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Behind The Mic With David Jackson, On App State Football 2013: ‘So This Is What 1-4 Feels Like’

Behind The Mic with David Jackson – Oct. 8
Courtesy App State Athletics

So this is what 1-4 feels like. 

It’s been 20 years since the Appalachian State football team last sat at this record through five games. I was a sophomore in high school. If you were a sophomore in high school during the Mountaineers first national-championship run in 2005, you were four years old when the Black and Gold defeated East Tennessee State 20-16 to snap a four-game losing skid to start the 1993 season.

Courtesy App State Athletics
Courtesy App State Athletics

The 2005 national title run sparked an eight-year stretch that saw the Mountaineers win seven Southern Conference championships. Taking it back to you high school sophomores of that glorious year, you’ve seen more conference titles celebrations since you got your driver’s license than had been achieved in Appalachian’s prior 33-year SoCon history. You expect a winner every season because you have hardly seen anything else. 

Now you are a year or two out of college, depending on just how many ski weekends and Price Lake days impacted your academic progress. Along with your student loan payments, you give what you can to the Yosef Club and wait impatiently by the mail box in August for those season tickets to arrive. It’s an act that may put you in a little more debt but that first big job is just around the corner and there is no way you’re ready to give up on the fun and excitement you’ve experienced at The Rock while watching the Mountaineers win title after title.

So now you’re frustrated and you’re sure this start to the 2013 season is unprecedented. I am here to tell you that it’s not. As a matter of fact, in the Mountaineers’ gridiron history, a transitional season like this has occurred about once every ten years. The good news is that such campaigns have served as the seeds of some of Appalachian’s finest teams. 

Let’s go back to your freshman year of high school. The year was 2003. Gas cost $1.73 a gallon here in North Carolina but in Honolulu the price was just over $2.00 per gallon when the Mountaineers filled up their busses in Hawaii for the trek to Aloha Stadium for the season opener against the University of Hawaii. Sophomore quarterback Richie Williams had been handed the keys to the Appalachian offense full-time following the graduation of three-year starter Joe Burchette. Josh Jeffries’ famed “Miracle on the Mountain” interception has not been replayed inside Kidd Brewer Stadium but the two-time All-American was already on to grander pastures, concluding his first NFL camp with the Tennessee Titans.

Appalachian began the 2003 season with a 40-17 defeat at Hawaii and followed with a jet-lagged 35-7 loss at No. 24 Eastern Kentucky one week later. After three Eric Rockhold field goals propelled the Apps past Morehead State, the Black & Gold found themselves on the short end of a 24-21 loss at The Citadel, where Williams was intercepted on the Mountaineers final drive to cement a 1-3 start.

Riding a program-long five-year run of playoff inclusion, the 2003 Mountaineers relied upon a young core to complement a small group of upper-class contributors. 

Corey Lynch started the final 10 games of 2003 and the true freshman picked off six passes and compiled four fumble recoveries on his way to All-SoCon status. Lynch started alongside freshman Jeremy Wiggins, who led the Mountaineers with 90 stops on the season, including five tackles for loss. Freshman Omarr Byrom and sophomore Joe Suiter split time as the starters at defensive tackle. Jason Hunter, though a junior, played his first significant minutes of his career and notched 34 tackles on the season. Freshman Marques Murrell registered four tackles for loss as part of his 12-tackle campaign.

On the offensive side, an injury to Daniel Bettis early in 2003 sidelined him for the final 8 games of the campaign, though set him up for a medical hardship that allowed him to compete in 2006.  Freshman Matt Isenhour took over the starting spot at right guard early in the year and teamed with sophomore Grant Oliver to provide protection for Williams.

The young talent would help lift Appalachian to six wins in their final seven games in 2003. The Black and Gold closed the year shy of the playoffs but stood easily as one of the hottest teams in the country. Each of the men listed above took home at least one national title by the time their playing days concluded at Appalachian, as the seeds of the 2005 championship run started in the face of a 1-3 start just two years prior. 

Now, back to 1993. You were four years old and watching Justin Timberlake, Ryan Gosling, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears on the Mickey Mouse Club and your parents were raving about that hot new movie Sleepless in Seattle. The Mountaineers were off to their aforementioned 1-4 start.

