By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
Editor’s note: This is the one in a series of three historical articles from the David Coulson archives that take readers back to the last time Maine traveled to Appalachian State for a first-round playoff game, in 2002. The two teams meet again on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Kidd Brewer Stadium in an NCAA Division I Football Championship second-round contest.
This article was originally published by several North Carolina newspapers and the web site I-AA.org on Nov. 25, 2002. This article also contains information about the complete draw of the 2002 playoffs.
BOONE, N.C. — For Appalachian State, the 2002 football season has been the year of living dangerously.
And it has also been a year of amazing grace as the Mountaineers found out again Sunday when the NCAA announced the 16-team field for the I-AA playoffs.
In a season where nearly every week has seemingly been highlighted by fluky plays, or momentum-changing performances, Appalachian has backed its way into pretty favorable draw for the playoffs.
ASU (8-3, tied for second place in the Southern Conference) opens Saturday at home against Atlantic 10 co-champion Maine (10-2), otherwise known as Team Turmoil and is in the same bracket with No. 3 seed Georgia Southern, which hosts Bethune-Cookman (11-1, Mid-Eastern Conference champion).
“No. 1, I’m just glad we’re in,” Appalachian coach Jerry Moore said. “After (Saturday) night, I could see a scenario where (getting into the field) might not even take place.”
There were plenty of sleepless nights around the country after a wild Saturday of play, where Montana State and Murray State took automatic bids with upset wins in their conference championship games and several schools won dramatically in the final seconds.
Murray State fell behind Eastern Illinois 35-34 with 23 seconds left, but Shane Andrus hits a 52-yard field goal on the final play of the game to win 37-35.
Montana State gambled and won near midfield on a fourth and inches with a minute to play to hang on for a 10-7 victory on the road over Montana.
Villanova pulled out a 38-34 win on the road at Delaware when Brett Gordon fired a seven-yard pass to Brian White with 15 seconds remaining.
And in an even more improbable finish, Northwestern (La.) State scored twice in the final 90 seconds at Stephen F. Austin to turn a 35-28 deficit into a stunning 42-35 victory when Brian McMillian returns an interception 25 yards to the end zone.
The pairings involving ASU and Georgia Southern were not particularly surprising, but the selection committee dropped a bombshell by leaving Wofford out of the tournament.
The Terriers (9-3 overall, 6-2 and tied for second in the Southern Conference) were the only team in I-AA to beat two top-10 teams (Georgia Southern and ASU, both on the road) and were seconds away from winning a share of its league championship and its automatic bid before losing to Furman 23-21 on Nov. 16.
Most SoCon followers and many I-AA observers around the country had expected the league to get a record four bids to the tournament.
McNeese State (10-1, Southland champion), as expected, captured the No. 1 seed and were joined by No. 2 Western Illinois (10-1, Gateway Conference co-champion), No. 3 Georgia Southern (9-2, Southern No. 1) and No. 4 Northeastern (10-2, Atlantic 10 Conference co-champion).
McNeese State hosts Montana State (7-4, Big Sky co-champion), with the winner to face either defending national champion Montana (10-2, Big Sky co-champion) or Northwestern State (9-3, Soutland runner-up). Montana is at home for the first round, despite losing its final two regular-season games.
In the opposite bracket, two teams making their first-ever playoff appearances face off in Boston. Northeastern entertains Fordham (8-3, Patriot League co-champion) and Villanova (9-3, tied for third in the A-10) hosts 2001 national finalist Furman (8-3, tied for second in the SoCon) in Philadelphia.
In ASU’s half of the draw, Western Illinois takes on Eastern Illinois (8-3, Ohio Valley Conference co-champion), with the winner matching up with the survivor of the Murray State (7-4, OVC co-champion) at Western Kentucky (8-3, Gateway co-champion) game.
Moore said the Mountaineers’ part of the draw was what he expected.
“It’s a little bit of a guessing game,” said Moore. “If we got in, we thought it might be another A-10 team (that ASU would play.”
Moore also said he isn’t bothered by the potential of another quarterfinal-round matchup with Georgia Southern in what would be a rematch of last year’s playoffs.
“It really doesn’t make that much difference,” said Moore. “If you’re going to win a championship, you probably going to have to face them at some point.”
While ASU had a Saturday off to rest some banged-up bodies, Maine hasn’t been so fortune.
The Black Bears, who beat McNeese State on the road in last year’s first round, were sailing along as one of I-AA’s top teams in the middle of the season when the university suspended and then removed the team’s two leading receivers, Stephan Gomes and Paris Minor for an alleged off-campus rape.
The players claimed they had been involved with consensual sex with the woman making those allegations and the pair were not charged with any criminal activity, but the university upheld their removal through an appeals process that finally ended last week.
Maine offense has struggled since then and things got worse when three-year starting quarterback Jake Eaton tore the MCL in his right knee in the first half of a 21-14 win against Richmond on Nov. 16.
Sophomore backup Chris Legree finished off that win and third-string freshman Jon Meczywor led the Bears to a championship-clinching 31-14 victory over New Hampshire on Saturday.
Maine coach Jack Cosgrove said Eaton would not play on Saturday against ASU.
“He will be going on the trip as an observer and a teammate, but he won’t be playing,” Cosgrove said. “We won’t see him on the field unless we string together some wins.”
With the passing attack in dry dock, the team from Orono, Maine has put further emphasis on the running game behind 5-10, 225-pound bruiser Marcus Williams and James Henry, a pair of sophomores in its multiple-I sets.
But defense is what has carried the Bears. Senior linebacker Stephan Cooper has been a Buchanan Award finalist in 2001 and 2002 and keys a blitzing 4-4 alignment.
One of the biggest problems facing ASU and Maine in preparation for Saturday’s game was the traditional exchange of game films, with the remote access of the Orono and Boone campuses.
“We are finally finding out that someone else has as big a problem getting tape as we do,” said Cosgrove. “It’s been nice to deal with a coach (Jerry Moore) who doesn’t make a big deal out exchanging film like some of the guys we dealt with last year. They haven’t acted like we’re exchanging the Holy Grail.”
Cosgrove said Monday he had seen a tape of ASU’s victory over William & Mary in the first round of last year’s playoffs
Moore said Sunday he knew very little about his playoff opponent.
“I know they are the Black Bears and I know their colors are blue and white and that’s about it,” said Moore. “Ask me about Tuesday and I’ll know a little more.”