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App State Captures Historic Win

By Dave Holcomb
SouthernPigskin.com
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For the first time since that upset against Michigan in 2007, Appalachian State knocked off a Power 5 opponent with a 34-31 victory against North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The Appalachian State victory against Michigan 12 years ago will always be remembered as one of the biggest upsets in not only college football but sports history. However, the Mountaineers arguably captured an even bigger win for their program Saturday.

For the first time since that upset against the Wolverines in 2007, Appalachian State knocked off a Power 5 opponent with a 34-31 victory against North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Mountaineers led for most of the game, but they responded multiple times when the Tar Heels attempted a comeback to secure what should be a “mountainous” victory for the recruiting trail in North Carolina.

Behind two first-half turnovers, Appalachian State built a 10-point halftime lead. It could have been more, but North Carolina executed its two-minute offense to near perfection, scoring a touchdown with one second remaining in the second quarter.

The Tar Heels also tallied the first touchdown of the second half to pull within three points during the final few minutes of the third quarter. However, Appalachian State had an answer.

It was a quick one too. Two minutes and seven seconds after North Carolina cut the lead to three, the Mountaineers reached the end zone to extend the lead back to 10.

North Carolina moved the ball effectively in the second half, and outgained Appalachian State 469-385 in the game, but it took until there was less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter before North Carolina cut the lead back down to three.

Appalachian State came awfully close to beating Penn State in Week 1 last year and Wake Forest in Sept. 2017, but the Mountaineers couldn’t seal the deal in either contest. Appalachian State lost to the Nittany Lions in overtime and fell to the Demon Deacons by a point the previous September.

With a three-point lead, 2:59 remaining and North Carolina possessing all of its timeouts in need of a defensive stop to get the ball back, it seemed like Appalachian State, who began its drive at its own 25 yard-line, was heading for another disappointing ending. Junior quarterback Zac Thomas nearly ensured that wouldn’t happen, though, as he picked up a first down on a 12-yard run to convert a third-and-5.

That play forced North Carolina to use all of its timeouts and almost drained all the clock. North Carolina received the ball back with 30 seconds remaining and needed about 40 yards for a realistic shot at a game-tying field goal.

Credit Tar Heels freshman quarterback Sam Howell for never quitting. He led the Tar Heels on a 41-yard drive in 25 seconds, giving kicker Noah Ruggles a try at a 56-yard field goal to force overtime.

However, it was Appalachian State who responded one more time. If made, the kick would have set a new personal high for Ruggles by seven yards, so perhaps the kick wasn’t going to be near the center of the uprights anyway, but Mountaineers linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither ensured Appalachian State wouldn’t have to sweat out the kick, getting his finger on the attempt for a block.

This win, especially coming on the road in Chapel Hill, should be huge for Appalachian State recruiting. As awesome as it was to see them beat Michigan, there aren’t many kids in North Carolina who are stuck between choosing between the Wolverines or Mountaineers football programs.

The same might not be true of Appalachian State vs. North Carolina. The Tar Heels certainly own an edge being in the Power 5, but the Mountaineers are building a special Sun Belt program and beating the big-time North Carolina programs will only convince in-state kids that Appalachian State is truly a place to make a college football career.

Thomas finished 20 of 29 for 224 passing yards with an interception while also chipping in 57 rushing yards on six carries. Junior running back Darrnyton Evans led the way on the ground, posting 78 yards and three touchdowns.

North Carolina was impressive in the fourth quarter, completing nearly another incredible comeback to begin the Mack Brown era, but instead, the Tar Heels are left to wonder what if because of first-half turnovers. Howell threw for 323 yards and three touchdowns, but he also tossed his first two interceptions of the season. Howell also fumbled, which Appalachian State recovered and returned for a touchdown.

In all, the Mountaineers scored 14 points off Tar Heels giveaways. As great as North Carolina has been at taking care of the ball early this year, letdowns in that area can cost teams games regardless of the opponent.

Each of these teams will begin conference play next week. Appalachian State will welcome Coastal Carolina to Boone while North Carolina will host No. 1 Clemson.

With a difficult home loss to a Group 5 team, it’s a tough the Tar Heels draw the defending champions next. After a surprising 2-0 start with wins against South Carolina and Miami, North Carolina will likely find itself 2-3 because of the inability to take advantage of its opportunities on the road against Wake Forest last week and versus Appalachian State this Saturday.