By David Rogers. August 31, 2019. BOONE, NC — Rough beginnings don’t always reflect final outcomes.
COVER IMAGE: App State QB Zac Thomas stands tall in the pocket with pressure a-comin’ to direct the Mountaineer offense. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
History will report that the “Eliah Drinkwitz era” of Appalachian State football started with a three-and-out. It will also show that he secured his first win as a head coach at the college level in dominating fashion, 42-7, over East Tennessee State.
App State’s offense was forced to start with their legs stuck in a proverbial “bucket of cement” when ETSU true freshman kicker Garrett Taylor crafted his punt from beyond midfield to hop out of bounds inside the App State 5-yard line. Drinkwitz admitted to reporters later that he had to change what he had scripted for the Mountaineers’ opening possession in order to work their way out of bad field position.
And that they did, not only because of some adept offensive work but a defensive unit that limited the Buccaneers of ETSU to just 50 yards of total offense in the first quarter.
Keys to the Game
- A stifling defensive performance by App State, limiting the Buccaneers to just 292 yards of total offense
- Key pass receptions by Appalachian’s Thomas Hennigan, including a “magical” 31-yard catch-and-run between two Buc defenders
- Led by star playmaker Darrynton Evans, App State’s at least 5-headed rushing attack, with Cameron Peoples, Marcus Williams, Jr., Daetrich Harrington, and Nakendrick Clark
- Critical decision-making by APP QB Zac Thomas
- A strong performance by the Mountaineer offensive line that did not give up a sack to ETSU’s highly touted defense
Until Mountaineer junior signal-caller Zac Thomas cruised through a giant hole on the left side of the offensive line for a 1-yard TD, capping off a 13-play, 89-yard drive that kept ETSU’s offense off the field for one second shy of five full minutes, the opening possessions were as much a chess match as a football game, starting with Taylor’s punt.
But after the two defenses traded three-and-outs by their offensive counterparts, Drinkwitz’s charges settled into a rhythm focusing on ball possession and controlling the clock that was rarely threatened by the Bucs. Checkmate was almost inevitable.
As expected, App State’s rushing attack was led by junior Darrynton Evans. The 13-play scoring drive included chunks of real estate picked up by the junior RB. One run, in particular, should make the Mountaineers’ highlight reel as Evans appeared to mis-connect with Thomas on the hand-off, then bounced left to sprint-and-weave his way through a big hole for 23 yards. Other highlights of the drive included short passes to junior wide receiver Thomas Hennigan and sophomore tight end Henry Pearson, as well as a 27-yard romp by Thomas the QB when he found his receivers covered and espied a lot of room to run on the left side.
Hennigan turned out to be one of the biggest of play-makers on the day with a career-high seven receptions for 79 yards, including a near-magical 31-yard TD catch. It began with Thomas getting a challenging throw off under pressure, then Hennigan outmuscle-ing two Buccaneer defenders to get possession of the ball before turning upfield and sprinting the remaining six yards into the end zone.
FTS – Feed the Studs
Evans finished the day just a yard shy of the century mark, toting the ball 14 times for 99 yards and a TD, even though he wasn’t used past the third quarter. Drinkwitz and Evans both have talked effusively about the depth of the Mountaineers in the running back room, and it was on display Saturday, especially in the second half.
Given the severely torn ACL injury that he suffered during spring practice after his freshman season that forced him to sit out almost all of 2018, Daetrich Harrington’s six carries for 48 yards is one of the feel-good stories of 2019 in how he has dealt and recovered from the adversity. To watch Harrington rip through the ETSU line, hitting holes with pace and deftly side-stepping would-be tacklers only underlines the depth behind Evans that Drinkwitz can feature, including redshirt freshman Cameron Peoples (3 carries for 23 yards, a 7.7 avg.) and Rocky Mount, NC native, Marcus Williams, Jr., also a member of App State’s strong junior class. Williams carried seven times for 41 yards, a 5.9 average.
