CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — What a time for a Black and Gold breakthrough.
The kick is blocked — again.
Defensive end Demetrius Taylor forced two turnovers to help Appalachian State build a first-half lead on the road, and Darrynton Evans rushed for three touchdowns as the Mountaineers won 34-31 against in-state ACC program North Carolina on Saturday.
The Tar Heels reached App State’s 39-yard line with five seconds left, and Akeem Davis-Gaither pushed through a gap in the line to tip a 56-yard attempt at a field goal as time expired.
“You just look back and see if it made the distance or not,” said Davis-Gaither, who turned 22 on Saturday. “Then the celebration was on.”
The second-ever football meeting between the two schools and first since 1940 drew a spirited, sold-out crowd to Kenan Stadium, and the Mountaineers posted their first win against a Power Five conference team since the historic upset of Michigan in 2007, when Corey Lynch’s blocked field goal as time expired helped ignite the run to a third straight FCS national title.
It was App State’s eighth victory against an ACC program and the first since beating Wake Forest 20-16 in 2000. The 2019 team is now 3-0 in its first season under the direction of head coach Eliah Drinkwitz.
“We talked all week, it wasn’t going to be an upset,” Drinkwitz said. “We belonged on that football field, and we wanted to prove it. We had a 1-0 mentality, and we knew we were worthy of winning the game. We went out and played the way App State Football is supposed to be played.”
Taylor led App State’s defense by recording 2.5 sacks, turning one of them into a 20-yard fumble return for a touchdown and setting up another touchdown with an interception. Senior linebacker Jordan Fehr matched his career high of 15 tackles, and four young defensive backs performed well under pressure in relief roles throughout the fourth quarter on a hot afternoon in Chapel Hill.
Evans’ three rushing touchdowns contributed to his 78 yards on the ground, and Zac Thomas threw for 224 yards. His top receivers were Corey Sutton (seven catches, 58 yards), Thomas Hennigan (six catches, 90 yards) and Malik Williams (six catches, 78 yards).
From the “Go Blue” signs in Ann Arbor, to the Carolina Blue seats in Chapel Hill, App State has another signature win against a Power Five opponent.
Each of the last three seasons, the Mountaineers had played a tight game against a P5 program, with close calls in 2016 (20-13 overtime loss at Tennessee), 2017 (20-19 loss to Wake Forest) and 2018 (45-38 overtime loss at Penn State). Finally, in Drinkwitz’s third game as a college head coach, seniors such as Fehr were able to celebrate at the end of one.
“I had a couple moments where I just sat down and cried because it’s so much bigger than football,” Fehr said before holding two fingers inches apart. “Freshman year, to come this close at Tennessee. Sophomore year, Wake Forest. Last year, Penn State — being this close every time. To be able to finally do it, it means more than anything.”
UNC (2-2) scored with one second left in the first half and again in the third quarter to turn a 27-10 deficit into a 27-24 nailbiter, but the Mountaineers responded immediately to the Tar Heels’ long touchdown march with a 75-yard touchdown drive that included Thomas’ 31-yard pass to Hennigan and a 43-yard connection with Williams.
Evans’ short touchdown run late in the third quarter provided some welcomed separation, Davis-Gaither ended the next series at App State’s 27 with his first career interception and the Tar Heels finally pulled within 34-31 on a short touchdown run with 3:01 remaining.
Facing a third-and-5 from his own 30, Thomas gained 12 yards on a play-action keeper around the right side to move the chains, and an App State punt gave the Tar Heels one last possession starting from their 20 with 30 seconds left. The 24-yard completion into App State territory set up a long-shot field-goal try, but the Mountaineers enjoyed another Michigan-like finish.
With three national titles, four straight bowl wins and three consecutive conference titles, App State’s championship-winning ways remain a point of pride for college football in the state of North Carolina, and the Mountaineers have improved to 3-0 with back-to-back wins against in-state FBS opponents.
Carolina, we keep callin’ you home.
“This program has definitely had some heartbreaking losses, but Coach Drink coming in here with a new mindset, everybody kind of got a fresh start from everything,” Hennigan said. “These seniors have been through it all, countless hours, and it’s awesome to get those guys a big win during their last year.”
UNC used a long kickoff return and 21-yard touchdown pass to take a lead 17 seconds into the game, but App State responded with the next 20 points, starting with two Chandler Staton field goals and continuing thanks to Taylor’s two takeaways.
Staton converted kicks of 31 and 43 yards before Taylor, who finished with 2.5 sacks, made the first of several big plays early in a UNC drive. He rushed around the end, forced a fumble on a blindside sack of Sam Howell, returned to his feet, scooped the ball up at the 20-yard line and raced into the end zone with 3:39 remaining in the first quarter.
“I just got off the ball, and my job is to stay outside,” Taylor said. “He went down, and nobody was blocking me, so it was just a free run on the quarterback. Blind side, came with my hand down, and he fumbled. I didn’t know where the ball was, and I just saw it last minute and got it and ran it in for a touchdown.”
Taylor was far from done.
With App State ahead 13-7 early in the second quarter, he fought off a low block and returned to his feet in time to deflect Howell’s hard, short-range pass to the left. Taylor located the ball in time to intercept it and gained 19 yards on a return to the UNC 26.
Three straight completions to Sutton preceded Evans’ first touchdown on a 5-yard run.
The Mountaineers’ defense later held inside the 10, forcing a short field goal with the help of another Taylor pass deflection, and App State moved back into scoring range thanks to a 12-yard pass to Williams on third down, coupled with a 15-yard targeting penalty. Evans’ 31-yard sprint to the 4 set up his second touchdown, a 2-yard run on a third-and-goal option pitch.
Taking a snap with eight seconds left in the half, UNC cut its deficit to 27-17 heading into the break via Michael Carter’s 11-yard touchdown reception on a screen pass from Howell, and the Tar Heels used a 15-play, 98-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter to close the gap to 27-24.
App State had some type of answer, as the 31-yard pass to Hennigan and 43-yard pass to Williams set up Evans’ 2-yard touchdown run that increased the margin back to double figures. UNC advanced to the Appalachian 36 before Davis-Gaither made a diving interception to thwart another scoring threat, and the Mountaineers were able to hold on after Howell’s 2-yard keeper for a touchdown with 3:01 left trimmed the edge to 34-31.
App State survived a frantic finish and turns its attention to next weekend’s Sun Belt Conference opener against Coastal Carolina. Drinkwitz reiterated after the game that the Mountaineers’ primary goal is winning the Sun Belt championship and a bowl game with class, integrity and academic excellence.
“That’s one thing Coach Drink emphasizes, to be 1-0 for the week,” Evans said, “so we’re not trying to overlook anyone else that we play.”