By David Rogers. September 21, 2019. CHAPEL HILL, NC — Some media outlets will surely take the easy way out to explain Appalachian State’s 34-31 football victory over North Carolina on Saturday afternoon, drawing comparisons to the Mountaineers’ momentous upset of then #5 ranked Michigan in 2007.
COVER IMAGE: App State defensive lineman Demetrius Taylor collects his own tipped pass for the second quarter INT vs. North Carolina. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
True, both wins were sealed by a blocked field goal with virtually no time remaining on the game clock, preserving the “upset” margin. True, both were road wins. And yes, the school’s latest football victory was the first time that Appalachian State has beaten a member of a Power 5 conference since the now storied Michigan upset.
But this win was so much more — and so much different.
Back in 2007, many could rightfully argue that App State did not even belong on the same field as Michigan. It was an FCS school, after all, even if on the verge of emerging from 2007 as a three-peat FCS national champion. In recent history they had beaten perennial ACC underdog Wake Forest a couple of times in the late 90s and 2000, but otherwise had been thumped by the likes of Wyoming, Marshall, Kansas, LSU, and NC State. Few outside of the players and coaches gave the Mountaineers even an outside chance of beating the then #5-ranked Division I school in the country. It was simply a “money game” to help fill the coffers of a smaller college program.
Keys to the Game
- North Carolina turnovers — two of them caused by App State defensive lineman Demetrius Taylor — were a major difference-maker
- App State’s offensive attack on the perimeter
- The Mountaineer defense shook off a lackluster performance vs. Charlotte and did an exceptional job with defensive coordinator Ted Roof calling plays from high above the field with a bird’s eye view
- Resilience — Even after giving up a shocker TD in the first 17 seconds of the game, all three App State units kept fighting
The backdrop to Saturday’s contest at North Carolina was very different. Appalachian State is now an FBS-level school themselves, having made the most successful transition from FCS to FBS in college football history. The Mountaineers had taken the Sun Belt Conference by storm, winning outright or sharing the last three conference championships. They had won four consecutive bowl games — in the first four years that they even qualified to be eligible for bowl consideration. Instead of being thumped by Power 5 programs in recent years, they had all but beaten storied programs at Tennessee and Penn State, as well as an ACC-resurgent Wake Forest. They had respectable performances against Georgia and Clemson and Miami, too, even if losses.
It may also be true that the Tar Heels are regaining respectability under returned coaching savior Mack Brown, but before the game on Saturday the Las Vegas oddsmakers only had Appalachian State as a two- to four-point underdog.
Two to four points…in other words, the betting line was almost even. Among the so-called experts at predicting wins and losses, few expected North Carolina to demolish the upstart Mountaineers. In fact, this time many in the outside world expected App State to WIN, much less beat the meager spread.
A smiling App State head coach Eliah Drinkwitz repeated to reporters after the game messages similar to what he had offered before the game: “This was not our Super Bowl…This team belongs on the field with North Carolina…We are not underdogs…We expected to win.”
As beginnings go, the start was surely not what Drinkwitz and the coaching staff envisioned. Michael Carter, UNC’s redshirt freshman running back out of Navarre, FL returned the opening kickoff 75 yards to the APP 21-yard line. Then on the game’s first play from scrimmage, freshman QB Sam Howell found junior wide receiver Dazz Newsome slanting across the middle. The entire scoring series took just 17 seconds, probably less time than it takes for the typical sports reporter to run 100 yards.
The quick start by the Tar Heels left the multitude of black and gold clad Appalachian State fans in Kenan Stadium stunned — and wondering: Is North Carolina really that good? Has Mack Brown worked his magic again in Chapel Hill? Does App State really belong on the same field as a Power 5 school, after all? Is this going to be an embarrassing in-state loss?
Drinkwitz told reporters later that he was really proud of his players for their resilience, for taking the shaky beginning in stride and continuing to fight through the adversity. It was well-placed pride.
In fact, the adverse start simply served as a wake-up call for the App State gridders. After a Chapel Hill kickoff that bounced out of bounds — it seemed UNC purposely avoided getting the ball into the hands of dangerous return specialist Darrynton Evans — App State took over possession at their own 35-yard line.
If there was anything really different about App State’s offensive strategy for this game compared to the season openers vs. East Tennessee State and Charlotte, it appeared to be how they attacked the perimeter. And that materialized in the Mountaineers’ first offensive series. Junior quarterback Zac Thomas used four passes to the outside — highlighted by two acrobatic efforts on the receiving end, a 13-yard catch by wide receiver Corey Sutton before WR Thomas Hennigan leaped high to collect a 35-yard aerial from Thomas — to get the ball into the red zone. The Tar Heels’ defense stiffened to not give up a touchdown, but the Mountaineers’ Chandler Staton slotted a 31-yard field goal through the uprights after an 8-play, 51 yard drive that took more than three and a half minutes off the clock.
An inspired Mountaineer defense held North Carolina to a three-and-out, and then the Thomas-led offense marched right back down the field for another score, this time a 43-yard field goal by Staton. While the offensive possession featured a brilliant 50-yard run by Thomas around the right side, breaking tackles and leaping over others to get App deep into Tar Heel territory, a couple of penalties effectively blunted any TD aspirations. Staton’s successful field goal, however, had shrunk the deficit to just a single point, 7-6. As one photographer on the sideline told another, “We’re one point shy of a whole new ball game.”
