BOONE — In a game where Appalachian State and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte put up video game-like numbers, two key plays in the last 1:19 of the first half turned out to be the difference on Saturday afternoon.
The Mountaineers capitalized on pair of miscues late in the first half that turned a one-point lead into a 56-41 win in front of 29,182 fans on White-Out day at Kidd Brewer Stadium.
Holding a 14-13 lead late in the second quarter, the Mountaineers’ Demetrius Taylor sacked Charlotte quarterback Chris Reynolds, forced a fumble and Jordan Fehr recovered the ball.
One play later, quarterback Zac Thomas found Jalen Virgil for an 11-yard touchdown pass.
After Charlotte’s next possession went 3-and-out, App. State’s Shaun Jolly blocked Connor Bowler’s punt attempt. D’Marco Jackson recovered the live ball and took it 16 yards into the end zone for a 28-13 lead after Chandler Staton’s extra point.
“That's all (Special Teams Coordinator Erik Link). We had seen it on film, and he had asked me to do it earlier. I didn't feel good about it, but then I just felt like we had three timeouts, we had just scored on that fumble and I thought they might play a little conservative because they would get the ball back to start the second half,” said Appalachian Sate Head Coach Eliah Drinkwitz. “I just wanted to use our timeouts. We felt really good about that block, so we wanted to see it. Even if we didn't get it, I felt like we'd have good field position, so we decided to go after it. We dialed it up and practiced it all week and it was executed perfectly.”
It wouldn’t be the first time that Thomas and Virgil hooked up on Saturday.
On a drive that started at its own 1-yard line, used a five-play drive to find the end zone with a 73-yard touchdown pass that pushed the lead to 42-20 in the third quarter.
Virgil finished with three catches for 86 yards while Thomas was 14-of-20 passing for 182 yards and three scores.
“We have a lot of confidence in Jalen, and he just needed his moment and his opportunity,” said Drinkwitz. “We felt like we had a good matchup for him to the field, and we wanted to be aggressive and take those shots.”
But Charlotte wouldn’t go away quietly thanks to a big day through the air from Reynolds.
First, found running back Benny Lemay for a 5-yard touchdown pass and Victor Tucker added the two-point conversion in the final minute of the third quarter.
Reynolds, who had 296 yards on 20-of-31 passing, connected with Tucker, who made a difficult catch in the right corner of the end zone for a 23-yard touchdown to make it 42-34 with 8:20 to play after the two-point conversion failed.
Appalachian State’s defense allowed 526 yards but made up for it with 458 yards on offense and a pair of touchdowns on special teams.
“Our defense struggled but special teams made up for it. In a football game, you've got to win two out of three phases to win the game. To dominate it, you've got to win all three phases,” said Drinkwitz. “Today, special teams and offense really did their jobs and defensively, when they had the opportunities right before halftime and at the end of the game, they did some things well, but also some things that need to be corrected.”
Darrynton Evans had a big hand in the Mountaineers’ performance in those two those phases that Drinkwitz mentioned.
Evans rushed for a career-high 234 yards on 19 carries with three touchdowns, which included the junior racing to the end zone for an 87-yard score on App. State’s first offensive play of the game.
Announced on Monday, the Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Week followed that up with a 68-yard touchdown after the 49ers had made it a one possession game in the fourth.
After another touchdown connection from Reynolds to Tucker to make it 49-41 with 3:17 to play, Charlotte went for the onside kick. But Evans retrieved the kick and took it 45 yards for the game-deciding score.
“I was talking to Thomas (Hennigan) and JT (Josh Thomas) and was like ‘if it's hot, let it go’ It just took a good bounce, and it was too high for me just to catch it and fall,” said Evans. “I looked as I caught it, and it was wide open, might as well keep running. It went from catching and securing to try to put us up more points to help our defense.”
Charlotte (1-1) made things interesting at the end after it was the recipient of a Mountaineer holding penalty on fourth-and-five.
On the very next play, Jolly came up with the game-clinching interception of Reynolds in the end zone with 57 seconds to play.
Despite the struggles on defense, Drinkwitz was pleased to be undefeated going into this coming Saturday’s open week. The Mountaineers will face a major test when it travels to Chapel Hill to face the North Carolina Tar Heels on Sept. 21. Kickoff for that game, which was announced on Monday, is set for 3:30 p.m.
“I'm disappointed in the penalties. Obviously, way too many penalties on our team, both offensive and defensive penalties (Mountaineers had 13 penalties for 148 yards). They're undisciplined and that comes back to me, and that's going to be addressed and fixed,” said Drinkwitz. “Missed tackling was sloppy and poor. We gave up almost 300 yards passing. That's not something I expected to happen. We will come back tomorrow and get that corrected and move forward. It's good to be 2-0.”
Notes: Malik Williams finished with a team-high six catches for 73 yards to lead the Mountaineers. Micaleous Elder led Charlotte with seven receptions for 119 yards while Tucker finished with six catches for 90 yards. The 49ers will be back in action on Saturday at 6 p.m. when it hosts Massachusetts before traveling to defending national champion Clemson the following week. During one of the stoppages in play on Saturday, Appalachian State recognized its 1984 baseball team that won the Southern Conference championship and acknowledged former East Wilkes product Tony Wellborn (who is an assistant baseball coach at North Wilkes). Current Alexander Central Head Baseball Coach Pete Hardee was also acknowledged. The late Todd Wellborn was also a member of that team.