By David Coulson
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — As Zach Matics finished up his final practice at Kidd Brewer Stadium Monday evening, he contemplated a scenario where he would be called upon to make one more game-winning kick.
Coming on the field with two seconds left in the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl on Saturday evening those dreams became reality when the senior place kicker nailed a 23-yard field goal to lift Appalachian State to its historic 31-29 victory over Ohio University before 21,395 spectators at the Cramton Bowl.
Matics’ kick on the final play of the game completed the 24-point fourth-quarter surge that took the Mountaineers (11-2) from a 24-7 deficit to their first Football Bowl Subdivision postseason win in one of the most wild and wooly contests in recent bowl memory.
Probably the most important kick for ASU after Julian Rauch scored the winning three-pointer in Appalachian’s 2007, 34-32 upset over Michigan, Matics’ effort completed the first 11-win season for a Sun Belt Conference team and marked the first time that an FBS squad had won a bowl game in its first season of eligibility.
It was also the 17th victory in the past 19 contests for the Mountaineers.
“I’m speechless about it,” admitted Matics, who had uncharacteristically missed attempts from 39 and 42 yards wide to the right in the first period, but had showed the confidence of an assassin when he entered the game with two seconds remaining. “I was not going to miss that ball right, I’ll tell you that right now.”
Matics’ winning placement — drilled straight down the middle of the uprights — set off a wild celebration of players, coaches and fans reminiscent of Appalachian’s three national championship victories in 2005, 06 and 07, led by his manic run to the middle of the field, with his helmet held high in one hand.
“There was never a doubt that he would make that field goal and I think everyone on our sideline felt that way,” said ASU coach Scott Satterfield. “I’ve been a part of football for a long, long time. I’ve never been a part of a game like this.”
After struggling with just one field goal in five attempts last season, including a blocked extra point that cost the Mountaineers a chance to win in overtime last season at South Alabama, Matics had been nearly perfect during the 2015 regular season.
He had made all 57 of his PATs and was 13-of-14 on field goals, with the only miss coming inches wide to the left from 52 yards out. That included a previous game-winner from 24 yards out in triple overtime at home against Troy and a game-tying, 50-yard effort three weeks earlier at South Alabama.
Matics was also true on four more extra points in Saturday’s game.
But it took one of Appalachian’s best defensive performances of the year, a return to its dominating rushing attack and some apprehensive moments to complete this epic triumph.
Missing its second-leading tackler, junior linebacker John Law, the Mountaineer defense allowed only a pair of Josiah Yazdani field goals overall and held the Bobcats (8-5) of the Mid-American Conference without any initial-period first downs and just four yards on Ohio’s 12 plays in that quarter.
App State limited the Bobcats to 272 yards of total offense for the game and forced three turnovers.
Linebacker Devan Stringer led the defense with 10 tackles on a night where the Mountaineers had two sacks, five tackles for loss and seven pass breakups.
“I think on the ride back to Boone, I’ll probably cry like a little girl,” said ASU senior defensive end Ronald Blair, who forced and recovered a fumble to stop one Ohio drive and added one sack and four tackles. “We feel we have to beat the other defense.”
But all of that defensive work came unraveled as the Mountaineers were held to quarterback Taylor Lamb’s 21-yard, first-quarter TD burst and squandered additional scoring opportunities on the two missed field goals and a failed fourth-down conversion attempt.
The game unraveled on Appalachian when Ohio scored 17 points in the final 83 seconds of the first half.
Yazdani’s 36-yard field goal cut the Mountaineer lead to 7-3 to cap the Bobcats’ first sustained drive of the night and linebacker Quentin Poling’s 20-yard interception return just eight seconds later gave Ohio its first lead.
A bad snap from App State senior center Jesse Chapman was recovered by defensive tackle Tony Porter, the cousin of ASU’s starting free safety Alex Gray at the Mountaineer 23 and Ohio running back A.J. Quellette (14 carries, 45 yards rushing) dashed seven yards, two plays later, to boost the Bobcats to their 10-point, halftime advantage.
