By David Rogers for HighCountrySports.net
BOONE, N.C. — College football games are comprised of 3,600 seconds’ playing time. In defeating Troy, 32-28, at Kidd Brewer Stadium on Sept. 17, Appalachian State used — and needed — every tick of the game clock.
The 53-yard “Hail Mary” pass from QB Chase Brice, tipped back by WR Dalton Stroman and fielded by WR Christan Horn as he scooted around the mass of humanity gathered at the 5-yard line was just what the playbook called for. And the improbable TD was only made possible by a key block from WR Kaedin Robinson as Horn sprinted around the right side into the end zone — and Brice’s deft maneuvering out of the pocket and into position to throw the bomb at the start of the play. In short, everything came together for the Mountaineers’ latest miracle.
The most recent Mountaineer win was improbable, at best. It was magical. It was a fitting completion to what has arguably been the most exciting three weeks for one team in college football history. Call them the Cardiac Kids, if you will. The only question remaining: what could possibly be next for the 2022 football edition of the Appalachian State Mountaineers.
In Week 1, App State rallied from a 20-point deficit at the end of the third quarter to almost win a 63-61 offensive shootout against North Carolina. That game saw three TDs scored in the last 31 seconds. And that is just the start for explaining all the highs and lows in between the crossing of goal lines.
In Week 2, App State dominated No. 6 ranked Texas A&M in carving out a 17-14 win, controlling offensive possession 41.5 minutes (2,490 seconds) and leaving just 18.5 minutes (1,110 seconds) for the Aggies. It may not have been the “prettiest” football, but it was a beautiful result for the AppNation faithful.
Week 2 had resounding implications, including a decision by ESPN to flip their College Gameday show scheduled for College Station, to Boone. As Mountaineer head coach Shawn Clark suggested in his post-game press conference, there isn’t enough money in all the North Carolina university system to pay for the Appalachian State, Boone and High Country brand promotional benefits garnered from ESPN Gameday coming to town.
So then we have Week 3, even with all the weeklong distractions of what can only be described as a media invasion. It started promising enough for 34,406 mostly Mountaineer fans cramming the grandstands and on the grassy knoll below the scoreboard. Troy received the opening kickoff and on the first play from scrimmage, junior QB Gunnar Watson, a fifth year Troy veteran, slightly overthrew his downfield receiver, the ball snatched out of the air by App State senior defensive back Dexter Lawson, Jr. for his first career INT.
On App State’s third play from scrimmage, Brice handed off to WR Dashaun Davis, who lofted a pass to wide open Christian Wells in the right flat of the end zone for the game’s first score. The well-designed play had the Troy defensive backs coming forward in anticipation of a Davis run around the right side, leaving Wells in the end zone with nary a Trojan soul within 15 yards of him.
The turnover and quick score to capitalize on it had Kidd Brewer rockin’ with thoughts of a blowout win by the Mountaineers. Hardly a minute was gone off the game clock and App State already had a 7-0 lead.
First year Troy head coach Jon Sumrall, his assistant coaches, and the Trojan players had other ideas. They responded with a 13-play, 75-yard offensive possession reminiscent of what the Mountaineers did to the Aggies a week ago in College Station. The Trojans’ drive kept App State’s offense off the field for one second shy of 7 minutes. Although the Mountaineers’ Tyler Bird sacked Watson on the second play of the drive, the Troy QB recovered to methodically engineer a “move the chains” possession that knotted the score, 7-7.
The Trojan defense gave up a first down on App State’s next possession when running back Camerun Peoples gained 14 yards on the first play, but that was all the Mountaineers could muster, offensively, before having to punt.
Troy and the Mountaineers exchanged punts entering the second quarter, then Troy scored again on an 8-play, 81 yard drive that put the visitors ahead 14-7.
Local Mountaineer fans got to celebrate at the end of App State’s more than 7-minute drive that covered 75 yards in 14 plays, ending with Watauga High School alum Anderson Castle powering through three Troy defenders into the end zone, tying the game at 14-14 with just 1:22 left on the clock before halftime. Lining up in a two-back set, Castle slipped through the middle of the line of scrimmage and turned to receive Brice’s pass just inside the five yard line, then broke through the Trojan defenders for the TD. Castle, the former Pioneer QB, was converted to running back by the coaching staff his freshman year after being recruited to App State as a defensive back and outside linebacker. Now, as a junior, he has become a key role player in the running back room, with special scripted plays designed to take advantage of his size, speed and athleticism. Against North Carolina, we saw him in the wishbone formation to get a first down.
