By David Rogers. November 9, 2019. COLUMBIA, SC — On the surface, it’s hard to see how Appalachian State came away with a 20-15 win over South Carolina in “The Coop” (Williams-Brice Stadium). You have to look beyond the statistical surface for clues.
COVER IMAGE: App State’s Nick Ross (26) sprints to the sideline and turns the corner after intercepting a 2nd quarter pass. He made the SC end zone for the game’s first TD and put the Mountaineers in front for the first time, 13-6. Photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
But win they did, completing the regional “double” with wins over BOTH Carolinas, North and South, in the same season.
And with Georgia State and Georgia Southern both losing earlier on Saturday, the Mountaineers reclaim the Sun Belt East Division “driver’s seat,” even though this game in Columbia had no impact on that “race” whatsoever. This non-conference win against yet another Power 5 (AKA “Autonomy Five”) team is but icing on the season cake. More important than Carolina bragging rights, the Mountaineers control their own destiny in potentially earning a second consecutive Sun Belt Championship and possibly even hosting the championship game at Kidd-Brewer Stadium.
App State head coach Eliah Drinkwitz pointed out to reporters after the Charlotte game on September 8th that in order to defeat a gridiron opponent, at any level, you have to win at least two of the game’s three phases: offense, defense, and special teams. Against the 49ers, App State did well on offense and special teams, but struggled on defense. But most importantly, the first year Mountaineer head mentor emphasized at the time, they won.
Fast forward a few weeks and he can say the same thing again, but with a different mix of “wins.” Against South Carolina, the game’s difference makers were the performances of the special teams and defensive units — and the offense did just enough. If there was anything special about the offense, it was time management in keeping the SC offensive playmakers off the field for just about half the game.
It’s rare that a football team gets outproduced on the offensive end by any substantial margin and still winds up with the victory.
In front of 80,849 football fans — so many wearing black and gold attire that running back Darrynton Evans said afterward that it sometimes felt like a home game — the Mountaineers were limited to just 202 yards of total offense (97 rushing and 105 passing), while the Gamecocks rolled up 346 yards, almost all of it through the air (325 yards). Each team had an interception. The Time of Possession was almost dead even: 29:50 for Appalachian, 30:10 for South Carolina. Appalachian had three sacks, USC two.
So with those kinds of obvius stats, how did the Mountaineers pull this one off? You have to look deeper into the numbers.
Look first at special teams. The Mountaineers had three kickoff returns that totaled 117 yards, averaging 39 yards per return. Those gave the App State offense a short field to begin their next offensive possessions. In contrast, the Gamecocks returned four Mountaineer kickoffs for a total of just 52 yards (a 13.0 average).
Early in the game, the teams traded field goals, none bigger than APP junior placekicker Chandler Staton’s 47-yarder to tie the game at 6-6, midway through the second quarter. His first FG was a 40-yarder, a boot that answered South Carolina’s opening field goal.
A collapse against Georgia Southern last week aside, without question the Mountaineers’ defense has vastly improved, at times even masterful. That South Carolina was perfect on three of three field-goal attempts (vs. Staton going 2-for-2) really speaks to Appalachian’s defensive success on the night. When the coaches and players review this game, one statistical line is sure to be glaring or blaring, depending on whose side you are on.
That is: both teams had two red zone opportunities. Appalachian came away with a touchdown and a field goal. USC was held by the Mountaineer defense to just a single field goal.
In addition to spoiling South Carolina’s red zone opportunities, the defense was special in other ways, too. With a little under two minutes remaining in the first half and App State leading, tenuously, at 13-6, defensive back Nick Ross jumped in front of USC quarterback Ryan Hilinski’s pass over the middle for an INT at the 20-yard line. The freshman DB sprinted toward the left sideline and with blockers in front, bobbed and weaved his way into the end zone for the game’s first TD, breaking open what had been a defensive field goal battle. Staton’s PAT was good, putting the Mountaineers ahead, 13-6, a lead they preserved going into the locker room for halftime.
Suddenly, a sure victory is a nail biter
By the fourth quarter, though, the Mountaineers managed to turn a 20-9 lead at the end of the third quarter into a nail biter that wasn’t decided until the clock ticked to 0.00. That’s because of the eight “chunk plays” earned by the Gamecocks, five of them came in the final period. While two of App State’s three fourth quarter possessions were three-and-outs, 144 of USC’s 346 net total yards, or 42% of them, came in the 4th quarter.
One of USC’s big 4th quarter plays was a 23-yard TD strike from quarterback Ryan Hilinski to his favorite Gamecock target, wide receiver Bryan Edwards. That TD narrowed South Carolina’s deficit to what turned out to be the final margin, 20-15, with 2:58 left on the game clock.
Hilinski’s 2-point conversion attempt, a pass to the right side of the end zone, failed. If it had been successful, the Gamecocks would only need a field goal to tie the game, assuming they could keep the Mountaineers from scoring and get the ball back.
Which they did, with some good fortune to boot.
South Carolina’s kickoff was downed at the Mountaineers’ 4-yard line. Quarterback Zac Thomas was only able to lead the offense eight yards, so special teams was forced to punt from the 12-yard line. Hilinski and the Gamecock offense was able to start their final possession with 1:50 on the game clock and good field position from their own 45-yard line.
App Nation was nervous. Giving up a touchdown at that point would likely mean losing the game.
The final South Carolina possession was one of those topsy-turvy drives that can drive fans (and coaches) nuts. It appeared that App State had iced the game on the third play from scrimmage when defensive back Josh Thomas intercepted a Hilinski pass at the APP 11-yard line and returned it out to the 41. But USC was given new life when the INT was nullified: Akeem Davis-Gaither was flagged for being offsides.
