COLUMBIA, S.C. — It seems like nothing ever comes easy for Appalachian State when it is playing a Power-5 Conference football team. So why would Saturday night before 80,849 fans be any different for the Mountaineers in its 20-15 nail-biter over South Carolina at Williams-Brice Stadium?
Appalachian (8-1 overall) dominated large stretches of the game in earning its second win against a Power-5 school for the first time since 1975 (one of those wins an impressive 39-34 victory at South Carolina), but conservative play and some clutch conversions by the Gamecocks left the Mountaineers holding their collective breath until the final play.
A furious rally by the Gamecocks (4-6) in the final five minutes gained them a 23-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Hillinski to Bryan Edwards, a quick stop against the Mountaineers and once last chance to win.
Hillinski (32-of-57 passing for 325 yards, one touchdown and one interception) converted fourth-down deficits of 15 and 18 yards Rico Dowdle to keep the drive alive and had one last play with six seconds left from the Appalachian 19 to pull out an improbable victory.
South Carolina lost to App State like this. Brutal. Missed a wide open WR for the game-winning TD. pic.twitter.com/B4SwHpq61M
— Chris Hummer (@chris_hummer) November 10, 2019
A missed cover left Edwards alone in the back of the end zone, but Hillinski’s pass sailed out of bounds as Edwards leaped desperately to corral it. It wouldn’t have counted anyway as a holding penalty against South Carolina ended the game.
“I think I caught it,” said Edwards. “I don’t know if I was in-bounds. It was one of those bang-bang plays.”
The win was extra special for one group of Appalachian players in particular on a night where the strong contingent of Mountaineer fans often shouted down the normally boisterous Gamecock crowd.
“We play with a chip on our shoulder every game,” said senior tight end Collin Reed, one of 10 ASU players on the roster from the Palmetto State. “This one was a little more personal for a lot of the guys (who were not recruited by the Gamecocks). Playing in a game like this and getting the W, you just try to soak it all in.”
Reed grabbed a 22-yard, play-action pass from junior quarterback Zac Thomas (9-of-15 for 105 yards passing) to convert on fourth and one from the South Carolina 46 and set up the first of two Chandler Staton field goals.
Pick Six A Big Play
With the contest tied at 6-all late in the first half, freshman strong safety Nicholas Ross intercepted a tipped, third-down pass and sprinted 20 yards for the first touchdown of the night to give App State its 13-6 advantage at the intermission.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” said Ross. “We worked all week for this.”
Parker White’s third field goal of the game, this one from 50 yards, trimmed the lead to 13-9 early in the third period, but Jalen Virgil’s 57-yard kickoff return put the Mountaineers in immediate position to strike back. A key connection for 23 yards between Zac Thomas and wide receiver Corey Sutton led to Thomas’ one-yard blast two plays later and ASU led by 11 points.
Needing one more score to put the game out of reach, the Mountaineer offense never got it, but its stellar defense made sure the Gamecocks couldn’t pull out a crazy win.
“You’ve just got to know what you are playing for and you’ve got a big (road) crowd counting on us,” said ASU senior linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither, who had seven tackles, two tackles for losses and one key sack. “We knew that we were going to have to fight for the 60 minutes and that’s what those guys did and that’s what we did.”
Good Enough For Top 25?
The victory may vault Appalachian back into the top-25 polls (the Mountaineers were 27th in voting this week after spending two weeks in the polls and reaching as high as 20th in the Associated Press poll) after several other top-25 teams fell on Saturday.
Appalachian also got some good news in its quest for the Sun Belt Conference East Division title when Georgia Southern and Georgia State dropped games to Troy and Louisiana-Monroe respectively on Saturday, leaving the Mountaineers in control of their own destiny with three games to play.
Wins in those three remaining regular-season contests, including next Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. tilt at Georgia State, will allow App State to host the SBC title game against the West Division champion for the second straight year on Dec. 7.
“We had expectations of coming down here to win,” ASU first-year coach Eliah Drinkwitz said. “Hats off to our defense. They played lights out. The poise on the last drive … our guys gave up those two long fourth downs and still were able to make a play at the end.”
David Coulson is an executive editor for the College Sports Journal, and has covered college football for over 40 years. Present in the press box during the legendary Appalachian State upset of Michigan, his extensive coverage of Appalachian State allowed him to write about the Mountaineers’ first-ever Division I title in the book
Magic on the Mountain: Appalachian State’s Amazing Journey to the 2005 NCAA I-AA Football Championship.
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