By David Rogers. September 12, 2020. BOONE, NC — From whence shall come 2020’s college football Heracles to slay App State’s “Hydra,” the Mountaineers’ three-headed monster of a running back-by-committee? On this Saturday season opener, at least, Charlotte was not quite up to the task in losing to the Mountaineers, 35-20.
COVER IMAGE: Appalachian State senior wide receiver Thomas Hennigan steps out of a tackle along the sideline. All photographic images courtesy of App State Sports.
Senior Marcus Williams, Jr., junior Daetrich Harrington, and sophomore Camerun Peoples proved in the 2020 college football season’s opening game that even with the departure of 2019’s Sun Belt offensive player of the year, Darrynton Evans, for the NFL, all is well in the Mountaineers’ running back room.
“Because of the rain, we knew running the football was going to be important,” said Harrington to reporters in the post-game virtual press conference. This, after admitting that the three of them are playing with a decided “chip” on their shoulders because people doubt they can fill Evans’ shoes.
If nothing else, Saturday’s performance suggests they can, and in different ways. Williams demonstrates patience before darting through gaps in the line of scrimmage. Harrington exhibits outstanding balance after contact, able to keep his feet and extend plays — sometimes for big gains. And Peoples is all about power — but who can suddenly morph into a long-striding sprinter. Once in the open field, few defenders will outrun him.
For the day, Williams churned out a game-high 117 yards on 14 carries and a TD. Peoples rushed 13 times for 102 yards and a TD. Harrington added 60 yards on 15 totes of the football, including two TDs.
But even under wet conditions, the Mountaineer offense featured credible capabilities through the air. Senior QB Zac Thomas was an efficient 14-of-21 passing for 204 yards, including one TD while also hurling one interception. Senior wide receiver Thomas Hennigan, as expected, emerged as Thomas’ primary passing target. He hauled in five passes (on five targets) for 120 yards and a TD, a 51-yard highlight reel worthy effort near the end of the third quarter that gave the Mountaineers a 21-13 lead.
Although the Mountaineers defeated the 49ers for the third straight year, it was clear in this game that Charlotte has narrowed the gap. Not only did the Queen City visitors turn back the App State offense on their opening possession – a thudding helmet to ball collision orchestrated by redshirt senior Ben Deluca. The veteran 49er safety met App States RB1, Williams, just before he crossed the goal line and the ball popped out before being recovered by the visitors’ redshirt junior linebacker Tyler Murray at the CLT 6-yard line.
Aided by a crucial “what were you thinking?” mental error by the Mountaineers’ Jordan Earle when the apparently over-eager, sophomore defensive lineman jumped offsides on 4th down near midfield, the Chris Reynolds-led 49ers marched an impressive 91 yards for the first touchdown of the game. The ‘Niners’ Tre Harbinson, a graduate transfer running back from Northern Illinois, finished off the drive with a 14-yard cruise into the end zone.
The two Western North Carolina adversaries traded three-and-outs on their ensuing possessions. The first quarter came to an end with the hosts on the wrong end of a 7-0 deficit — but with possession of the ball.
That first offensive possession in the second quarter turned out to be the “jumpstart” Appalachian needed — and it came primarily in the form of Peoples, the third RB to take a turn in the Mountaineer backfield. For the drive, Peoples ripped off rushes of 14, 5, 10, and 8 yards before taking the pigskin home with a 16-yard tackle-breaking sprint into paydirt, allowing the regular tenants of Kidd Brewer Stadium to even the score at 7-7.
After APP’s defense stifled the 49ers’ ground game on their next possession, forcing a three-and-out, Mountaineer QB Zac Thomas directed a 10-play, 79-yard drive that took 5:13 off the clock before Williams, Jr. made amends for his opening drive fumble, punching the ball off of left tackle into the end zone from one-yard out. Senior placekicker Chandler Staton was again on the mark for his second PAT kick, and the Mountaineers took a 14-7 lead they would never relinquish.
