By Tim Gardner
Appalachian State University’s football program was featured with a long cover story and superlative pictures in arguably the most famous sports magazine of all-time, Sports Illustrated, after pulling off perhaps the biggest upset in college history on September 1, 2007.
The Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) Mountaineers shocked the college football world then by beating traditional major college power Michigan 34-32 in Ann Arbor to warrant such big-time publicity. The Wolverines entered that game ranked Number 5 in both major Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) polls and media outlets considered them to be preseason favorites to win the Big Ten Conference championship as well as possibly the national championship. Appalachian State was ranked No. 1 in The Sports Network‘s FCS poll and was the preseason favorite to win a third consecutive national championship on that level.
But games between FBS and FCS teams typically result in lopsided victories for the FBS team, and the Appalachian State–Michigan game was not expected to be an exception. But with the win, Appalachian State became the first ever FCS (I-AA) team to defeat an Associated Press nationally ranked FBS (I-A) team.
Appalachian State moved up to the FBS level in 2014, but the Mountaineers are still often considered heavy underdogs against some major college perennial powerhouse teams.
However, on the 11-year anniversary (September 1, 2018) of that milestone win over Michigan—Appalachian State nearly recorded its second biggest upset ever, which ironically was against another Big Ten opponent on the road. But tenth-ranked and 23-point favorite Penn State barely pulled out a 45-38 overtime win in front of 105,232 fans at Beaver Stadium to keep the Mountaineers from achieving what might have been the signature victory of the 2018 college football season.
And for their herculean efforts against Penn State, Sports Illustrated has again included the Mountaineers in a story. Entitled “Into The Lions Den,” it appears in this week’s issue dated September 10. The article begins on page 29 and was written by Andy Staples. It’s 2,242 words in length and covers seven pages with two showing Appalachian State players.
Unlike the 2007 issue, there is no Appalachian State player on this week’s Sports Illustrated magazine cover. Instead, it shows a Penn State player with the heading “It’s Lit” with a sub-heading of “And The 2018 Crazy Is Already Off The Charts.”
But the Mountaineers are included in a magazine cover inscription, which reads: Thanks to a Miles Sanders TD in OT, the Nittany Lions barely escaped an upset by Appalachian State-11 years to the day after the Mountaineers famously derailed Michigan’s season.
The story leads off with this short overview of what would have been another Appalachian State colossal upset: Week 1 was supposed to be a party led by an elite Penn State QB. Instead it drove home college football’s greatest truth: You never know when an entire year will ride on the next snap.
Trailing by 14 points (31-17) with less than eight minutes remaining, Appalachian State rallied, scoring three consecutive touchdowns and conversion kicks by Chandler Staton to take the lead. Running back Jalin Moore scored on a 16-yard touchdown run with 1:47 left and Staton followed with the extra point to put the Mountaineers up 38-31 with less than two minutes to play.
But Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, the senior Heisman candidate, led the Nittany Lions on a game-tying touchdown drive to force overtime. Under heavy pressure from the Appalachian State defense, McSorley threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to redshirt freshman K.J. Hamler and Jake Pinegar added the point-after-kick to tie the game (38-38) with 42 seconds left. Before his scoring reception, Hamler gave Penn State excellent field position with a 52-yard kick return to the Appalachian State 48-yard line.
Appalachian State still had a chance to win the game in regulation. Staton had enough distance on a 56-yard field goal attempt, but the kick sailed wide to the right with 15 seconds left.
The Nittany Lions (1-0) scored in overtime on a 4-yard touchdown run by Miles Sanders. Then after Appalachian State running back Darrynton Evans narrowly converted a fourth-and-1 to the 15, quarterback Zac Thomas, who had torched the Nittany Lions secondary the whole game, again looked to the end zone. This time, Penn State cornerback Amani Oruwariye made an acrobatic interception in the end zone to end the game.
Thomas accounted for three fourth-quarter touchdowns before finishing with 270 passing yards in his starting debut.
Appalachian State finished with 451 total yards, 17 more than the Nittany Lions. Senior linebacker Anthony Flory made a team-high nine tackles to lead the Mountaineer defense. Fellow inside linebacker Jordan Fehr contributed eight tackles in his first start.
“That (this game) was a resounding yes that we won’t back down, we will keep fighting,” Appalachian State head coach Scott Satterfield said. “That’s the heart of our program for the last 30 years. (At least) since I’ve been here.
“Our players believed. There was not any doubt in our minds that we could get this win. We played like that. And especially when we got down 14, even with the young football team that we have… that was the one question that I had – would our team fold when adversity hits? I think that question was answered.”
Penn State head coach James Franklin said of Appalachian State following the game: “I don’t know what’s in the water in Boone, North Carolina, but it seems like they’ve been doing this for a long time against whoever they play (either winning over heavily favored teams or taking them down to the final play or plays).”
This week’s Sports Illustrated issue can be purchased at area magazine outlets and supermarkets or ordered online by logging onto: si.com.
The online version of the story is entitled Penn State–Appalachian State Was a Crash Course in What Makes College Football Great—and can be accessed at: si.com/college-football/2018/09/04/penn-state-appalachian-state-trace-mcsorley-nfl.