With Nebraska off this week, we asked our staff members to do something they don’t get to do very often––be a fan. More specifically, just pick a team and try to live-and-die a game for a week. You can read all of those dispatches here.
BOONE, N.C. – It takes about an hour to drive the last 40 miles from the Tennessee border to Appalachian State University. This is mountain driving to a mountain school, all fallen rock, folk art for sale on the side of the rode, lakes and 25 mile-per-hour curves. It’s scenic and that there’s a plain old college football game at the end of all of this feels like stealing.
Leave too late for Lincoln on a Saturday and things will stack up on you before you ever exit the Interstate. You’ll know that there’s a big game before you even get close to it. It’s like that at a lot of places, and that has its own charm, too.
But you can get deep into Boone, North Carolina, before you ever know that one of the 25 best college football teams in the country is playing just over the hill. You can, with no advance planning, park on the street downtown, drink some local beer, browse the mom-and-pop souvenir shops located along an almost-too-perfect main street and walk right up to and into the game.
Kidd Brewer Stadium, aka The Rock, was sold out on Saturday for App State’s meeting with Louisiana-Monroe (attendance: 27,717). The Mountaineers entered the day ranked 24th in the Associated Press poll, the highest ranking for a Sun Belt team since the conference added football in 2001. App State ended the day as the first Sun Belt team to win a game while ranked, moving to 6-0 on the season.
The Mountaineers’ 52-7 rout of the Warhawks was calculated and complete. Louisiana-Monroe had a nice opening script, driving 82 yards over 12 plays for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead on the first drive of the game. The Warhawks gained 131 yards the rest of the day, averaging 3.8 yards per play, and turned it over three times.
Appalachian State, meanwhile, did all of the things good teams do with the delightful mix of calm execution and explosive outbursts that’s an imprimatur of excellence. The Mountaineers won the turnover battle, had more explosive plays, were 13-of-18 on third down and scored on all eight of their drives that crossed the Warhawk 40-yard line. When running back Darrynton Evans, a 2-star prospect from Florida according to his bio, screamed 59 yards down the sideline to tie the game at 7, I thought he looked about four times faster than anyone from ULM. This would turn out to be a common reaction on the day as multiple Mountaineers blew by Warhawk defenders for 572 yards, 307 on the ground.
There’s an enticing blend of power and speed up here in the High Country. It is, I think, what Nebraska is supposed to look like at some point in the near future.
First-year head coach Eliah Drinkwitz is a bit of a rarity in the college coaching ranks. The 36-year-old native of Norman, Oklahoma, didn’t play college football (but he was student body president at Arkansas Tech). Instead, Drinkwitz learned the game while following in Gus Malzahn’s footsteps. Drinkwitz’s second coaching job was at Springdale High School in Arkansas, where Malzahn made his name. The two coaches would link up at Auburn in 2010 and Drinkwitz would follow Malzahn to Arkansas State in 2012. From there Drinkwitz coordinated the offenses at Boise State and North Carolina State before App State hired him last winter to maintain a storied football history.
Jerry Moore is the coach who vaulted App State to a national stage. He was an assistant under Tom Osborne for six seasons and was the Huskers’ offensive coordinator in his last season in Lincoln, 1978. He took over the Mountaineer program in 1989, eventually leading it to FCS national titles in 2005, 2006 and 2007. Depending on what account you choose to believe, Moore was gently nudged out of the job after the 2012 season (though he is getting a statue in the under-construction north end zone plaza, so it’s cool, I guess). But with a solid program in place, App State made the 2013 transition to FBS football look seamless.
The Mountaineers have made four straight bowl games and became eligible for a fifth on Saturday. The win was App State’s 12th in a row, dating back to last season. Only Clemson and Ohio State have longer active streaks. All told, the Mountaineers have won 54 of their 70 games (.771) as an FBS program. That ranks right between Wisconsin (.773) and Boise State (.759) over that stretch, both of which lost for the first time this season on Saturday.
If anyone wants to write that off because it happened in the Sun Belt I would refer them back to this—eight years ago App State was playing FCS football.
I’ll always be drawn to programs that make that jump and have success. Put a beautiful setting around it—and The Rock has one of the better settings I’ve seen for a game—and it’s almost impossible for me to resist. I’ve been admiring this program for a long time. My first in-person experience with it did nothing to change that.
I spent much of the rainy Saturday trying to decide what App State reminded me of. I lived in New England for almost a decade, but I saw more Bean Boots—L.L. Bean’s perfectly functional rubber and leather all-weather stompers that have become fashionable of late—in Boone than I’ve ever seen before. Mountain schools are like that. They all have their own vibe even if it’s the same vibe no matter which mountains you’re in.
At first I decided that Appalachian State was a southern University of Vermont. But as I continued to watch Drinkwitz’s offense slice up ULM, I realized I was ignoring the obvious.
Appalachian State football is Boise State east. Successful FCS-to-FBS transition? Yep. Picturesque setting? Check. Unique and strong football culture? Absolutely.
Big-time wins over blue-blood programs? Boise State has more of those, though the Broncols have been at it longer, but App State still has the most famous one—the 2007 upset of Michigan. Stroll down King Street and that win is never far away. Merchandise commemorating one of the biggest upsets of all time must still sell well because it’s everywhere.
But the biggest upset of all is that it wouldn’t be much of an upset today. App State has pushed Tennessee and Penn State to the brink in the past four years. It’s already beaten North Carolina this year and has a shot at South Carolina in November.
Before that, however, the Mountaineers take on South Alabama next week. I’ll be watching that one closely.