With only 1:22 remaining in the half, Watson didn’t have time to waste before halftime and engineered a fast-moving, 12-play drive that covered 75 yards before the QB pushed over the goal line from one-yard out as time expired in the opening half of play.
With the Trojans taking a 21-14 lead at intermission, the concern for the fate of App State palpable. The Mountaineers tied the game at 21-21 early in the second half with a 19-yard run by senior Daetrich Harrington and followed that up by settling for a 23-yard Michael Hughes field goal to take a nervous, 24-21 lead.
Minutes later, Troy responded with another ball controlling offensive possession bby going 79 yards in 12 plays, taking 5:14 off the clock and taking a 28-24 lead when running back Kimani Vidal punched over left tackle from one yard out for the go-ahead score.
Taking over possession with 10:10 to go in the game, App State methodically marched downfield 73 yards in an astonishing 17 plays to take almost 9 minutes off the play clock. They got the ball down to the 2-yard line, but on 4th down could not get the ball into the end zone. With only 1:44 left, they had to go for the TD because a field goal would leave them with still a 1-point deficit.
So, with 98 yards in front of them, Troy took possession at the 2-yard line. They needed to burn as much time off the clock as possible to ensure victory and with only 1:13 left the Trojans knew that App State’s two timeouts would leave time on the clock and used as much of the play clock as possible.
Had Troy managed a first down, they would have been able to run down the clock and claim victory in this first Sun Belt league encounter in 2022. But in three plays, they were only able to get the ball out to their own 11, one yard short of that needed first down. On 4th-and-one with 25 seconds on the clock, the Trojans lined up as if to go for the needed first down, but surprised everyone when Watson took the snap and immediately sprinted backwards, into the end zone. The play took 10 seconds off the clock and resulted in a safety, shrinking the Trojan lead to 28-26 and punting the ball to the Mountaineers.
Troy’s Zach Long did his part, punting 46 yards to the App State 34 where it was fielded by Ahmani Marshall and returned 13 yards to the Mountaineers’ 47. And that is where Brice & Co., took over, the initial objective he told reporters later to get downfield and get within field goal range for placekicker Hughes. After three incomplete passes, there was only one option on 4th-and-10 and only 2 seconds left on the clock.
Repeated perfect execution in practice (sometimes) results in perfect execution come game time. Head coach Clark and wide receiver Horn acknowledged in the post-game presser that they have practiced the ‘Hail Mary’ situational play time after time in practice. Without doubt, practice made perfect on this day.
In his press conference, Brice told reporters that more than any other team he has been associated with, the Mountaineers rehearse situational opportunities like the Hail Mary in practice.
“In the last three weeks,” said Brice, “I think we have had to use 95 percent of those situational plays.”
Next up for the Mountaineers is another game at Kidd Brewer Stadium on Sept. 24 against former FCS rival James Madison, now a new member of the Sun Belt Conference after choosing to make a quick transition to the FBS level during the latest round of conference realignment. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:30 p.m.
The Dukes arrive in the High Country with a 2-0 record, including big wins over Middle Tennessee (44-7) and Norfolk State (63-7).
Troy (1-2 overall and 0-1 in SBC) returns home for an evening matchup against Marshall on Sept. 24.
SELECTED TEAM STATS
- Total Yards – APP 456, TRO 359
- Pass Yards – APP 295, TRO 302
- Rush Yards – APP 161, TRO 57
- Penalties – APP 6-51, TRO 2-15
- Time of Possession – APP 32:08, TRO 27:52
- Turnovers – APP 0, TRO 1
SELECTED INDIVIDUAL STATS
- TRO Gunnar Watson, 23-37, 301 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT
- APP Chase Brice, 22-34, 278 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INT
- APP Dashaun Davis, 1-1, 17 yards, 1 TD
- APP Camerun Peoples, 17-84
- APP Daetrich Harrington, 7-58, 1 TD
- TRO D.K. Billingsley, 6-38, 1 TD
- TRO Kimani Vidal, 11-29, 1 TD
- APP Christan Horn, 5-98, 1 TD
- TRO Deshon Stoudemire, 6-70
- TRO Tez Johnson, 4-69
- APP Kaedin Robinson, 4-68
- TRO Rajae Johnson, 2-57
- TRO Jabre Barber, 6-42
- TRO Marcus Rogers, 2-41
- APP Henry Pearson, 2-40
- APP Christian Wells, 1-25, 1 TD
- APP Anderson Castle, 1-18. 1 TD