Friday marked the 10-year anniversary of the greatest upset in college football history – Appalachian State 34, Michigan 32.
Michigan was ranked No. 5 in the country and playing in front of 109,218 fans at home in Ann Arbor, Mich., in their legendary stadium known as the “Big House.” Appalachian State was a lower-division team that came to Michigan for a $400,000 paycheck and was supposed to get obliterated, so much so that Las Vegas oddsmakers didn’t even set an official line on the game.
Even some Mountaineers players thought the outcome on Sept. 1, 2007 would be inevitable.
“I can only speak for myself, but I had zero thought in my head that we would win that ballgame,” said Pierre Banks, then a starting linebacker for Appalachian State and now the team’s radio color analyst.
Yet Appalachian did prevail in a wild game, getting the final points on a 24-yard field goal from Julian Rauch with 26 seconds left in the fourth quarter. The Mountaineers then managed to survive a successful Hail Mary from the Wolverines when Corey Lynch blocked a 37-yard Michigan field goal on the last play to win.
With the considerable help of Banks, Rauch and former Appalachian wide receiver Dexter Jackson – all of whom I interviewed at length over the past few days after re-watching the game – here are 10 things you never knew about that monumental upset 10 years ago.
1) Lynch and Banks switched places before the game-saving block.
“The night before every game we would look at the special teams for the other guys,” Banks said. “Coach Wiley (John Wiley, the team’s defensive coordinator) and I saw that in their kick protection, their wing went to block the end guy on the line, leaving a direct path for the guy right beside him inside. We looked at each other and said, ‘We can get that.’ For Michigan’s first extra point, I was right there, but it kind of went through my hands. I just wasn’t as skilled at doing it as Corey.”
Lynch, on the other hand, was a safety who was a fantastic kick-blocker. He had blocked close to 20 kicks in Appalachian’s practices leading up to the 2007 season opener.
Midway through the game, Lynch asked Banks if they could switch places on the kick-blocking team. “And I’m glad he did,” Banks said, “because I would have never blocked it. And we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
2) Rauch’s kick was nearly blocked, too.
Rauch, a former soccer star at Gastonia Ashbrook, had made a 31-yard field goal in the game but had also clanked a 46-yard miss off the upright.
“After I missed, Michigan took off on its run,” said Rauch, who now owns a long-term care pharmacy in Gastonia. “I just wanted to redeem myself.”
Lining up from the left hashmark, Rauch got a perfect snap and hold. But the blocking was far from perfect.
“Michigan’s wing guy on the left could have easily blocked it,” Rauch said. “He got by our wing guy. He came over nearly right in front of me, and it sounded to me like he dove before I even kicked it. It made me look up and think, ‘Oh no, this is blocked.’ I hit the ball higher with my foot than I usually do, which made for a lower kick (replays show the ball barely cleared the crossbar). But it got through.”
The game was full of blocks and near-blocks, in fact. Many people forget that Michigan’s kicker Jason Gingell actually had two kicks blocked in the final two minutes – not one. Appalachian also blocked Gingell’s 43-yard attempt with 1:47 to go as Gingell tried to extend Michigan’s 32-31 lead, stuffing that one with a rush up the middle.
3) Armanti Edwards had never been on a plane before.
Edwards, the future Carolina Panther who is now starring as a wide receiver in the Canadian Football League, was a sophomore quarterback that day in 2007. He had been nervous before his first-ever flight – Appalachian State took buses to all of its games in 2006 – but he played one of the best games of his life. Edwards had a part in all four Appalachian touchdowns, throwing for three and running for one more.
“People still ask me about that game all the time,” Edwards told me from Canada in a recent telephone interview. “What a memory.”
Edwards was 7-for-7 passing in the first half for three touchdowns. Maybe even more impressively, he hurt his shoulder in the second half on a sack but didn’t come out of the game. Instead, he led Appalachian State on a 69-yard drive in the final two minutes with no timeouts with that hurt throwing shoulder (which would force him to miss Appalachian’s next two games).
4) Dexter Jackson’s two touchdowns both came on the exact same play.
Not only was Jackson really fast – he would run a 4.27 40-yard dash in 2008 at the NFL scouting combine and get drafted in the second round by Tampa Bay – but Appalachian State as a whole was faster than Michigan. This remarkable speed made up for Appalachian’s lack of size.
“We knew we had to spread them out and then outrun them to have a chance,” said Jackson, who now lives in Boone. He runs Speed to Victory Academy, which has a goal of helping local youths improve their agility and at playing sports in college. “I don’t think they had a 4.35 guy or faster in the defensive backfield, so I knew if I could get open I could definitely take it to the house.”
Jackson scored on the third offensive play of the game for the Mountaineers, running a shallow slant route out of a five-wide set. With Michigan playing man-to-man defense, Appalachian State successfully used a pick to get Jackson free over the middle and then he outran everyone else for a stunning 68-yard touchdown.
