Penn State survives Mountaineer near-miracle upset, 45-38

Penn State survives Mountaineer near-miracle upset, 45-38
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cwhjpIn a split second, the ball was wrested from the hands of Sutton to Oruwanye and a Penn State win. Photographic image by Braxton Critcher for Blowing Rock News.

By David Rogers. September 1, 2018. STATE COLLEGE, PA – Great football plays can occur in a split second.

In a split second on Saturday at Beaver Stadium, Penn State cornerback Amani Oruwanye snatched victory from the clutches of Appalachian State wide receiver Corey Sutton to thwart a game-tying touchdown, in overtime, to preserve a season-opening win for the ninth-ranked Nittany Lions, 45-38.

COVER IMAGE: Penn state cornerback Amani Oruwanye goes high to wrestle the ball from the grasp of App State wide receiver Corey Sutton to preserve the Penn State victory. Photographic image by Braxton Critcher for Blowing Rock News

The outcome was not what the bookies in Las Vegas and Atlantic City scripted for App State’s historic visit to what clever Mountaineer marketers had renamed, “Appy Valley.” Going into the non-conference contest as at least three-touchdown underdogs, Appalachian nearly turned back the clock. More than one sports reporter in the crowded press box recalled that it was just 11 years ago to the day, on September 1, 2007, that the Mountaineers upset then 5th-ranked Michigan, 34-32 in Ann Arbor’s historic Big House.

Make no mistake: the Mountaineers were in Appy Valley to win.

App State is no stranger to upset disappointment. Last year they were a couple of mistakes shy of beating eventual Belk Bowl champion, Wake Forest. Two years ago, the Mountaineers lost in overtime to Tennessee. But as frustrating losses go, Saturday’s may go down in the history of App State sports as one of the most frustrating, even as the team rejoices in the realization that they have surely arrived in the big leagues of college football.

McSorley showed his athleticism early and often in leading the Nittany Lions. Photographic image by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News

At the start, the App State positives were not readily apparent. Thanks in part to a “gift” from the visiting Mountaineers (an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on 4th-and-1 back at the PSU 34 yard line), the Nittany Lions’ star quarterback and one of the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy by season’s end, Trace McSorley marched the PSU offense on a decisive seven-play, 75-yard TD-scoring drive.  The series was capped by the graduate senior calling his own number to get the ball into paydirt with a 12-yard rush.

Answers to Question Must Wait

Among the 105,232 fans in Beaver Stadium was a relatively small, but enthusiastic contingent supporting App State. Most were in the “nosebleed” section above a corner of the north end zone, but there were also an estimated 100 lucky Mountaineer fans just behind the Appalachian bench. These diehard supporters hoped for another historic App State gridiron performance and anxiously awaited the moment when new quarterback Zac Thomas would lead his offensive unit onto the field.

Could the Mountaineers respond? Questions abounded, including how would Thomas, the largely untested sophomore from Trussville, Alabama measure up to the speed of not just an FBS contest, but to face a much-heralded Power 5 opponent at that. He threw a total of 10 passes in 2017 as a backup to 4-year starter Taylor Lamb, completing six of them, but mostly in mop-up duty against second and third teamers at Georgia in the 2017 season opener.

On his kickoff return, Darrynton Evans’ (3) eyes grow wide upon seeing a hole develop in the Penn State return coverage and he is off to the races. Photographic image by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News

But redshirt sophomore running back Darrynton Evans had other ideas about how the Mountaineers would respond.  Before Thomas & Co. could take the field, Evans collected the kickoff at his own goal line, started upfield, eyes scanning for an opening. He found it just outside the right hashmarks, burst through a mass of blue-and-white defenders, cut left into space, then outran everyone to the far sideline and into the PSU end zone for the in-your-face TD. Sophomore placekicker Chandler Staton’s PAT kick was good, evening the score at 7-7.

Evans recalled for reporters later, “I saw the hole open up and thought, ‘Are you kidding me?'”