The Mountaineers scored one more time in the first half, a 6-yard toss by Taylor into the end zone where he found junior wide receiver Malik Williams. On the throw, East Tennessee State linebacker Blake Bockrath, a 6-6, 235 lb. giant from Loveland, OH, was penalized for targeting when he arrived just a bit late in pressuring Thomas and the officials ruled that he hit the QB helmet to helmet. Bockrath’s ejection in the second quarter was costly, as was the first quarter injury to the Bucs’ starting quarterback Chance Thrasher, a graduate transfer from Coastal Carolina.
After taking a 14-0 lead into intermission and having an opportunity to talk things over, App State’s offense came out firing on all cylinders. Evans finished off an 11-play, 75 yard first possession by the regular tenants of Kidd-Brewer Stadium with a 13-yard TD dash and weave. And although ETSU managed to score on a 5-yard TD pass from freshman backup QB Trey Mitchell to sophomore tight end Nate Atkins, finishing off an impressive 12-play, 86 yard drive that kept the Mountaineer off the field for almost a full seven minutes, App was quick to respond when it did get the ball back, Hennigan’s 31-yard pilfering of two Buccaneer defenders.
Junior wide receiver Jalen Virgil, arguably the fastest player in the Sun Belt Conference and one of the fastest nationally with sprinter speed, took a couple of steps closer to joining the ranks of Drinkwitz’s premier playmakers on offense. He notched his first career rushing TD on a 4th quarter end-around, easily outstepping his would-be tacklers. But it was the pass that wasn’t completed in the first quarter that caught everyone’s attention. Although an amped up Thomas overthrew him, Virgil, as Drinkwitz pointed out later, “…was wide open…” on a long pass downfield. If Thomas had waited a half-second longer to throw, it very likely would have been the Mountaineers’ first score of the season. He had the outmatched ETSU defensive back beaten by nearly 10 yards, but even diving could not gather it in.
App State completed the scoring with 5:52 left in the game when reserve QB Jacob Huesman whistled a 17-yard dart into the back of the end zone on the right side where freshman wide receiver Christian Wells made recorded his first career TD reception.
During his press conference, Drinkwitz reinforced the idea of what to do with a strong corps of running backs and complimented a couple of his assistant coaches for coming up with ideas on how to use them.
“It’s the deepest group on our team,” Drinkwitz observed of the running back group. “There are a lot of guys who do a great job with the ball in their hands. They’ve got great vision and speed.
“We have got to do a great job of making sure those guys touch the ball,” he added. “Our offense is about getting the playmakers the ball, and so FTS, man. Feed the studs. Find ways to give them the ball. Find ways to get them in space. Shawn Clark did a great job of coming over there with some run ideas. He and Garrett Riley both did.”
Drinkwitz used the same acronym (FTS) in talking about the role that Thomas Hennigan played during the game.
“We knew in our game plan that we were going to find ways for Thomas to get the football,” he pointed out. “He’s been our most consistent wide receiver through fall camp. They (Thomas and Hennigan) have had a great connection, and we believe in Thomas Hennigan. We told our whole team that you have to believe in yourselves like we believe in you, and he did a nice job of that today.”
Next up for the Mountaineers is another non-conference, regional rivalry game when they host the Charlotte 49ers at Kidd-Brewer on Saturday, September 7th. Kickoff for the home-and-home rematch — App State thumped the 49ers 45-9 at Jerry Richardson Stadium in Charlotte the second week of the season in 2018 — is slated for 3:30 pm.
Given that it is a regional rivalry of two FBS opponents (Charlotte plays in Conference USA) and both schools with head coaches in their first year at the helm of their respective teams with high expectations, another large crowd is expected. The announced attendance for the East Tennessee State game was a jam-packed 25,147.
