Editor’s Note: This is another article in a continuing series of articles from past FCS championship games. This is the game story from Appalachian State’s victory over Northern Iowa in 2005.
By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
CHATTANOOGA, TN. — With its offense ailing and their championship hopes on the ropes, Appalachian State put out an SOS to Jason Hunter and Marques Murrell on Friday night and the All-American defensive ends delivered a I-AA football title.
Murrell swiped the ball away from Northern Iowa quarterback Eric Sanders and Hunter scooped it up and rumbled 15 yards for a touchdown with 9:14 remaining to lift the No. 2 seeded Mountaineers to a 21-16 victory before a record crowd of 20,236 at Finley Stadium.
“It’s been 17 years worth of waiting for this,” veteran ASU coach Jerry Moore said. “This was a great night and speaks wonders for our program, our school and our state.”
Hunter and Murrell gave Sanders (17-of-31 for 181 yards passing and five sacks) fits all night and they combined together to turn the tide of the game. On a second and nine play from the Panther 25, Sanders dropped back from shotgun formation with the ball in his right hand.
Murrell (nine tackles, five and half tackles for losses, two sacks and two forced fumbles) lunged at Sanders and knocked it away and Hunter (game-high 10 tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks) grabbed it on one bounce with nothing but open field in front of him.
“I went back to pass, I stepped up and I had it and the next second I didn’t have it,” Sanders said. “I don’t know what happened.”
Northern Iowa’s defense managed to throttle ASU’s no-huddle spread attack for most of the night, but its offense couldn’t make enough plays to win. David Horne led the Panthers with 22 carries for 102 yards and a touchdown, but UNI didn’t throw the ball well enough to allow the offense to score more than one touchdown.
For the second week in a row, the Mountaineers held an opponent scoreless in the second half. It was also the second straight game where Hunter had come through with the decisive play. He forced a fumble on Furman quarterback Ingle Martin last week in the final 40 seconds to secure a 29-23 semifinal victory.
“When the play developed, I didn’t see who had hit the ball,” Hunter said. “I just picked it up and ran. Fortunately, I was able to score.”
The ASU coaching staff gambled with Trey Elder at quarterback in the first half, unsure about how effective All-American Richie Williams would be with his sprained ankle tendon.
But after Elder (9-of-16 for 123 yards and one interception) struggled and it was up to Williams (10-of-26 for 129 yards) to provide a huge emotional lift to the Mountaineers in the second half.
Despite enduring constant pain during the game, Williams led Appalachian on a nine-play, 79-yard drive to pull ASU with two points with 6:05 left in the third period.
“Coach (Moore) came and talked to me at halftime and asked if I could go,” Williams said. “I knew I had to. There wasn’t a question, I just knew I had to do it.”
The cagey senior completed passes of 13 yards to Dexter Jackson, 19 yards to Brandon Turner and 31 yards to Zach Johnson (six catches for a career-high 101 yards) on a play where Johnson outwrestled Dre Dokes for the ball.
After a pass interference call on Dokes moved the ball to the two, Richardson smashed in to make it 16-14 and that score held until Murrell and Hunter made their big plays.
“Those first few possessions, obviously (Williams) gave them a lift,” UNI linebacker Darin Heideman said. “It seemed like he gave their players a little bit of a jump. He’s a senior leader and they rallied around him.”
Elder managed only one sustained drive in the first half, leading the Mountaineers on a nine-play, 64-yard drive. Kevin Richardson got bottled up on a counter, but bounced to the opposite side to squirt into the end zone for five yards and a touchdown as ASU took a 7-6 lead with 13:18 left in the second quarter.
Only the play of Appalachian’s defense kept the Mountaineers close in the first half. ASU committed three turnovers, two on fumbles by Dexter Jackson and Trey Hennessee and one on Elder’s interception.
UNI converted those miscues into 13 points and a 16-7 halftime lead.
The Panthers struggled in the red zone, scoring only one touchdown when Horne powered over from the two to finish a four-play, 41-yard drive following strong safety Tanner Varner intercepted a poorly thrown Elder pass on an out pattern.
Brian Wingert picked up the Panther offense, opening the game with a career-long 50-yard field goal and adding kicks of 26 and 31 yards in the first half.
But Northern Iowa’s failure to score more when it had the Mountaineers in a vulnerable position proved fatal.
“It’s a game of inches and this time, the inches didn’t fall our direction,” UNI coach Mark Farley said. “There are a lot of things that happened that could have changed the course of the game.”
Indicative of the game’s closeness and defensive nature, Appalachian managed just 298 yards of total offense, compared to 283 for Northern Iowa.
“I don’t think anyone anticipated a shootout,” Farley said. “This was a defensive football game.”
And in the end, the Mountaineers generated just enough offense and make the defensive plays necessary to earn their first national championship.
“To go out as a senior and win a national championship is a fairy tale end,” said Williams. “You can’t ask for more than that.”