Through the first three quarters, though, this game was nip and tuck as to the outcome. After Hennigan’s 51-yard catch-and-run late in the third quarter that expanded the home team’s lead to 21-13, Charlotte’s Aaron McAllister, a redshirt senior RB and one of the 49ers’ top offensive weapons coming out of the backfield, showed why in returning Casey Ryker’s kickoff 97 yards for a TD. With 1:35 left in the third quarter, Charlotte had again pulled to within a single point, trailing 21-20.
In his press conference after the game, Mountaineer head coach Shawn Clark said of the McAllister kickoff return, “We had him dead to rights.” But the veteran running back bounced off one tackler, pulled free from another, then looped around the outside to the left where he sprinted into the open and down the sideline for the “backatcha” TD.
But as they have in so many games the past decade, App State remained unfazed on both sides of the ball and pulled away in the fourth quarter. Showing the kind of maturity and discipline one would expect from a senior-laden squad, the Mountaineer defense squelched consecutive 49er possessions, one going for zero yards in four plays and the next one managing just 14 yards in five plays.
Meanwhile, App State’s Harrington found his 4th quarter mojo, punishing the Charlotte defense for two rushing TDs in the final period.
Saturday’s contest proved a good introduction for the Mountaineers to the 2020 season against a very good quality opponent in Charlotte.
Random thoughts and observations:
- In securing the win, Appalachian State had to overcome three turnovers and a few mental mistakes that short-sheeted offensive opportunities.
- All three members of APP’s backfield committee demonstrated that they are suitable replacements for Evans, who was drafted in the third round by the Tennessee Titans. Although Williams had the most yards (117) and Harrington had the most TDs (2), our selection for best running back performance is Peoples. Although he fumbled once that gave Charlotte good field position in the 4th quarter, the sophomore appears fully recovered from last season’s ACL injury. He ran with both power, balance on contact, and speed, at times looking near-unstoppable
- It was interesting, although perhaps due to the wet conditions, that App State only attempted one pass to a running back after Evans proved valuable last year in receptions out of the backfield.
- Speedster WR Jalen Virgil made an impression with two tough receptions for 14 yards each early in the game, then seemed to disappear. After starting the game doing double duty as kickoff returner, he was suddenly no longer in that role, either. Undoubtedly, the increasingly wet conditions played a part in App State’s run-game emphasis, a point confirmed by Clark in the post-game press conference.
- On defense, junior inside linebacker Trey Cobb led the team with eight tackles, including 1.5 for loss. Senior defensive back Shemar Jean-Charles had four pass breakups and four tackles. His pass breakups were picture perfect, often reaching around a would-be receiver at the last second to deflect a pass and prevent a big gain.
- App State defenders notched two “picks” during the game. The last was by senior safety Kaiden Smith at the Mountaineer 22-yard line to ice the game with 32 seconds left on the clock. The first was on Charlotte’s first possession of the second half when sophomore outside linebacker Brendan Harrington corralled a deflected Chris Reynolds pass at the Mountaineer 18-yard line, turned and raced up the far sideline for a 46-yard INT return before being pushed out of bounds by Reynolds at the CLT 36.
Next up for Appalachian is a visit to West Virginia to take on another Conference-USA foe, Marshall. which a week ago thumped Eastern Kentucky, 59-0. Charlotte travels to Chapel Hill to challenge 18th-ranked North Carolina, which posted a 31-6 win over Syracuse on Saturday.
Kickoff for App State’s game at Marshall in Huntington, WV is slated for 1:30 pm, and indicated to be televised on CBS Sports Network.
In other Sun Belt Conference action on Saturday:
- Louisiana 31, #21 Iowa State 14
- Arkansas State 35, Kansas State 31
- Army 37, Louisiana-Monroe 7
- UT-San Antonio 51, Texas State 48
- Georgia Southern 27, Campbell 26
- HALFTIME SCORE: South Alabama 14, Tulane 6