COLUMBIA, S.C. — Forty-four years after he helped App State improbably beat South Carolina for the first time, Tommy Sofield stood in Williams-Brice Stadium and called out for the Mountaineers to force a Gamecock turnover.
Moments later, true freshman Nicholas Ross returned a second-quarter interception for a tiebreaking touchdown.
Make that two dramatic wins against the SEC program. And a locker room celebration that included Sofield holding a commemorative game ball.
Becoming just the seventh Group of Five team since the Sun Belt was formed in 2001 to post two Power Five road wins in the same season, App State escaped Columbia with a 20-15 victory in front of 80,849 fans and an ESPN2 audience Saturday night.
“I’m just proud of the focus and effort our guys played with,” first-year head coach Eliah Drinkwitz said “I’m proud of the way they battled all game. They never flinched.”
After cutting into a 20-9 deficit on a touchdown with 2:58 left, South Carolina regained possession and faced a fourth-and-15 from the App State 35 with 19 seconds left. Ryan Hilinski completed a pass for 26 yards to the 9 before spiking the ball with nine seconds remaining.
Nick Hampton forced a holding penalty on a pass rush as George Blackstock batted down the throw, leading to a snap from the 19 with six seconds left. The Gamecocks committed holding on a pass that didn’t connect at the back of the end zone, leading to a frenzied celebration from the Mountaineers.
“You have a big crowd that’s counting on us, different people that are counting on us, coaches that are counting on us, and we’re counting on ourselves, too,” senior linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither said. “We knew we were going to have to fight for 60 minutes, and that’s what we did.”
App State’s 34-31 win at North Carolina earlier this year was the Mountaineers’ first victory against a Power Five team since the historic 2007 upset of Michigan, and now they have back-to-back wins against P5 teams. Most importantly, they will head to Georgia State next weekend at 8-1 overall and a league-leading 4-1 in the Sun Belt, with one fewer conference loss than the Panthers and fellow East Division foe Georgia Southern.
Jordan Fehr (team-high 12 tackles), Nick Hampton and Davis-Gaither had important sacks to lead a defense that forced five punts, one interception and one turnover on downs in a nine-possession stretch leading up to South Carolina’s closing push. Josh Thomas added 10 tackles, and fellow safety Desmond Franklin accounted for three of App State’s 11 pass breakups.
Offensively, Darrynton Evans’ 85 rushing yards were part of his 158 all-purpose yards.
The teams traded two field goals apiece in the first 23 minutes, with Chandler Staton converting game-tying kicks from 40 and a season-long 47 yards, before Ross’ 20-yard interception return of a tipped pass gave App State its first lead of the night with 1:51 remaining in the half.
The Mountaineers’ defense held tight after a turnover early in the third quarter, forcing South Carolina to kick a 50-yard field goal, and Jalen Virgil’s 57-yard kickoff return to the Gamecocks’ 39 put App State in position to add to a 13-9 lead. Corey Sutton’s 23-yard gain to the 3 set up Zac Thomas’ 1-yard keeper for a touchdown midway through the third quarter.
One offensive touchdown proved to be enough for App State thanks to the third defensive touchdown of the season from the Mountaineers. Demetrius Taylor scored one in the road win at UNC, and Ross came up his interception in the middle of the field before heading toward the left sideline and following blocks from D’Marco Jackson and Fehr to reach the end zone.
“That was an amazing feeling just knowing it’s a next-man-up mentality on the team,” Davis-Gaither said. “Whoever is in the game, we expect them to play at the highest level. Him coming up and making that play, that was awesome.”
With the Gamecocks looking to rally early in the fourth quarter, Fehr sacked Hilinski for a 10-yard loss, and South Carolina advanced to the App State 35 before Davis-Gaither produced a sack for a 10-yard loss on fourth down.
A fourth-down false start prevented South Carolina from attempting a 51-yard field goal while trailing by 11 in the closing minutes, but the Gamecocks completed a fourth-and-15 pass for 16 yards and then scored on Bryan Edwards’ 23-yard reception with 2:58 remaining.
Franklin picked off the pass on the two-point try, and App State began its next drive at its own 4-yard line. South Carolina took over at its 45-yard line after a punt with 1:50 left, and Hampton’s forced fumble on a sack contributed to the Gamecocks facing a fourth-and-18 from midfield.
A 20-yard completion prolonged the drive, and another fourth-down conversion put South Carolina inside the 10, but App State held to cap another memorable road win.
“It makes you know all that hard work in the offseason is paying off, so I’m super excited for these guys,” Thomas said. “These seniors deserve it. They’ve been through some ups and downs in different seasons, and we got them two this year.”
Added senior tight end Collin Reed, “Everything you do is so much more important because you know it’s the last ride. It meant a lot to me what this team did, going out there and getting that W. You just try to soak everything up and embrace every single person that I see and let them know how much I love them. This team is something special. It’s something we’ve been doing for a long time, and we just have to keep moving forward.”