Make no mistake, Nittany Lions. App State did not travel the 500+ miles just for the million-dollar-plus payday. The Mountaineers were in Appy Valley to win.

Evans’ backatcha TD sprint energized the entire App State team. As if they also wanted to see what Thomas and the offense could do, too, the Mountaineer defense stuffed McSorley and the Penn State offense on the next possession, holding their hosts to just one yard gained for the series, a three-and-out.

The Nittany Lions’ punter, Blake Gillikin, did his part for the Happy Valley hosts with a booming, 55-yard punt that was downed at the ASU 19-yard line. And that was where Thomas would begin his college football career as a starter for Appalachian State.

Thomas did not disappoint.

Corey Sutton (2) returns to the App State sideline in disbelief that Oruwanye snatched the TD catch away from him. Photographic image by Braxton Critcher for Blowing Rock News.

He did not disappoint. Behind a reconstructed offensive line that lost NFL-caliber talent to graduation, Thomas engineered a 12-play, 60-yard drive that ended with Chandler Staton’s 38-yard field goal.

The oddsmakers in Las Vegas and Atlantic City probably were looking in the mirror, red-faced. Here was their three, maybe four-touchdown underdog leading the legendary Nittany Lions, 10-7, and more than four minutes still remained in the first quarter.

The rest of the first half settled into a defensive dogfight, with little in the way of offensive excitement.  Fittingly, this even-Steven affair was knotted at intermission, 10-10, after McSorley managed a long drive that culminated with a 32-yard FG by placekicker Jake Pinegar with 12 seconds remaining in the half.

Certainly, it was at least already a moral victory for the upstart Mountaineers, having gone toe-to-toe with the Big 10 Conference and nationally ranked Penn State on their own turf for the season opener’s first half.

While Penn State cornerback Jabari Butler smiles broadly at the outcome, ASU offensive lineman Chandler Greer (78) and Sutton (2) can’t help but show their chagrin. Photographic image by Braxton Critcher for Blowing Rock News.

At halftime, despite the tie score, things still seemed to favor the Nittany Lions, at least statistically. PSU had 160 yards of total offense vs. 97 yards for ASU.  What was regarded as the Mountaineers’ chief offensive threat, senior running back Jalin Moore, was all but throttled back in the opening half. The highly regarded senior RB gained just 22 net yards rushing on seven carries and picked up only 12 yards on two passing plays. Longtime press box wags were saying, “You are unlikely to win against a team like Penn State with just one special teams play like Evans’ kickoff return.”

And it appeared they would be right. Somebody lit a fire under both blue-and-white units while buckets of popcorn were being refilled and hot dogs were filling the fan gullets in the grandstands.  On Appalachian’s first two offensive drives of the second half, the Penn State defense stopped the Mountaineers and forced punts. Meanwhile, McSorley & Co. appeared to have figured some things out about the App State defense, orchestrating TD drives of 8-plays, 65 yards and 8-plays, 72 yards.

By the end of the third quarter, App State faced a 14-point deficit, 24-10, and momentum was on the Nittany Lions’ side. And it did not help that the young Mountaineer roster served up 30 “free” yards to PSU in the form of three penalties, just in the third stanza.

The Las Vegas and Atlantic City oddsmakers looked in the mirror, red-faced.

But this roller coaster of a football game was just beginning and the Mountaineer inspiration came from an unlikely source.

Continuing an App State offensive possession that started on the ASU 25 with 2:41 left in the third quarter, Thomas completed 4-of-6 passes to spark a continuation of the series into the 4th quarter and get the ball to the PSU 39.  Then, after scrambling 15 yards up the middle, Thomas was hit hard at the Penn State 24-yard line. With Thomas laying prostrate on the ground, App State medical trainers and coaches rushed onto the field.

What many among the crowd thought might be helmet-to-helmet contact by the second Penn State tackler was actually a clean hit that simply knocked the wind out of Thomas. Of course, no one really knew it at the time, as Thomas was helped from the field. Many in the press box and likely in the stands were thinking he would not return, having to go into concussion protocol.