“It was all falling apart,” said Lamb, who was 13-of-26 for two TDs and 124 yards passing and rushed nine times for 51 yards. “We came into to halftime and really got focused.”
Instead, Ohio linebacker Jovon Johnson stripped Appalachian receiver Ike Lewis of the ball after Lewis missed a cutback lane on the jet sweep and jaunted 45 yards for the touchdown that expanded the Bobcats’ edge to 24-7 in the third period.
With Ohio bottling up the Mountaineer receivers, Appalachian turned back to its forte — running the football — to save the night.
Camellia Bowl MVP Marcus Cox scampered for 162 yards on 24 carries, 115 of those yards coming in the second half. It could have been even more, but a holding call on the Appalachian offensive line cost Cox 46 yards in the third quarter and derailed the potential scoring drive.
“Our coaches told us to be patient,” said Cox. “We wanted to run the ball and it finally opened up.”
True freshman Jalin Moore complemented Cox with 13 ground attempts for 96 yards on a night where the Mountaineers — ranked sixth nationally in rushing — netted 303 yards running and 427 yards of total offense.
Appalachian showed its football DNA on an 11-play, 97-yard drive that bled nearly five minutes off the clock. All of that running enabled tight end Barrett Burns to get free in the middle of the end zone for his first of two scoring receptions.
On play action, Lamb drilled the ball to his trusted, red-zone target from 17 yards out and it was 24-14 with under 14 minutes remaining.
“We knew that if we scored a touchdown and we started getting a little momentum, we would be able to come back,” said Satterfield. ‘So we never panicked, our guys never panicked. We stayed true to the process.”
It took Appalachian just 42 seconds to cut further into the Bobcats’ lead.
Cornerback Latrell Gibbs (seven tackles, three PBUs) intercepted a pass from Ohio QB JD Sprague and returned the ball 11 yards to the Bobcat 26. Cox turned the corner on a sweep just one playe later and the OU lead was just three points at 24-21.
With the ASU-dominant crowd roaring its approval with some of its loudest cheering of the season, the momentum in this topsy-turvy contest swung almost totally back to the Mountaineers.
“They gave us a couple (of turnovers) in the first half and we took advantage of those,” said veteran Ohio coach Frank Solich. “And we gave them a couple in the second half and they took advantage of those.”
The tide flowed deeper for Appalachian when Mondo Williams made a diving catch of another Sprague pass for an interception just two plays later at the Ohio 47.
Cox pounded through a seam for 36 yards on the next play and ASU was in business at the Bobcat 11.
From there, Lamb broke Armanti Edwards’ record for single-season passing TDs by finding the dangerous Burns again for an eight-yard scoring strike and the Mountaineers had crawl all the way back with its first lead since the second quarter at 28-24, needing less than two minutes to score three times.
Ohio, however, wasn’t finished. The Bobcats hemmed App State in at its own three on a well-placed punt and Johnson stormed past a blocker to trap Cox for the safety.
Two costly ASU penalties on the ensuing free kick gave Ohio excellent field position at its own 45 and the Bobcats converted two third downs and one fourth down to set up Yazdani’s 21-yard field goal.
The problem was the Bobcats left 1:47 on the fourth-quarter clock.
After starting at the ASU 21, Lamb picked up one first down with a clutch 14-yard aerial to Simms McElfresh on second down and rushed for five more yards to the Mountaineer 36.
Viewing the Bobcats’ defense on the next play, Lamb was ready to turn a one-safety defensive look from a pass into a scramble. Lamb’s quick decision allowed him to break containment for the 32-yard run that moved the ball into Matics’ range at the Ohio 27.
Moore added 21 yards on three carries, including one 15-yard dash to make the task even easier for the accurate Matics, who considered quitting football after his well-documented problems in 2014.
“I was the coolest guy in the stadium right there,” said the ever-confident Matics.
Until he went nuts after the winning kick.
“People are going to remember us for how we finished the season,” Satterfield added. “We always talk about finishing strong and they’re going to remember us for this bowl victory right here. They’re going to remember the 10 (previous) wins, but they’re really going to remember this bowl victory in the Camellia Bowl.”