By Tim Gardner
Photography by David C. Mayo
The Appalachian State Mountaineers started the game strong and dominant and used some heroics in the final seconds to defeat North Carolina 34-31 Saturday in Chapel Hill, NC.
Defensive end Demetrius Taylor forced a pair of turnovers to help Appalachian State (3-0) build a first-half lead, and running back Darrynton Evans rushed for three touchdowns to also help push the Mountaineers past North Carolina, an in-state and Atlantic Coast Conference program, currently coached by former Appalachian State head coach Mack Brown.
North Carolina reached Appalachian State’s 39-yard line with five seconds left and attempted a game-tying field goal to send the game into overtime. But outside linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither rose to the occasion for the Mountaineers and blocked the 56-yarder as time expired.
The second-ever football meeting between the two schools and first since 1940 drew a spirited, sold-out crowd to Kenan Stadium, and the Mountaineers posted their first win against a Power Five conference team since the historic upset of Michigan in 2007, when Appalachian State was a title-winning Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) lower-level program.
It marked Appalachian State’s eighth victory against an ACC program and the first since beating Wake Forest 20-16 nearly twenty years ago (2000).
“This wasn’t an underdog story,” first-year Appalachian State coach Eliah Drinkwitz said. “You’re not playing a logo. You’re playing a team. It wasn’t going to be an upset. We belonged on that football field today and we wanted to prove it.”
North Carolina (2-2) scored with one second left in the first half and again in the third quarter to slice a 27-10 deficit to only three points at 27-24. But the Mountaineers responded immediately to the Tar Heels’ long touchdown march with a 75-yard touchdown drive that included a pair of long pass completions – quarterback Zac Thomas’ 31-yard pass to wide receiver Thomas Hennigan and then his 43-yard connection with wide receiver Malik Williams.
Evans’ short touchdown run late in the third quarter provided some welcomed separation, and Davis-Gaither ended the next series at Appalachian State’s 27 with his first career interception. The Tar Heels then finally pulled within 34-31 on a short touchdown run with 3:01 remaining.
Facing a third-and-5 from his own 30, Thomas gained 12 yards on a play-action keeper around the right side for a first down, and an Appalachian State punt gave the Tar Heels one last possession starting from their 20 with 30 seconds left. A 24-yard completion into Appalachian State territory set up the long-shot field-goal try, but the Mountaineers enjoyed another 2007 Michigan-like finish.
With three FCS national titles, four straight bowl wins and three consecutive conference titles, Appalachian State’s championship-winning ways remain a point of pride for college football in the state of North Carolina, and the Mountaineers have improved to 3-0 with back-to-back wins against in-state Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) Major College opponents.
North Carolina used a long kickoff return and 21-yard touchdown pass to take a lead 17 seconds into the game, but Appalachian State answered by scoring the next 20 points, starting with two Chandler Staton field goals and continuing courtesy of Taylor’s two takeaways.
Staton made kicks of 31 and 43 yards before Taylor, who finished with 2.5 sacks, made the first of several big plays early during a drive by North Carolina. He rushed around the end, forced a fumble on a blindside sack of quarterback Sam Howell, and soon scooped the ball up at the 20-yard line and raced into the end zone with 3:39 remaining in the first quarter.
With Appalachian State ahead 13-7 early in the second quarter, Taylor fought off a low block and returned to his feet in time to deflect Howell’s hard, short-range pass to the left. He then got hold of the ball enough to intercept it and gained 19 yards on a return to the North Carolina 26.
Three straight completions to wide receiver Corey Sutton preceded Evans’ first touchdown on a 5-yard run.
The Mountaineers’ defense later held inside the 10, forcing a short field goal with the help of another Taylor pass deflection, and Appalachian State moved back into scoring range thanks to a 12-yard pass to Williams on third down, coupled with a 15-yard targeting penalty against the Tar Heels.
Evans’ 31-yard sprint to the 4-yard line set up his second touchdown, a 2-yard run on a third-and-goal option pitch.
The Tar Heels cut their deficit to 27-17 at halftime on Michael Carter’s 11-yard touchdown reception on a screen pass from Howell. North Carolina then used a 15-play, 98-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter to close the gap to 27-24.
Appalachian State had some type of answer, as the 31-yard pass to Hennigan and 43-yard pass to Williams set up Evans’ 2-yard touchdown run that increased the margin back to double figures at 34-24 (following Staton’s conversion kick). North Carolina advanced to the Appalachian State 36 before Davis-Gaither made a diving interception to thwart another scoring threat. The Mountaineers were able to hold on after Howell’s 2-yard keeper for a touchdown with 3:01 left pulled the Tar Heels within 34-31.
Linebacker Jordan Fehr led Appalachian State’s defense with 15 tackles, and four young defensive backs performed well in relief roles throughout most of the fourth quarter on a sweltering afternoon.
Evans finished with 78 rushing yards, and Thomas threw for 224. His top receivers for the game were Sutton (seven catches, 58 yards), Hennigan (six catches, 90 yards) and Williams (six catches, 78 yards).
The Mountaineers host Coastal Carolina next Saturday, Sept. 28 to open their Sun Belt Conference schedule.