At one point in the first half with the Mountaineers leading, 38-31 and little time remaining, buzzards circled in the sky above Beaver Stadium. Photographic image by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News

Any App State hopes for a rally seemed to be limping off the field at that very moment. Curious reporters in the press box leafed through their media guides for a Mountaineer depth chart to see who would likely be taking Thomas’ place on the field.  A majority of the Appalachian press corps assumed it would be sophomore QB Jacob Huesman.

Instead, it was redshirt freshman Peyton Derrick, a Conway, SC native who was much heralded as a prep player that took the field, presumably to hand the ball off to running back Jalin Moore.

So imagine everyone’s surprise when the 6-2, 180 lb. QB took his first college career snap, calmly stepped back in the pocket, and laid a perfectly thrown aerial into the hands of wide receiver Dominique Heath, a graduate transfer from Kansas State, angling for the left sideline for a 22-yard gain, to the PSU 2-yard line.

This roller coaster of a game was just beginning.

After App State was penalized 15 yards for an illegal block, the Mountaineer QB lofted a perfect spiral into the hands of sophomore wide receiver Malik Williams for a TD….But wait, that wasn’t Derrick throwing the ball, but Thomas.  He had shaken off any injury and returned to the field for the TD toss.

Some in the Penn State student section looked worried, praying that their Nittany Lions could dig out a win. Photographic image by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News

Maybe App State could craft a miracle 4th quarter after all.

But when Penn State responded with a 75-yard TD-scoring drive in just six plays to take the Nittany Lions’ advantage back to 14 points with only 11:12 remaining, it didn’t look meant to be.

Thomas and the App State offense, of course, had other ideas. Starting from the APP 20, the High Country’s favorite sons deftly picked apart the Nittany Lion defense, going the 80 yards in nine plays – but also taking 3:33 off the clock in the process.  With the score at 31-24 in favor of Penn State and 7:39 remaining, could the Mountaineer defense stop McSorley quickly enough to give Thomas and the App State offense enough time for another shot?

They didn’t need to. App State head coach Scott Satterfield told reporters after the game that they spent a lot of time during special teams practice focused on onside kicks. Pulling it out of the playbook at this moment in the game meant either an opportunity to tie the game if successful, or a probable loss if it didn’t work because it would give the Nittany Lions’ offense a short field.

Well, it worked. Junior placekicker Michael Rubino’s 12-yard scrubber was recovered at the APP47 by senior defensive back Austin Exford.

Getting the ball with 7:39 left on the clock, Thomas made short work of the 53 yards, covering the distance in just four plays, including 13- and 39-yard passes to Heath and Sutton, respectively, before finishing the job with a one-yard scramble into the end zone on a keeper up the middle.

Suddenly, the 14-yard deficit had evaporated and the here were the upstart Mountaineers tied with the late Joe Pa’s beloved Nittany Lions, at 31 apiece.

Two things happened to extend the Mountaineers’ hopes for a miracle finish.

Deep in his own territory, McSorley (9) goes to work. Photographic image by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News

An energized Mountaineer defense channeled the roar of the crowd to hold PSU’s response to a three-and-out. With 5:19 remaining, another App State miracle was being crafted, 11 years to the day after the miraculous in Michigan.

Penn State’s defense also proved up to the task, though, holding App State to a three-and-out of its own. The Nittany Lions’ offense was going to get the ball back. It would be up to McSorley to lead PSU’s charge and with just under four minutes remaining, it looked unlikely that the visitors from Boone would get the ball back with enough time to do anything special.

Never Say Never Again

Two things happened, though, to extend hopes for a Mountaineer miracle.  First, redshirt freshman punter Clayton Howell pounded the ball downfield, stopped by the App State special teams at the Penn State 4-yard line.  PSU’s McSorley would start the next possession in a proverbial hole, deep in his own territory.