Subsequent incomplete passes and a sack put the Gamecocks in a 4th-and-18 situation, from their own 50-yard line, but Hilinski quickly converted, gaining a first down by hurling a 20-yard pass to wide receiver Rico Dowdle.
The App State defense was resolute, forcing successive incomplete passes by Hilinski, putting the Gamecocks in a 4th-and-15 situation with but 19 seconds left on the game clock, with the ball at the Mountaineer 35-yard line. A field goal would do nothing. South Carolina needed to score.
Once again the Hilinski-to-Dowdle connection came through, picking up 26 yards on a pass to the APP 9-yard line, with 12 seconds on the clock. A couple of incomplete passes later and an offensive holding call moved the ball back to the 19-yard line, 2nd down and goal to go, six seconds left. It was one of those do or die moments that happen in football.
Helinski dropped back, looking for his favorite go-to receiver, Edwards. He spotted him and hurled a pass in that direction, but it fluttered again incomplete. There was laundry on the field, another Gamecock player flagged for holding. That penalty was declined this time because it didn’t matter. The game clock showed 0.00. Game over. The Mountaineers had defeated another Power 5 school on the road, this one the SEC contender that had knocked Georgia out of the College Football Playoff picture a couple of weeks earlier with, ironically, a win on the road “between the hedges” in Athens, GA.
Of the final South Carolina offensive possession, Gamecock offensive lineman Donell Stanley, a redshirt senior, reflected afterwards, “The whole game we killed ourselves and we can’t do that. No matter who you are playing, you can’t do that. We thought we were in a good spot and we got a holding call and that put us back. Then we felt (some) desperation with no time outs and less than 10 seconds left. We just have to be better.”
Drinkwitz was relatively subdued in opening his press conference after the game, “Just proud of the focus and effort our guys played with. Proud of the way they battled all game. They never flinched. The poise on the last drive…our defense gave up those two long fourth downs, but were still able to make a play at the end. Proud of our coaching staff. It was a tough draw, especially after last week’s loss, to come on the road to an SEC opponent and nobody flinched. We just went into work and said, ‘We’re going to be 1-0 this week, whatever it takes.’
“We had the expectation coming down here,” Drinkwitz added, “to win. Hats off to our defense. They played lights out. Nick Ross stepped up with a big play (the interception and return) that was the difference in the game. Proud of our guys.”
For App State quarterback Zac Thomas, the win also had a larger impact.
“It’s awesome, sending these seniors out with two Power Five wins in the same year,” he said. “That’s remarkable. A lot of people (in the Group of Five conferences) don’t do that. It makes you feel good. It makes you know that all of the hard work that you put in (during) the off-season is paying off…Super excited for these (seniors). They have been through some ups and downs in (their time here).”
Now with control over its own destiny in the Sun Belt East Division, the Mountaineers will try to go 1-0 in each of the next three weekends as they face conference rivals, starting with Georgia State (East Division, 3-2 in SBC, 6-3 overall) in Atlanta next weekend, a home game vs. Texas State (West Division, 2-3 in SBC, 3-6 overall), and then a final road game at Troy (East Division, 2-3 in SBC, 4-5 overall).
OTHER SUN BELT SCORES
- @Texas State 30, South Alabama
- @Troy 49, Georgia Southern 28
- @ULM 45, Georgia State 31
SELECTED TEAM STATS
- Total Yards: APP 202, USC 346
- Pass Yards: APP 105, USC 325
- Rush Yards: APP 97, USC 21
- Penalties: APP 8-46, USC 9-50
- 1st Downs: APP 11, USC 22
- Sacks By: APP 3, USC 2
- Tackle for Loss: APP 8, USC 8
- Red Zone: APP 2-2, USC 1-2
- Interceptions By: APP 1, USC 1
- Field Goals: APP 2-2, USC 3-3
- Kick Returns (Yards): APP 3 (117), USC 4 (52)
- Third Down Conversions: APP 2/13 (15%), USC 4/18 (22%)
- Fourth Down Conversions: APP 1-1, USC 4-5
- Time of Possession: APP 29:50, USC 30:10
SELECTED INDIVIDUAL STATS
- USC – Ryan Hilinski 32-57-325, 1 TD, 1 INT (rating: 106.3)
- APP – Zac Thomas 9-15-105, 1 INT (rating: 105.5)
- APP – Darrynton Evans 23 carries, 85 yards
- APP – Marcus Williams, Jr. 7 carries, 19 yards
- USC – Dakereon Joyner 3 carries, 14 yards
- USC – Rico Dowdle 14 carries, 9 yards
- USC – Deshaun Fenwick 4 carries, 9 yards
- USC – Bryan Edwards 9-90, 1 TD
- USC – Rico Dowdle 5-67
- USC – Kyle Markway 5-43
- USC – Xavier Legette 5-42
- APP – Corey Sutton 3-38
- USC – Trey Adkins 2-33
- APP – Darrynton Evans 2-32
- APP – Collin Reed 1-22
- USC – Dakereon Joyner 2-17
- USC – Chavis Dawkins 2-11
- USC – Jay Urich 1-11
- USC – Chad Terrell 1-11
- Jordan Fehr – 12 tackles (6 solo), 1 sack, 2 TFL
- Josh Thomas – 10 tackles (9 solo), 1 TFL
- Shemar Jean-Charles – 7 tackles (6 solo), 2 pass breakups
- Akeem Davis-Gaither – 7 tackles (4 solo), 1 sack, 2.5 TFL, 2 pass breakups
- Nicholas Ross – 2 tackles (1 solo), 1 INT and TD
- Ernest Jones – 10 tackles (8 solo), 1 sack, 2 TFL, 1 INT
- Sherrod Greene – 7 tackles (5 solo), 0.5 sack, 3 TFL