The Miracle at Michigan this wasn’t.
It was nine years ago to the day that Appalachian State knocked off the Wolverines in Ann Arbor, Mich. Repeating such feats are challenging, even when you are the better team throughout regulation against a preseason top-10 team.
The Mountaineers had Tennessee. Had a lead, had momentum and had the ball at the end of regulation. But they never broke that final 13-13 tie, allowing the Volunteers to get by 20-13 in overtime Thursday night at Neyland Stadium.
You could blame this loss on a freshman kicker who missed an extra point and a 42-yard field goal. Had Michael Rubino put either of those attempts through the uprights, Appalachian State would be the biggest story today in college football.
But it probably shouldn’t have come to that. The Mountaineers didn’t practice great clock management on that last possession in regulation and quarterback Taylor Lamb couldn’t get out of bounds before the clock expired and momentum shifted back to the home team.
Had Lamb just spiked the ball, Rubino would have been left with an attempt of more than 50 yards. Any chance a freshman, whose confidence was already rattled by the events of the night, makes that?
"You don’t know how these guys will react. This was his first (college) football game and this is a pretty tough environment for a freshman kicker," Appalachian State coach Scott Satterfield said of the 100,000-plus who filled Neyland.
"I just told him to kick the mess out of it. Don’t try to guide the football. If he’ll just swing and kick it, he’s got a great leg."
The problem wasn’t Rubino’s leg, it was his head. Missing that extra point on Appalachian State’s second touchdown had to frazzle him. His later field goal attempt had a low trajectory and was anything but a crisp swing of the leg.
But, again, those missed kicks weren’t the only reason this game slipped away from the Mountaineers.
The Vols’ winning margin actually came on a play where the Mountaineers did everything right. Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs was hurtling across the goal line when linebacker Kennan Gilchrist separated him from the ball with a jolting hit.
If an Appalachian State player recovers that fumble, the momentum is all the way back on the Mountaineers’ side. Instead, Tennessee running back Jalen Hurd gathered in the ball for what would be Tennessee’s first and only lead more than 60 minutes into this game.
That still gave Appalachian State the opportunity to force a second overtime, but now they had to score a touchdown. Faced with fourth down 20 yards from the end zone and needing at least 5 yards to extend the possession, Lamb saw his two intermediate routes covered, so he threw into the end zone, hoping to connect with wide receiver Shaedon Meadors. Instead, Tennessee defensive back Micah Abernathy knocked down the pass to avert what would have been remembered as a most embarrassing home loss.
No one, from Satterfield to Lamb to linebacker Eric Boggs, wanted to hear about moral victories. This was a loss, a crushing disappointment considering how close they came to matching, if not exceeding what that other Mountaineers team did at Michigan in 2007.
"We have a lot of confidence in how we finish, and we just didn't get it finished tonight," said Satterfield. "I’m not into moral victories. We're into winning."
Specifically, Satterfield wasn’t happy with his team’s clock management on that final possession of regulation.
"It took forever to get lined up to get the ball snapped and ended up running out of time," Satterfield said. "Obviously, hindsight, you'd call a timeout right there, no question about it. We were trying to save that to kick the field goal to win the game."
The sense of regret after this game was universal in the Mountaineers’ locker room. But there’s plenty to learn – these are all teachable moments – and there’s one thing you can surely conclude from this team’s performance Thursday: If you’re in the Sun Belt Conference, you want no part of playing Appalachian State this season.