BOONE — Zac Thomas accounted for three touchdowns, including two through the air to Malik Williams and Thomas Hennigan, as Appalachian State won 42-7 against visiting East Tennessee State in the FBS head coaching debut for Eliah Drinkwitz on Saturday.
On the day App State celebrated the 30th anniversary of Hall of Fame coach Jerry Moore’s arrival in Boone, Drinkwitz picked up his first victory in his first game since being hired in December 2018.
"I'm just really proud of our guys, proud of our team. They stuck together. Obviously, we started off a little slow on the offensive side of the ball,” said Drinkwitz. “The defense did a great job keeping the other team out of the end zone. I thought their drive to keep them from scoring before half was really big, and then our offense came out and drove for a touchdown. That totally blew the game open after that.”
Starting a season at home for the first time since 2015, the Mountaineers increased their lead to 21-0 on the opening drive of the third quarter against the FCS-level Buccaneers.
Darrynton Evans and receiver Jalen Virgil joined Thomas in rushing for one touchdown apiece, and Jacob Huesman threw a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to true freshman Christian Wells.
Defensively, the Mountaineers allowed just a third-quarter touchdown and 292 total yards. Desmond Franklin tied Akeem Davis-Gaither for the team lead with seven tackles apiece, Shaun Jolly had six tackles in his first career start at cornerback and defensive tackle E.J. Scott produced two big stops behind the line of scrimmage. In the final minute, Kaleb Dawson recovered a fumble forced by Hansky Paillant.
Hennigan made a career-high seven catches for 79 yards to lead the offense, and Evans rushed 14 times for 99 yards as the Mountaineers totaled 277 yards on the ground. Thomas completed 16 of his 24 passes for 150 yards.
"We knew in our game plan that we were going to find ways for Thomas to get the football. He's been our most consistent wide receiver through fall camp. They've had a great connection, and we believe in Thomas Hennigan,” said Drinkwitz. “We told our whole team that you have to believe in yourselves like we believe in you, and he did a nice job of that today."
App State led 14-0 at halftime thanks to Thomas’ 1-yard quarterback keeper for a touchdown with 2:58 left in the first quarter and Thomas’ 6-yard touchdown pass to Williams with 6:06 remaining before halftime.
Thomas’ touchdown run on the Mountaineers’ second drive capped a 13-play, 84-yard series. Evans’ 23-yard run moved the ball into ETSU territory, and Thomas’ TD followed a 10-yard completion to Hennigan in a third-and-4 scenario from the 11.
Xavier Subotsch’s 54-yard punt to pin the Buccaneers at their 8 set up a three-and-out possession that allowed App State to begin its next series at the ETSU 48. Daetrich Harrington opened the series with a 9-yard run, and pass interference in the end zone preceded Thomas’ short touchdown pass to a sliding Williams.
ETSU kicked off to App State to begin the second half, and the Mountaineers marched 75 yards in 11 plays to claim a 21-0 lead. An 11-yard run by Evans and 15-yard pass to Keishawn Watson on third down moved the chains before Camerun Peoples gained 17 yards on a carry to the ETSU 13. Evans sprinted into the end zone on the next play.
After ETSU posted its first points on a 5-yard touchdown reception with 4:35 left in the third quarter, App State answered with a 75-yard touchdown drive. Evans’ 24-yard reception to open the series was bookended by Thomas’ 31-yard TD pass to Hennigan late in the third quarter.
Thomas absorbed a blind-side hit while releasing the ball to a well-guarded Hennigan, who made a tough catch among two defenders, shook off both of them at the 5-yard line and headed to the end zone.
App State defensive end Caleb Spurlin ended an ETSU scoring threat by batting down a fourth-down pass, and the Mountaineers responded with a 10-play scoring drive that concluded with Virgil’s first career touchdown run. He scored on an 11-yard end-around, and the margin increased to 42-7 on Huesman’s 17-yard touchdown pass to Wells with 5:52 remaining.
“I told our team at our staff meeting on Friday regardless of what happened we had to get a lot better, whether we won or lost we knew we were going to have to take what was on tape and get a lot better,” said Drinkwitz. “There's a lot of things we've got to work on, starting with me and all the way through offense, defense and special teams. But, it's great to be 1-0. It's hard to win college football games."