Luke DeCock

Not an underdog story, Appalachian State insists, then goes out to prove it

They took over the streets of Chapel Hill, and they took over the parking lots and the yellow and black spilled out of the visitors’ section at Kenan Stadium and sprinkled itself amid the rest of the seats like a swarm of bees. Appalachian State came to play North Carolina for the first time in almost 80 years and their fans got what they and their team, if few others, expected.

“It wasn’t an underdog story,” first-year Appalachian coach Eli Drinkwitz said. “It’s not!”

Not for the first time in recent years, a visiting team from inside the state conducted a raucous celebration in their corner of Kenan. There was Ruffin McNeill wandering the sideline almost delirious with joy after East Carolina hung 55 on the Tar Heels in 2013, and Duke’s players ringing the Victory Bell in 2018, and N.C. State last year, after the brawl Larry Fedora claimed never happened.

Drinkwitz was part of the latter one, as N.C. State’s offensive coordinator, but this one was different, special for all the obvious reasons, a 34-31 win secured with a blocked field goal on the game’s final play. For the Tar Heels, this one was perhaps the most painful of all, and not just for Mack Brown, whose ties to Appalachian State run so deep.

It wasn’t merely losing to a Sun Belt team at home; it’s how long the celebration will linger. It didn’t end Saturday night. It’s going to go on for years, resuming as if uninterrupted anywhere there are App State fans and domestic beer in the same place, especially if any North Carolina fans happen to wander into the scene.

The 2007 upset at Michigan, when Appalachian State was still at the FCS level, was a shock to the core of college football, the kind of game that gets its own Wikipedia entry. So many chances against Power 5 teams went by the wayside in the years since, as the Mountaineers transitioned to the bowl subdivision and dominated the Sun Belt. What will make this resonate for just as long, if not longer, is that this was a meeting of relative equals, different conferences but similar expectations, and Appalachian State never flinched.

“I had a couple moments where I just sat down and cried, because it’s so much bigger than football,” Mountaineers linebacker Jordan Fehr said. “Freshman year, to come this close at Tennessee. Sophomore year, Wake Forest. Last year, Penn State. Being this close every single time. To finally be able to do it means more than anything.”

Appalachian State fans celebrate after the Mountaineers took a ten point lead over North Carolina in the third quarter on Saturday, September 21, 2019 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett

Usually when something comes out of the mountains and leaves everyone staggered and stumbling, it comes from a still. In this case, the blow was delivered not by mason jar but by a defensive lineman, Demetrious Taylor, who turned a blind-side sack of Sam Howell into a scoop-and-score fumble return for Appalachian State’s first touchdown, tipped and intercepted a Howell pass, knocked down another, and forced a second fumble, a one-man wrecking crew.

Taylor is from Miami, about as far as you can get from Boone, temperamentally if not geographically, which made him one of the few people on the field or in the stands who grew up without a dog in this particular sectarian fight. Receiver Thomas Hennigan, of Northwest Guilford, was not among that group

“It was something in the back of my mind, growing up 30 minutes from here, all these schools that overlooked me,” Hennigan said.

Appalachian State’s Steven Jones (12) celebrates after North Carolina kicker Noah Ruggles (97) missed a 56-yard field goal to give Appalachian State a 34-31 victory over North Carolina on Saturday, September 21, 2019 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett

The Tar Heels, meanwhile, were left to reckon with how a promising start to the second Brown era had gone sideways, and with Clemson coming to town next Saturday. No one would have been surprised, in August, if North Carolina opened the season 2-2. They would have been shocked how they got there.

“About where I thought we’d be, if we played well,” Brown said. “We’ve already won as many games as we won all last year.”

Still, you know who’s enjoying this less than North Carolina? Will Muschamp. The Mountaineers play South Carolina in Columbia on Nov. 9. At this rate, they might be favored. They certainly will be in their own minds.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.