It has been a very challenging year," Clark said, noting the impact of playing during a pandemic. "We had no game plan for it."

The Mountaineers have seasoned veterans with receiver Thomas Hennigan, center Noah Hannon and offensive lineman Victor Johnson all with at least 50 career starts. Quarterback Zac Thomas is 31-6 as a starter, giving him the second-most victories among active quarterbacks in the Football Bowl Subdivision behind Clemson's Trevor Lawrence (going into 32 the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game). On defense, senior safety Kaiden Smith of Appalachian State is coming off a performance with a career-high 12 tackles at Georgia Southern.

Going into games of Dec. 19, the Mountaineers' three defeats this year came against teams holding a combined 27-2 record.

--Field Level Media