By Tim Gardner
In the biggest game of the 2020 season so far for both teams, the Appalachian State Mountaineers lost 34-23 to the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers Saturday afternoon at Brooks Stadium in Conway, SC.
The game was played before a limited audience at the stadium due to Coronavirus, but with perhaps millions watching on the national television ESPN 2 broadcast.
Trailing 23-21, Coastal Carolina scored two touchdowns in the final 2:24 of the game to claim the win.
Safety Alex Spillum intercepted Appalachian State quarterback Zac Thomas’s pass to give Coastal Carolina the ball at the Mountaineers’ 49-yard-line with 6:59 remaining to set up the first of those touchdowns.
Following a facemask penalty on Appalachian State’s Brendan Harrington, running back Reese White scored from three yards out to put the Chanticleers up 27-23 with 2:24 to go. A 2-point conversion attempt was no good.
Then after tackle C.J. Brewer sacked Thomas on third down, setting up a fourth-and-long play from near Appalachian State’s own goal line, cornerback D’Jordan Strong picked off Thomas for the second time of the game and returned the ball 38 yards for the last touchdown with 1:20 left. Massimo Biscardi kicked the point-after for the final tally.
The 15th-ranked Chanticleers entered the game with a 7-0 record, tying the conference record for best start to a season — a mark set by Appalachian State just last season.
Coastal Carolina (8-0 over-all, 6-0 Sun Belt) is likely to at least maintain its national ranking (highest of any Sun Belt Conference team in poll history) and took a big step toward playing in the conference championship tilt by defeating the four-time defending Sun Belt champion Mountaineers (6-2 over-all; 4-1 Sun Belt).
The loss also ended Appalachian State’s 6-0 all-time mark against Coastal Carolina, and the Chanticleers will have a leg up on the league’s East Division.
Running back Camerun Peoples scored from 1 yard out with 11:40 to go in the first quarter and Chandler Staton kicked the extra point to give Appalachian State a 7-0 lead.
Appalachian State got a big break on the previous play to maintain possession of the ball. Coastal Carolina linebacker Silas Kelly forced a Peoples fumble that was recovered by Spillum near the Coastal Carolina goal line. Television replays clearly showed that Peoples lost control of the ball before his knee was down on the turf. But the game officials ruled Peoples’ knee was down, and after a review, they let the play stand.
That was the first touchdown Coastal Carolina’s defense allowed in 10 quarters.
But Coastal Carolina answered Appalachian State’s score quickly. On the first play from scrimmage for the Chanticleers, quarterback Grayson McCall connected with tight end Isaiah Likely for a 75-yard touchdown pass. Likely was double covered by the Mountaineers, but caught the ball on the Mountaineers’ 35-yard line and broke free to score with 11:29 left in the first period. However, Biscardi missed the point-after kick, leaving Appalachian State ahead, 7-6.
After a strip sack by Appalachian State lineman Demetrius Taylor that the Chanticleers recovered, Coastal Carolina had to settle for a 51-yard FG from Biscardi to claim a 9-7 lead with 10:50 to go before the half.
Then, following a gang sack by Brewer and bandit Jeffrey Gunter on Thomas, Staton nailed a 44-yard field goal to put the Mountaineers back ahead at 10-9 with 4:57 left in the half.
Appalachian State then capped a 9-play, 84-yard drive that only took 51 seconds with a 25-yard touchdown pass from Thomas to wide receiver Christian Wells with only nine seconds left before halftime. Staton added the extra point to provide a 17-9 lead.
McCall darted 62 yards for a touchdown only 49 seconds into the second half. He then threw a pass to Likely on the 2-point conversion attempt to tie the game. But Likely could not reach the end zone as Appalachian State still led 17-15.
Staton booted a 37-yard field goal to push the Mountaineers small cushion to 20-15 with 10:55 remaining in the third quarter.
The drive covered 69 yards in 7 plays and took 3:51 off the clock. It was aided by a 62-yard pass from Thomas to wide receiver Malik Williams, the longest pass play of the season for Appalachian State and the longest reception of Williams’ career.
Coastal Carolina regained the lead when McCall tossed a 19-yard touchdown pass to running back C.J. Marable to cap a 10-play, 65-yard drive. McCall’s throw to Likely on the 2-point conversion flew out of the end zone incomplete, leaving the Chanticleers up 21-20 with 6:21 left in the third period.
The next score came after Brewer made a stop on third down with 11:47 remaining to play. Staton then kicked a 45-yad field goal to give the Mountaineers a 23-21 lead.
This scoring drive took 10 plays and covered 53 yards, while taking just over five minutes.
Appalachian State’s defense stopped another score by Coastal Carolina when McCall reached for the end zone on a 5-yard run. But the ball was knocked out by defensive back Kaiden Smith and recovered by outside linebacker Nick Hampton in the end zone for a touchback for the Mountaineers with 8:57 to play. After an official review, it was determined the ball came out of McCall’s possession before he got it into the end zone.
Peoples ran for a career-high 178 yards, but 171 came in the first half.
Appalachian State plays host to fellow-Sun Belt foe Troy in Kidd Brewer Stadium in Boone on November 28. The game will be televised on ESPNU, beginning at 8:00 p.m.