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Coulson’s Postcards From Montgomery 4

By David Coulson

Editor’s note: David Coulson is bringing fans an insider’s look throughout the weekend on Appalachian State’s first bowl-game experience, check often for updates and also follow his posts on Twitter @DavidCoulsonFCS.

MONTGOMERY, AL. — It was Saturday morning — still nine hours before the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl is set for its afternoon kickoff — when I discovered the cold snap from the night before had taken its toll on my car battery.

I cranked up my Toyota Prius and heard nothing but silence. Fortunately, with everything regarding the game between Appalachian State and Ohio University in close proximity, this is a problem that can be left for another day — as in Sunday, when the bowl activities come to an end.

I walk several blocks to the hotel, the DoubleTree by Hilton, which is hosting the media events for the bowl game, to pick up my credentials, which were suppose to be available at 8 a.m.

Unfortunately, no one in the hotel has any idea what room is suppose to be available for receiving credentials. Numerous phone calls are made and a line of other media starts forming in the lobby.

It doesn’t matter if you are from ESPN, the High Country Press, or the Appalachian student newspaper, we were all stuck waiting. An hour later, someone finally tracks down the Camellia Bowl media director, who came stumbling out of his bedroom with a handful of envelopes.

Fortunately, I took a little nap in the lobby during the delay. Precious sleep on a weekend where rest was at a premium.

Inside the envelope was a press pass and a parking credential. The parking credential won’t come in very handy on this crisp, Saturday.

Unlike many bowl games, who give some little token of appreciation for the press who cover their contests, there is no bounty for this game. Any souvenirs will come off a reporter’s dime.

As I received credentials, I notice an old friend and reporter in the lobby and we decide to catch up with life over breakfast, which for me consists of a glass of orange juice. I saved room for the tailgating that I anticipated for later in the morning.

I made one more run over to the team hotel, the Renaissance, to gauge the growing excitement of the Appalachian fan base. Things were as festive as the night before.

I was told it was about a 20-25-minute walk to the stadium from the hotel and I decided, I would take in a little bit more of the city along the way.

The walk was nondescript, by when I arrived, the first person I ran into was Charlie Atkinson, a sports writer with the Greensboro News & Record and a trusted friend.

My history with Atkinson goes all the way back to my first game covering Appalachian State in 1993. We sat next to each other at Aggie Stadium on the North Carolina A&T campus and watched one of the worst ASU performances I would witness in the next 23 seasons.

In the torrential rain and mud, a young quarterback named Scott Satterfield was overwhelmed and the Mountaineers lost 22-10 before a crowd of 10,700 people. Satterfield, who was making his first college start, plummeted to the bottom of the App State depth chart.

Fortunately, Satterfield would have better days for the Mountaineers.

Atkinson and I resembled wet rats as we made it back from the visiting locker room, on the other side of the field, to write up this seemingly meaningless game.

Talk about a contrast in 23 seasons.

For the entire home slate of games this year, I had made it a point to stop by the tailgate of Atlkinson and his college friends from Greensboro. At some point, it became almost like superstition to visit these friends on my weekly walk from my ASU office in Walker Hall to Kidd Brewer Stadium.

I wasn’t going to change that routine for the Camellia Bowl.

After a quick trip to discard my work bag in the Cramton Bowl press box, which seemed to be somewhat in disarray hours before the game, I journeyed back to the tailgating.

There was a sumptuous feast awaiting, as my hosts pulled out containers of all sorts of barbecue from a highly-recommended local restaurant, along with the usual prepared goodies.

All around us, the energetic Appalachian fans were having their own particular throw-downs. If you left hungry from this party, it was your own fault.

For the next six-plus hours, a good time was had by all who ventured by.

At one point, my group invited a large throng of green-clad Ohio fans to join us.

In the course of conversation, we discovered that these folks were relatives of Appalachian safety Alex Gray — one of those defensive backs who had played so steadily during this magical season.

Not only that, but we learned that that Gray had a cousin who played on Ohio’s defense, No. 54 Tony Parker — a backup defensive tackle.

All of this family wore t-shirts that had Porter’s name and No. 54 jersey number of the back.

The family, which had traveled to several ASU games this fall, said they were torn as to their rooting loyalties.

Several hours later, Porter made one of the key defensive plays of the night when he recovered a botched snap to set up one of Ohio’s scores. He also finished with two assisted tackles.

