KNOXVILLE, TN. — Appalachian State was one bounce away from the second biggest regular-season victory in its football history on Thursday night in the season-opening game against Tennessee.
But enough breaks went the Volunteers way in the second half to allow ninth-ranked Tennessee to escape with a 20-13 overtime win before an announced crowd of 100,074 fans at Neyland Stadium.
The Mountaineers fell one second short of having time for a potential game-winning field goal attempt in regulation and Tennessee converted a fumble by quarterback Joshua Dobbs (16-of-29 passing for 192 yards) near the goal line into Jalen Hurd’s go-ahead touchdown to start overtime.
Taylor Lamb’s pass on fourth and five from the 20 to Shaedon Meadors in the end zone was knocked away by Tennessee free safety Micah Abernathy to end the contest.
Instead of another attention-grabbing upset, like the one nine years ago to the day at Michigan, the finish left the Mountaineers with heartbreak and frustration.
“We have a lot of confidence in how we finish and we didn’t get it finished tonight,” ASU coach Scott Satterfield said. “We’re a program that is not into moral victories.”
Appalachian dominated Tennessee in the first half with sure tackling on defense and innovative rushing on offense to build a 13-3 halftime lead, but the Mountaineers made just enough mistakes the rest of the way to prevent another signature triumph.
“We were moving the ball every drive and at the end of the drives, we were shooting ourselves in the foot,” said ASU senior tailback Marcus Cox, who led all rushers with 24 carries for 115 yards and also scored on a 33-yard pass from Lamb in the second quarter. “We put ourselves in position to win and didn’t capitalize.”
After a 2015 season where the kicking game, led by senior Zach Matics provided three final-second wins in an 11-2 campaign, it was special teams play that helped unravel the Mountaineers on Thursday night.
Freshman Michael Rubino missed an extra point following Cox’s touchdown and then tried to guide a potential go-ahead, 42-yard field goal effort through the uprights with 5:24 left in the fourth period.
“I’d rather he kick the ball as hard as he can,” Satterfield said of his young kicker. “If he misses like that, I’d still be happy with him.”
Following another stop by the Mountaineers’ gritty defense, it looked like Rubino would get one more opportunity at vindication. But App State was uncharacteristically sloppy with its time management on its final drive in regulation and that second chance never came for the strong-legged kicker.
With one time out remaining, Lamb scrambled away from heavy pressure and leaped out of bounds on a seven-yard gain to the Tennessee 30 for a first down. After a video review, it was determined that the junior QB had landed on the ASU sideline with the game clock at zero.
Instead of a 47-yard field goal try and redemption for Rubino, the Mountaineers were forced into overtime.
Tennessee struck quickly for a pair of first downs to advance the ball for a first and goal at the ASU five, but the Mountaineers stuffed two Vol runs and linebacker Keenan Gilchrist stripped Dobbs of the ball on a third-down scramble near the goal line.
The ball bounced crazily into the end zone, eluding linebacker Akeem Davis and a couple of other App players before Hurd (28 carries, 110 yards rushing) dove on it for the touchdown.
Instead of a turnover and a chance to win with a short field goal, the Mountaineers trailed for the first time all night.
Three plays — a pass Lamb threw behind an open Meadors at around the 10, a shovel pass and Cox’s one-yard run — netted just five yards for ASU and brought the game down to one final play.
Lamb (15-of-23 passing for 108 yards) stepped up in the pocket to avoid pressure and appeared to have running room for the first down, but he gambled for the touchdown. His dart into the Tennessee corner of the end zone was batted down as Maedors jumped for the ball, but Abernathy knocked it away to save the game for the Vols.
“That’s football,” said Satterfield. “Sometimes, the ball doesn’t bounce your way.”
App State took advantage of Cameron Sutton’s fumbled punt return less than three minutes into the game to vault to a quick 7-0 advantage as Cox slashed for gains of 20 and 11 yards and Lamb found a seam into the end zone on the read option fro five yards out.
Tennessee answered with Aaron Medley’s 23-yard field goal, but couldn’t score again in the first half.
Medley moved the Vols closer with his 39-yard kick in the third stanza and Dobbs had one of his few moments of brilliance at the 10:30 mark of the fourth quarter when he delivered a strike to receiver Josh Malone (two receptions for 81 yards) for 67 yards and the tying score.
Appalachian, led by 12 tackles from linebacker Eric Boggs, limited the high-powered Tennessee attack to 127 yards rushing and 319 total yards. The Mountaineers also won the turnover battle, 2-1.
“I think we’ve been underestimated for a long time,” Boggs said. “When you are underestimated, you come in with a chip on your shoulder. People didn’t expect us to come in and play like this.”
The Mountaineers controlled the clock and piled up 184 yards on the ground and 292 yards of total offense, only to come up one play short.
“We knew, in order to win, we had to rush the football,” said Satterfield. “I thought, if we out-rushed them, we would win the game.”
But the Mountaineers know that they accomplished a lot in one of the toughest road venues in college football.
“We went toe-to-toe with one of the better teams in the country right here,” Satterfield explained. We are proud of that fact, but we want to win football games. We will learn from this loss. It hurts, but we will come back strong next week.”