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East Carolina Pulls Away Late in Season Opener in Greenville, Downs Mountaineers 35-13

Troy Sanders hauls in an interception on the opening series of the game that set up a touchdown that gave Appalachian State a 7-0 lead. Photo courtesy of Tyler Buckwell and Appalachian Sports Information

Sept. 3, 2012. GREENVILLE, N.C. — Appalachian State University trailed East Carolina by just one point late in the third quarter but an array of miscues and the sweltering weather took their toll on the Mountaineers down the stretch in a 35-13 loss in Saturday’s season opener at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

Appalachian State (0-1) racked up 419 yards of offense — including 300 passing yards by junior quarterback Jamal Jackson (Atlanta, Ga./North Atlanta)— but surrendered touchdowns on a fumble and kickoff return, allowed a long punt return that set up another score, turned the ball over three times and was penalized 11 times for 100 yards in the hard-fought loss.

The Mountaineers trailed just 14-13 with 2:35 to go in the third quarter after Drew Stewart (Gastonia, N.C./North Gaston) made his second field goal of the day from 41 yards out. However, East Carolina’s Lance Ray returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a game-changing touchdown and Conference USA’s Pirates used their superior depth to wear down the Apps from there.

Appalachian held a commanding 332-242 advantage in total yardage through three quarters but was outgained 148-87 in the final period and ECU tacked on a pair of fourth-quarter scores to account for the deceiving final margin.

Things couldn’t have started out much better for the Mountaineers, who have been slow out of the gates in recent season openers. Troy Sanders (Chester, S.C./Chester) intercepted ECU quarterback Rio Johnson on the first series of the ballgame. Appalachian took over on its own 42 and marched 58 yards in 10 plays, capped by a four-yard touchdown run by Jackson that gave the Apps a 7-0 lead. Jackson almost did it all on the 10-play drive, completing 5-of-5 passes for 48 yards and rushing twice for 10 more yards and the score.

Thanks largely to its stifling defense, Appalachian State still led 7-0 early in the second quarter and was approaching ECU territory on its third possession of the game when the C-USA officiating crew ruled that Jackson fumbled at the end of a five-yard run. East Carolina’s Chris Thompson scooped up the loose ball and, with the majority of the players on the field and the 49,023 in attendance believing that Jackson was down, ran to the end zone before officials whistled the play dead. After a lengthy video review, it was ruled that there was not enough evidence to overturn the call on the field and the touchdown stood, tying the contest at 7-7.

Two possessions later, after a 43-yard punt return by Justin Hardy, the Pirates needed to go just 17 yards to take their first lead of the game on an 11-yard touchdown pass from Johnson to Andrew Bodenheimer.

Despite what could have been a back-breaking turn of events, Appalachian grabbed the momentum back shortly before the intermission. After the Mountaineer defense capped a dominant first half by forcing an ECU three-and-out that ran just 25 seconds off the clock, the offense used terrific catches by Malachi Jones (Roswell, Ga./North Gwinnett) and Tony Washington (High Point, N.C./T.W. Andrews) to march 40 yards in just 38 seconds and Stewart kicked a 26-yard field goal to send the Apps to the locker room trailing 14-10.

Appalachian’s defensive dominance continued well into the third quarter, highlighted by Brandon Grier (Charlotte, N.C./West Charlotte) forcing a fumble with a vicious hit on East Carolina running back Michael Dobson that was recovered by Ronald Blair (Greensboro, Ga./Greene County) on the ECU 43 yard line. The turnover, the second of the day forced by the Mountaineer defense, set up the 19-yard drive that culminated with Stewart’s second field goal of the day and brought the Apps within a point of the upset.

Despite battling cramps brought on by the extreme heat and humidity in Greenville, Jackson completed 23-of-40 passes for 300 yards and ran seven times for 34 yards and a touchdown in the gritty loss. Washington hauled in seven of Jackson’s 23 completions for a career-best 102 yards, while Andrew Peacock (Durham, N.C./Northern Durham) and Jones notched 77 and 69 yards, respectively, on five catches each. Steven Miller (Piscataway, N.J./Piscataway) was one of three Appalachian ball-carriers to notch at least 30 yards on the ground, finishing with 47 yards on 14 carries.

Appalachian’s valiant defensive performance was led by Jeremy Kimbrough (Decatur, Ga./Cedar Grove), who tallied a game-high 13 tackles. Sanders added 10 stops to go along with his interception.

After the gutsy season-opening effort, the sixth-ranked Mountaineers return to Kidd Brewer Stadium next week for the 2012 home opener and perhaps the most anticipated non-conference game in NCAA Division I FCS regular-season history versus No. 11 Montana. Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. at The Rock and the contest can be seen nationally on ESPN Gameplan and worldwide on ESPN3.

Game notes

Appalachian State’s first-quarter touchdown marked the first time since its historic win at Michigan in 2007 that it scored on its first possession of the season … Sanders’ interception on ECU’s opening series kept Appalachian’s opponent off the scoreboard on the first offensive possession of a season-opener for the first time since 2006 at NC State and also marked the first time since the ‘06 loss at State an FBS opponent failed to score a touchdown on their opening possession against the Mountaineers … ECU’s fumble return for a touchdown was the first against Appalachian since the 2009 NCAA Division I Championship quarterfinals at Richmond … the Pirates’ kickoff return touchdown was the first surrendered by the Mountaineers since the opening kickoff of the second half at James Madison in 2008 … despite its sixth-straight loss to ECU, Appalachian State still holds a 19-12 lead in the all-time series with the Pirates … Appalachian also holds a 33-21 all-time edge against current members of Conference USA … DB Jamill Lott (Kannapolis, N.C./A.L. Brown), WR Sean Price (Reston, Va./South Lakes) and LB Jamal Ware (Tyrone, Ga./Sandy Creek) did not participate in Saturday’s game due to a violation of team rules — Coach Jerry Moore said after the game that all three would return to action on Sept. 15 vs. The Citadel.