Porter’s cousin, Gray, had a more forgettable night, managing one tackle and leaving the game with an injury.

As fate would have it, the Porter family sat several rows in front of me on the home side of the Cramton Bowl that night.

After stuffing myself to the gills with barbecue, I ventured around the stadium to take in a little bit of the pep rally across the street. On the way there, I met a family from Waynesville that I had sat next to at dinner the previous night.

There were more old and new friends to catch up with as the hours counted down to kickoff. One of them, Wayne Otto, introduced me to one of his friends, Troy University athletic director Jeramy McClain.

“This man knows more about FCS football than anyone on the planet,” Otto told McClain, as we shook hands.

Awaiting the media in the press box were hot dogs, hamburgers and chicken wings. Not bad pre-game meal fare, but I was glad to have chowed down on all of that barbecue earlier.

It was now time to settle down for some football.

Appalachian started quickly, with the Mountaineer defense holding Ohio without a first-period first down and a total of four yards in 15 minutes.

But App State kept the Bobcats in the ballgame by missing a pair of field goals and getting stopped short on a fourth-down gamble in Ohio territory.

From my seat in the press box, I noticed the statistical crew struggling to figure out if Ohio should have been credited with an additional first down after Appalachian was penalized twice with major foul on the same kickoff.

I offered an opinion to try to help and was promptly told by the man handling ESPN live stats to keep my opinions to myself in the most rude manner.

The stat crew appeared to be paying more attention to Twitter than stats when I posted a tweet wondering how accurate the game stats would be handled that night after several other questions arose on spotting the ball and other simple decisions.

“Did you see this?” the head statistician asked. “We need to take a screen shot of this.”

He tweeted back to me, with a sarcastic thank you.

And to think I was under the impression that these guys were up there in the press box to compile stats?

Appalachian’s early 7-0 lead had dissolved into a 17-7 deficit by halftime and 24-7 midway through the third quarter as the Mountaineer offense handed the Bobcats three touchdowns on turnovers.

App State finally regained its offensive equilibrium in the fourth period, going back to its bread-and-butter rushing attack to take a 28-24 edge with under 12 minutes remaining.

Marcus Cox and company were running wild.

With the Appalachian crowd sounding as loud as if it was a Kidd Brewer Stadium home game, the momentum swung again as Ohio trapped Cox in the end zone, after a missed block, for a safety.

The Bobcats then took advantage of the ensuing free kick to grind the ball into position for a 21-yard, go-ahead field goal at 29-28 with 1:47 on the clock.

Rather than despair, the Mountaineer faithful grew even louder in encouraging their team.

After a run by Jalen Moore, a pass from Taylor Lamb to Simms McElfresh picked up 14 and a keeper by Lamb contributed five more yards, Lamb energized the fans and his own team, with a deft scramble.

Reading the Bobcat defense perfectly, Lamb weaved 32 yards on a scramble to the Ohio 27. Even though reliable senior kicker Zach Matics had missed two medium-range field goals earlier, ASU fans knew that the Mountaineers were now in range to pull out a win.

Moore stuck the dagger deeper with his 15-yard burst on the next play. After an incomplete pass and another run by Moore contributed five final yards, it was time for Matics.

After calling their final time out with two seconds left, the Mountaineers signaled for the kicking team.

The ball boomed off Matics’ foot from 23 yards out and the excited senior raced for the center of the field, pulling his helmet off along the way and hoisting it high with his right hand before being tackled by his teammates.

The celebration that ensued resembled the wild aftermath of Appalachian’s 2007 national championship win over Delaware in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Fans stormed the field and mobbed the Mountaineer players.

Sometime later, we gathered in a building nearby for the post-game press conference.

As Ohio coach Frank Solich discussed the game, the extremely loud and annoying strains of Sweet Home Alabama began bursting through the field house sound system.

It took several minutes for someone to figure out how to turn it off.

There were no distractions for the Mountaineers, who soaked up every minute of their win.

As I walked out of the press conference next to Matics, I reminded this clutch performer of a conversation we had shared several days earlier.

I had asked him about what it would be like to kick a game-winning field goal on Saturday.

He exuded confidence that night at practice and he proved it was not bravado.

The ear-to-ear smile on Matics’ face said it all.