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What Beating UNC Chapel Hill Means for Appalachian

Photo courtesy of Appalachian State Athletics

By Colby Gable

Since the upset when Appalachian State went to “The Big House” at the University of Michigan and cemented the historic win through a field goal block by Corey Lynch late in the fourth quarter, the next decade has not been kind to the football program when facing bigger Power 5 schools. Power 5 referring to “five athletic conferences whose members are part of the Football Subdivision (FBS) of NCAA Division I” the highest level of collegiate football in the United States. The conferences are the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big Ten Conference, PAC 12 Conference, Big 12 Conference, and Southeastern Conference (SEC). Some of the teams App has faced from the P5 conferences in just the last three years are those such as #22 ranked The University of Tennessee in September of 2016 where they lost 16-20, a few weeks later versus 20th ranked University of Miami FL losing 45-10, 2017 losing 10-31 versus #2 Georgia University, and in 2018 visiting Beaver Stadium and #10 Penn State only to fall short 38-45 in overtime.

On Saturday, all of this changed, however, after Eli Drinkwitz and company headed to Keenan Memorial Stadium and beat the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in their own territory. Not only was the game one which had a lot of back and forths on both sides of the ball, but Appalachian was able to win in a way that exemplified what the new-ish Mountaineer identity is all about, something which Drinkwitz was adamant about establishing before the start of the season.

Part of this included a phenomenal running game led by Junior running back Darrynton Evans from Oak Hill, Florida. He finished the day with 78 yards on 19 carries and 3 total touchdowns, and Zac Thomas was able to add another 57 as well. Thomas impacted the game as well going 20 for 29 passing but coming up short with zero touchdowns and only 224 yards. It was apparent seeing him unconventionally struggle with decision making and taking questionable chances by making throws in highly contested coverage, eventually leading to his first interception of the season.

Additionally, the defense played a monumental role in the win as App was able to convert 14 points off of turnovers and defensive players like Demetrius Taylor who forced two turnovers and returned one for a score put the offense in a much easier position to win the game.

Apart from the analytics, however, beating UNC is significant for Appalachian in ways that go beyond the game. Using the team’s past strength’s combined with Drinkwitz’s past ability to dominate Carolina as Offensive Coordinator at NC State provokes the argument of where Appalachian fits into the spot of best college team in the state, and rightfully so. Being outside of the ACC and not having the opportunity to play other North Carolina universities such as State, Duke, or Wake Forest, each of which have produced NFL caliber players consistently the last decade, it is hard to definitively say Appalachian belongs at the top simply because of the inability to go against the competition. But as Thomas Hennigan mentioned at the post-game press conference about whether he thinks App now officially reached #1 in the state, “We’re definitely open to anyone who wants to play us.” The insistence that beating UNC was never an upset, and the sort of ideals which Hennigan mentioned relay a newly defined aspect of the program which now goes beyond the theoretical, that Appalachian undoubtedly belongs on the field with anyone and differences like that of Athletic Program finances between the schools are irrelevant, proving now with certainty to have talent good enough to truly compete outside of Sun Belt play.

I expect this game to obviously have a distinct impact for the team as it could contribute unbelievable momentum on the field going forward, but off the field, provides a strong foundation for the case to rank Appalachian in the country’s Top 25 if they continue on undefeated in the regular season. For the athletic program in general, whispers in Boone about Appalachian’s place in the ACC are undoubtedly sure to turn a bit louder now, and while an actual addition to the conference may be a while away, twelve years after the upset against Michigan, the most important game in the last decade comes at a time where a win versus a newly refurbished Carolina team may end up being a vital starting point for such a change. Regardless of whether App stays in the Sun Belt for years to come or not, Saturday proved to the rest of the state of the irrelevance of which conference Appalachian stays in, and that the tradition of a top tier program continues as always.