In its season opener on Thursday, Charlotte tripped up Gardner-Webb’s Runnin’ Bulldogs, 49-28, led by redshirt sophomore quarterback Chris Reynolds and senior all C-USA running back Benny LeMay. The 49ers’ new head coach is Will Healy, he takes the helm after three seasons at Austin Peay, where in 2017 he was named the FCS National Coach of the Year as well as the Ohio Valley Conference Coach of the Year. A native of Chattanooga, TN, Healy was a two-time all-state QB in high school and, according to materials received from UNC-Charlotte, still holds the Chattanooga area high school career record of more than 7,700 yards passing.
SELECTED TEAM STATS
- Total Offense (Yards)
- APP – 444
- ETSU – 292
- Net Yards Rushing
- APP – 277
- ETSU – 131
- Net Yards Passing
- APP – 167
- ETSU – 161
- Fumbles (No.-Lost): APP 0-0, ETSU 3-1
- Interceptions: APP 0, ETSU 0
- Time of Possession
- APP – 26:22
- ETSU – 33:38
- 3rd Down Conversions: APP 6 of 10 (60%), ETSU 6 of 15 (40%)
- 4th Down Conversions: APP 1 of 1 (100%), ETSU 1 of 2 (50%)
- Penalties (No.-Yards): APP 5-58, ETSU 7-60
- Defensive Sacks: APP 2, ETSU 0
- Red Zone (Scores-Chances)
- Touchdowns: APP 6-of-6, ETSU 1-of-1
- Field Goals: APP 0-6, ETSU 0-1
SELECTED INDIVIDUAL STATS
- Rushing (carries, net yards)
- APP – Darrynton Evans, 14-99, 1 TD
- ETSU – Quay Holmes, 19-68
- APP – Daetrich Harrington, 6-48
- APP – Marcus Williams, Jr., 7-41
- APP – Zac Thomas, 5-34, 1 TD
- ETSU – Cameron Lewis, 6-30
- APP – Cameron Peoples, 3-23
- ETSU – DJ Twitty, 2-21
- APP – Nakendrick Clark, 3-14
- ETSU – Chance Thrasher, 3-12
- APP – Jalen Virgil, 2-13, 1 TD
- APP – Trey Cobb, 1-7
- Passing (completions-attempts-yards-touchdowns-interceptions)
- APP – Zac Thomas 16-24-150-2-0
- ETSU – Trey Mitchell 12-19-117-1-0
- ETSU – Chance Thrasher 4-6-29-0-0
- APP – Jacob Huesman 1-1-17-1-0
- ETSU – Cameron Lewis 1-2-15-0-0
- Receiving (catches-yards-TDs)
- APP – Thomas Hennigan, 7-79-1
- ETSU – Braxton Richburg, 4-77-0
- ETSU – Keith Coffee, 5-24-0
- APP – Keishawn Watson, 2-22-0
- APP – Darrynton Evans, 2-21-0
- ETSU – Nate Adkins, 3-21-1
- APP – Christian Wells, 1-17-1
- APP – Henry Pearson, 2-12
- APP – Jalen Virgil, 2-10
- APP – Malik Williams, 1-6-1
- Defensive Highlights
- ETSU – Artevius Smith, 11 total tackles (9 solo)
- APP – Desmond Franklin, 7 total tackles, 1 pass breakup
- APP – Akeem Davis-Gaither, 7 total tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 2 pass breakups
- APP – Shaun Jolly, 6 total tackles (5 solo), 1 tackle for loss
- APP – George Blackstock, 5 total tackles, 0.5 sacks, 0.5 tackle for loss
- ETSU – Colton Lakes, 4 tackles (3 solo), 2 tackles for loss
- APP – Shemar Jean-Charles, 4 tackles, 1 forced fumble
- APP – Nick Hampton, 0.5 sacks, 0.5 tackle for loss
- APP – EJ Scott, 2 solo tackles, 2 tackles for loss
- APP – Tommy Dawkins, 1 sack, 1 tackle for loss