It’s No Upset: Appalachian State Beats North Carolina 34-31

Senior linebacker Jordan Fehr and and redshirt freshman outside linebacker Nick Hampton jump to block a field goal on the final play of the game to seal the 34-31 victory for the Mountaineers. (Lynette Files/The Appalachian)

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — In the mind of Appalachian State, Saturday’s 34-31 college football victory over North Carolina wasn’t an upset.

When Akeem Gaither-Davis partially blocked Noah Ruggles’ 56-yard field goal attempt on the final play of the game, the Mountaineers completed their first win over a Power-Five conference team for the first time since the historic 34-32 stunner over Michigan.

But this triumph was accomplished by a confident squad that believed all day on the steamy Keenan Stadium turf that it was the better team and executed well enough to pull off one of its most significant victories since transitioning to the Football Championship ranks in 2014.

“This team has suffered a lot of disappointing losses,” said ASU senior linebacker Jordan Fair, who a game-high 15 tackles. “To come so close at Tennessee, against Wake Forest and at Penn State and to finally do it. I had a couple of moments where I just sat down and cried.”

At times, the Mountaineers (3-0) dominated a Tar Heel squad that is rebuilding quickly under the direction of College Football Hall of Fame coach Mack Brown, the man credited with jump-starting the Appalachian program into its modern era in his one year as head coach in 1983.

After North Carolina surged to a quick 7-0 lead only two plays into the game, App State countered with 20 unanswered points, giving the Mountaineers enough of a cushion to withstand some nervous moments in the fourth quarter.

Quarterback Zac Thomas completed 20-of-29 passes for 224 yards and added some key rushing plays as he carried six times for 57 yards. Tailback Darrynton Evans was efficient with 19 carries for 78 yards and three touchdowns.

More important was the return to form of Appalachian’s signature defense, which forced three turnovers. That unit, which allowed 41 points and 528 yards to the fledgling Charlotte program two weeks ago, stymied North Carolina’s attack for large stretches on Saturday.

“We belonged on the football field today and we wanted to prove it,” first-year ASU coach Eliah Drinkwitz said. “We had a 1-0 mentality and we knew that we were worthy to win the game if we went out and played the way Appalachian State football is suppose to play. It’s not an upset when you believe it and you know that you are going to come out and play well.”

No player was bigger to that effort than defensive end Demetrius Taylor, who sacked UNC freshman quarterback Sam Howell late in the first period, scooped up Howell’s fumble and scampered 20 yards into the end zone for the touchdown that gave the Mountaineers the lead at 13-7.

Taylor added an interception after he deflected a Howell pass in the second quarter and returned it 19 yards to set up one of Evans’ three scores as the Mountaineers extended their lead to 27-10. The junior pass-rushing standout finished with 2.5 sacks for 17 yards of losses, forced two fumbles, contributed another pass breakup and had four tackles.

Davis-Gaither came up big throughout with an interception to kill one deep Tar Heel drive and added eight tackles before his game-preserving block.

“We didn’t have a chance without those three turnovers,” Drinkwitz said.