If the outside observer looked just at the headline statistics, he probably would conclude that North Carolina won this game.
- Total Offense — UNC 82 plays, 469 yards; APP 64 plays, 385 yards
- Net Passing Yards — UNC 323, APP 224
- Net Rushing Yards — UNC 143, APP 161
- First Downs — UNC 29, APP 16
- Time of Possession — UNC 30:31, APP 29:29
- Kickoff Returns — UNC 5-129, APP 1-19
- Third Down Conversions — UNC 7-of-16, APP 7-of-15
- Fourth Down Conversions — UNC 2-of-2, APP 0-of-o
But missing in that list is Turnovers — and after causing a Tar Heel fumble and collecting a UNC interception, call App State defensive lineman Demetrius Taylor the “Turnover King.”
Taylor had a sack and a forced fumble against Charlotte two weeks ago, but in this game his defensive contributions proved even more impactful. Toward the end of the first quarter, all on the same play Taylor proved a quadruple threat. Sprinting in from UNC’s left side, he sacked Howell for a 9-yard loss, knocked the ball out of the QB’s hands for a UNC fumble, rolled to the ground as the ball bounced behind them, stood and scooped up the ball to return it 20-yards untouched for Appalachian’s go-ahead TD (sack-forced fumble-recovery-return).
Once they took the lead, Appalachian never gave it up. As the second quarter unfolded, Thomas threw his first interception of the young 2019 season, a nice pick by UNC junior defensive back Myles Wolfolk as he jumped high to pluck an overthrown ball down the middle of the field.
But just two plays later, Taylor was the point of the turnover spear again, deflecting a Howell pass up in the air, then collecting it himself as the ball fell back toward Mother Earth to return it 19 yards, to the UNC 26-yard line. Three straight Thomas passes to Sutton and Appalachian had the ball just five yards from the UNC goal line. And that is where Evans picked his way through the Tar Heel defensive line for his first TD of the day.
It was the North Carolina faithful’s turn to be stunned because the visitors from the High Country, the one-time upstarts from Boone, now led 20-7 and the second period had barely begun.
Evans finished the game with 78 net yards on 19 carries — well below his first two weeks’s average as one of the nation’s FBS rushing leaders — but three rushing TDs is bound to put him among the best in the nation for that category.
Just like North Carolina had done against Wake Forest, they were rallying to close a deficit toward the end of this game and if it had lasted another quarter, who is to know what the outcome might have become? As it was, Howell led his offense on an 8-play, 80-yard TD drive that tightened the deficit to just 34-31 with a little more than three minutes remaining in the game.
The Tar Heel defense left the Mountaineer offense sputtering on what turned out to be its last possession of the game, but the Thomas-led drive used up all but 30 seconds of the game clock.
In fact, perhaps one of the key plays of the game was a keeper by Thomas around the right side on 3rd-and-5, still deep in their own territory with a little more than 2:20 left on the clock. As he ran around the right side for that five yards needed for the first down — and then seven more — the junior from Trussville, AL had presence of mind enough to slide to the ground before he went out of bounds. Importantly, it kept the clock running. Howell later would have found that extra 20 or 30 seconds useful as he ran out of time.
But with 30 seconds at his disposal, Howell used 17- and 24-yard pass completions to Newsome to get the ball upfield. With just five seconds left for the Tar Heels to potentially tie the game and force overtime, sophomore placekicker Noah Ruggles trotted onto the field for a 56-yard field goal attempt. His season-high was a 49-yarder against Wake Forest, but reporters were told that a 56-yard kick was within his range.
But, of course, that is only if the kick is not blocked. App State redshirt freshman linebacker Nick Hampton is credited with getting his hand on the ball, leaping high as the kick flew over the line of scrimmage. The ball fluttered down well short of the intended target, prompting AppNation to collectively raise its arms in jubilation and shout their joys of triumph.
Next up for Appalachian State is a first Sun Belt Conference encounter with a surging Coastal Carolina. After losing its season opener to Eastern Michigan, 30-23, the Chanticleers have reeled off three consecutive wins in non-conference play, including a 12-7 result vs. Power 5 contender Kansas, an easy 46-7 rout of Norfolk State, and a 62-28 thrashing of UMass on Saturday.
North Carolina will try to regroup for a meeting next week with #1 ranked Clemson in the Tar Heels second official conference game (UNC defeated Miami 28-25 on September 7th; the loss to Wake Forest was counted as a non-conference, in-state rivalry game).
Blowing Rock Newshound “Players of the Game”
- Offense — APP — Zac Thomas: 6 carries for 57 net yards rushing and slid to the ground to get a first down and keep the clock running late in the fourth quarter, depriving UNC of 20-30 seconds for its final drive; 20-29 passing for 224 yards
- Defense — APP — Demetrius Taylor: Orchestrated two key turnovers (fumble return for TD and an INT) that proved the difference in the game, depriving UNC of possession and additional scoring opportunities
- Special Teams — UNC — Michael Carter, a 75-yard return on the game’s opening kickoff