Second, the Appalachian defense smelled blood, stopping Sanders for just a 2-yard gain on first down before forcing McSorley to hurl two incomplete passes. From his own end zone, PSU’s Gillikin could only manage a 36-yard punt, with APP’s sophomore wide receiver Thomas Hennigan calling for a fair catch at the PSU 42.

This game was going into overtime.

A short field in front of them, Appalachian’s brain trust put the ball in the capable hands of senior running back Moore. Thomas completed a pass to Moore for eight yards. Then Moore carried the ball for 10-, 8-, and a finally a punishing 16 yards to the end zone as he escaped the clutches of would-be tacklers and danced along the sidelines. With Staton’s successful PAT, the miracle looked imminent. App State led 38-31, and there was just 1:39 remaining for Penn State to recover.

The Nittany Lion cause looked especially improbable when kick return specialist KJ Hamler bobbled Rubino’s kickoff just behind the goal line and hesitated about a return before venturing out with a horde of Mountaineers bearing down on him.  However, after spinning out of the grasp of two App State defenders, the sophomore wide receiver from Pontiac, Michigan found space along the right side and sprinted upfield 52 yards before being forced out of bounds by the Mountaineers’ redshirt freshman linebacker, D’Marco Jackson.

Evans gets some attention on the sideline. Photographic image by Braxton Critcher for Blowing Rock News

With just 1:39 remaining, McSorley made good on his side’s short field opportunity, requiring just 57 seconds and seven plays to go the 48 yards, completing the scoring drive with a 15-yard TD toss to Hamler up the middle in the end zone. Pinegar’s PAT attempt was good, and this thrill-a-minute fourth quarter saw the score again tied, 38-38, with 42 seconds remaining.

Appalachian still had a chance, though, to win the day in regulation. Highlighted by a 30-yard Thomas-to-Sutton pass on the next possession’s first play from scrimmage, taking the ball to the PSU 45, it looked like the Mountaineers might just have enough juice left to at least kick a winning field goal. But the Penn State defense stiffened and after the two teams traded timeouts, Staton’s 56-yard field goal attempt appeared long enough, but fluttered wide right as the Nittany Lions’ fans in the south end zone stands roared in relief.

McSorley & Co. would start in a proverbial hole, backs to their own end zone.

Jalin Moore (25) fights off a defender en route to the TD that put App State ahead, 38-31. Photographic image by Braxton Critcher for Blowing Rock News

This game was going into overtime.

Good Things Come In Fours?

Penn State won the coin toss and had the first offensive possession. Declining to do anything fancy, PSU head coach James Franklin and his staff simply gave the ball to running back Sanders, who pounded the ball into the end zone with four running plays of 4-, 13-, 4-, and 4-yards. The Nittany Lions had retaken the lead, 45-38, but Appalachian still had a shot from the attacking 25-yard-line to match their hosts and extend the overtime period.

Two rushes by Moore gained seven yards, then it took two carries by Evans to make the first down, the final one-yard gain a stretching effort that was subjected to a video replay and left to stand as called: a first down. Then from the 15, Thomas passed to the right side of the end zone, aiming for the waiting Sutton. For an instant, it was in the grasp of the leaping K-State transfer, but in that aforementioned split second, it was wrested away in mid-air by Oruwanye to preserve the Penn State win.

Afterwards, a clearly relieved McSorley faced reporters and had high praise for the Mountaineers defense.

“I think in college football anybody can beat anybody,” the senior QB offered in response to a reporter’s question about expectations going into the game. “(On) any given day if you’re not ready to go or not covering the details, you could end up losing. Appalachian State is a great team and over the last couple of years they are one of the most winningest programs in all of college football. I mean look at what they’ve done. They’re accustomed to winning and that’s what they do. They’re a great team and they have great players over there. I guess good teams like that are accustomed to winning and know how to take advantage of mistakes. If you’re not on top of all your details, they can sometimes take advantage of that. They did a great job but as far as what we talked about (regarding) college football, you have to come ready to play.”

In college football, anybody can beat anybody.