Offensively, freshmen Damon Scott, Gerard Hardy and Scott Satterfield teamed with sophomore Aldwin Lance to produce four of the Mountaineers’ top seven individual rushing totals of the season. Satterfield started the season opener at quarterback and lost the job, only to earn it back by week five. He went on to lead the team in total offense (153.6) yards and rushing touchdowns (8). Kevin Burton, Jeff Volmer and Otis Smith were three freshmen with six or more catches and the all-American freshman duo of Chad Groover and Scott Kadlub teamed with fellow rookie and offensive line journeyman Dave Pastusic to anchor the front of the Apps’ old Power I offense.

The 1993 App State defense featured freshmen or sophomores as five of its top ten tacklers. The group was led by freshman phenom Dexter Coakley, whose 159 tackles led him to SoCon Freshman-of-the -ear status while serving as the third-highest mark in program history.  Sophomore Matt Stevens ranked second in the SoCon in interceptions (6) and had already accumulated 15 career passes defended by the end of his second season on the mountain. Sophomore Mark Ivey combined with freshmen Jamie Coleman, Joe DiBernardo and Marvin Hodge as significant contributors to a defense that allowed just 17 points on 295 yards and forced 12 turnovers over the final three games of the season – all wins, as the Apps rallied for a 4-7 finish to the 1993 season.

In 1994, this young nucleus helped the Mountaineers rattle off a 9-4 record that provided a return to the I-AA playoffs and included the team’s first postseason victory since 1987. 

The real measure of the success of the youth of 1993 came in 1995, when the Mountaineers put together the only unbeaten, untied regular season in program history (11-0) and reached the I-AA quarterfinals for the second-straight season. The Mountaineers led the Southern Conference with 13 all-conference selections, including Coakley, who stood as SoCon Defensive Player of the Year and the first-ever recipient of the Buck Buchanan Award, given to the I-AA nation’s top defensive standout. In all, 12 of the 13 Mountaineers to earn all-SoCon recognition in 1995 played significant minutes in 1993.

Fast-forward to this season. Though the Mountaineers’ 1-4 start may seem dismal, many bright spots have developed on a roster full of youth. Redshirt freshman John Law leads the SoCon in tackles and ranks in the top four in the league in interceptions. True freshman Marcus Cox is second in the league in all-purpose yardage and is averaging 12 points per game, a scoring mark that would tie for seventh nationally if the Apps were allowed inclusion in FCS statistics during their first transition season. 

All told, the Mountaineers’ top three rushers, starting quarterback, three of the top five receivers, starting punter and six of the top eight tacklers are freshmen or sophomores.

These patterns have existed throughout the program’s history. A 6-5 season under Mack Brown in 1983 led to the Apps’ first Southern Conference championship in 1986 under head coach Sparky Woods. In 1973, Appalachian posted a 3-7-1 record. Two years later, with a veteran team, the Black & Gold knocked off Wake Forest and South Carolina in the same season on their way to an 8-3 finish under Jim Brakefield.

To know a bit about where you are going, you need to understand the lessons of the past. For every period of sustained Mountaineer football success, there has been a setup season, one with a less-than-expected record fueled by a bevy of young and soon-to-be-accomplished talent. 

Every program experiences these periods of deviation from the norm of winning. Alabama has been to nine-straight bowl games but in 2003, the Crimson Tide posted a 4-9 record as it restocked its talent base following a period tarnished by NCAA recruiting sanctions. Georgia Southern reached the FCS semifinals in each of its final three seasons of playoff eligibility prior to beginning its own Sun Belt/FBS transition, yet the most-decorated championship team in the subdivision’s history went four-straight years without playoff football from 2006-09.

Appalachian closed the 1993 and 2003 seasons by winning three of their last four and six of their last seven games, respectively. The 2013 Apps have shown the ability to play close, dropping three of their four losses by a combined nine points and have held a lead in four of five games played thus far, so a similar run of late-season victories is not out of the question. A win this weekend over 23rd-ranked Samford could vault the Mountaineers right back into the thick of a Southern Conference title race they may not technically be able to win but are pushing toward all the same. 

But should the grand rally not be in the cards, take the 2013 season down in your notes because history has proven the next period of Appalachian State football dominance may be just around the corner.