Thomas (12) opened the game 6-of-6 through the air. Photographic image by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News

Penn State head coach James Franklin was especially gracious in acknowledging the test that Appalachian State brought to Happy Valley for his Nittany Lions.

“First thing I want to do, obviously, is to give App State all the credit in the world. I don’t know what’s in the water in Boone, North Carolina, but it seems like they’ve been doing this for a long time to whoever they play. It’s hard talking to a coach after a game like that. I just told (Satterfield), I know you don’t want to hear this right now, but you guys do an unbelievable job.

“So, first and foremost,” Franklin repeated, “I want to give App State all the credit in the world. They do a great job. I think they had a really good plan today. I started the game at 46 years old and I ended it at 51…We just won a great football game against a tough opponent.”

In opening his post-game remarks, Satterfield told a crowded visitors media room, “First of all, you have to give credit to coach [James] Franklin and his football team, Penn State. Obviously, we have a tremendous amount of respect for his team, his staff, and what they’ve been able to build here. Double-digit wins the past two years and worthy of a top-ten ranking this year.

Would your team fold? Would they lay down whenever adversity hits?

“We certainly have a lot of respect for them,” Satterfield added, “but our kids believed. There was not any doubt in our minds that we could come in here and get a win. You get down 14, but the composure that we showed for a young football team. We have 12 seniors, and not many juniors, it’s a very young team. That was the one question mark that I had about our team: Would your team fold, would they lay down whenever adversity hits?

McSorley (9) spots a receiver downfield. Photographic image by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News

“I think that question was answered,” concluded Satterfield. “We were down 14 and continued to fight, came back in that game and ended up taking the lead. I’m extremely proud of our program and our guys and the way they fight and we’ll grow from this, get better and hopefully, we’ll be ready to go next week.”

According to Satterfield, next week can’t come soon enough. He noted, “If we were in Boone right now, these guys would be wanting to be at practice now.”

The Mountaineers will be on the field in Jerry Richardson Stadium next Saturday on the UNC-Charlotte campus anxious to prove their performance against a Power 5 powerhouse was not a fluke. They take on the 49ers in a first-ever meeting with the six-year old, Conference USA football program that has all the makings of a natural, in-state rivalry pitting the Black and Gold against the Green and White.  The game is sold out, with kickoff slated for 6:00 pm.

SLIDESHOW By Braxton Critcher and David Rogers for Blowing Rock News

 

SELECTED TEAM STATS

App State Penn State
Total Yards, Offense 451 434
Passing 292 230
Rushing 159 204
3rd Down Conversions 6 of 16 6 of 15
4th Down Conversions 2 of 2 1 of 2
Time of Possession 32:28 27:32
Penalties 9-100 2-10

 

SELECTED INDIVIDUAL STATS

Rushing

  • Jalin Moore, ASU — 18 carries, 88 yards, 1 TD
  • Miles Sanders, PSU — 19 carries, 91 yards, 2 TDs
  • Trace McSorley, PSU — 12 carries, 53 yards, 2 TDs
  • Zac Thomas, ASU — 15 carries, 43 yards, 1 TD

Passing

  • Zac Thomas, ASU — 25 of 38, 270 yds., 2 TDs
  • Trace McSorley, PSU — 21 of 36, 230 yds., 1 TD
  • Peyton Derrick, ASU — 1 of 1, 22 yards

All Purpose Yards

  • Darrynton Evans, ASU — 149 yards
  • Jalin Moore, ASU — 124 yards
  • K J Hamler, PSU — 120 yards
  • Miles Sanders, PSU — 111 yards
  • Corey Sutton, ASU — 87 yards
  • Juwan Johnson, PSU — 67 yards

Defensive Leaders

  • Jan Johnson, PSU — 11 tackles
  • Anthony Flory, ASU — 9 tackles
  • Nick Scott, PSU — 9 tackles
  • Garrett Taylor, PSU — 8 tackles
  • Jordan Fehr, ASU — 8 tackles
  • Amani Oruwanye, PSU — 7 tackles, 1 INT
  • Clifton Duck, ASU — 7 tackles

 

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