“All I had to do is make the safety miss and then go score,” Jackson said. He and Edwards did it again on a 20-yard touchdown in the second quarter, and it was that play that landed Jackson on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
5) Appalachian State actually had a better team in 2006 than 2007.
Banks, Jackson and Rauch all agreed this was a fact. The 2005, 2006 and 2007 Appalachian teams all won national championships in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA).
“Our 2006 team was the best of the bunch,” Banks said. “And yet that team lost its season opener to an N.C. State ballclub that won only three games all year.”
N.C. State went 3-9 in 2006 but beat the Mountaineers 23-10 in the season opener. Appalachian State then reeled off 14 wins in a row after that for its second straight national title. The 2007 Appalachian State team actually lost twice in the Southern Conference – to Wofford and Georgia Southern – before rebounding and winning its third straight title by defeating Delaware (and future Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco) in the national championship game.
6) Appalachian State almost got burned by a first-down field goal.
Mountaineers coach Jerry Moore, now retired, and his staff deserve all kinds of credit for this victory (the current Appalachian team will try to do something similar Saturday in its 2017 season opener at No. 15 Georgia).
In 2007, the Mountaineers had a beautiful game plan that was executed perfectly. Their motivational tactics were creative. Appalachian’s strength coach played Michigan’s fight song in the Mountaineers weight room for weeks just to make the players angry and get them used to hearing what it would sound like in a stadium full of 109,000 fans.
But Moore just about outsmarted himself at the end. After Edwards threw a gorgeous pass across his body to CoCo Hillary for 24 yards, Appalachian State had the ball on Michigan’s 5 with a first down and 30 seconds to go. The Mountaineers were down, 32-31. Michigan called a timeout, trying to preserve some time.
“We could have run another play to get closer to the end zone, or milk the clock, or we could have scored,” Jackson said. “Those Michigan guys were scared of us by the end.”
Instead, Moore – who was out of timeouts – decided to go ahead and kick the field goal on first down to allow for the possibility of a bad snap or fumbled hold.
Rauch barely made the kick, but Michigan then had time to unleash the 46-yard Hail Mary from Chad Henne to Mario Manningham to the Appalachian State 20. That throw could have won the game – except for Lynch’s block.
7) Michigan’s Mike Hart was a major trash-talker.
Michigan had Henne on its side that day – he’s a 10-year NFL veteran. And it had offensive tackle Jake Long, who would be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft. But Michigan’s best player on Sept. 1, 2007 was tailback Mike Hart, who ran for 188 yards and three touchdowns. And he talked trash the whole time.
“That was part of Hart’s game,” Banks said. “I remember one time specifically that we were up in the game and Hart has an 8-yard run or something like that. He gets up and says to us: ‘Will somebody please stop me?’ But he had almost 200 yards, so I guess he could talk a little.”
8) Michigan fans employed the ‘Surrender Cobra.’
Banks enjoyed occasionally trash-talking, too, and remembered several times he got into it with Michigan fans near the Appalachian sideline – in particular after one play when he sacked Henne to force a Michigan punt.
“At the beginning of the game, those fans were raucous,” Banks said. “It was just ‘You suck’ – stuff like that. As I came to the sideline after every drive, they were talking a little less. And then later, it was silence.”
When Lynch blocked the kick – he eventually cramped up and got caught by Michigan’s kicker before scoring, a fact Lynch has never quite lived down – Banks was running right behind him at first.
“Then I realized how exhausted I was,” Banks said. “So instead I turned to the right and saw their sideline. I was thinking about Mike Hart and the jawing he did the whole game, and I took my opportunity then to get a little get-back. I talked my trash to them. And you could look up in the stands, and all you saw from their fans was a lot of folded hands on top of a lot of heads. It was something to behold.”
That pose has since become known as the “surrender cobra,” when fans put their hands on their heads in anguish after the other team does something great, resembling a cobra reared up and about to strike.
9) The game’s significance has increased over the years.
“I would say I am still asked about the Michigan game multiple times a week,” Rauch said. “If I go on a sales call, it gets brought up. Or if somebody is introducing me. Of if someone just sees me and wants to talk about it. It’s absolutely more significant now than it seemed at the time. I honestly didn’t know what we had done. I grew up on soccer – I only went to one or two college football games before I kicked in one.”
“Most fans, that’s the first thing they want to talk about – even more than the three national championships,” Banks said. “I lived in Ohio for awhile, and Ohio State fans loved me there. Michigan State fans loved me, too. People all over the country remember that game and its significance.”
10) Jackson said a prayer as the last Michigan field goal went up.
Banks said he still believed Michigan would win after the 46-yard Hail Mary pass in the final seconds.
“I remember vividly when Henne threw that deep ball to Manningham,” Banks said. “I trotted to the line of scrimmage thinking, ‘Yeah, I knew this was going to happen. It was too good to be true.’ ”
Rauch, on the sideline, believed Gingell had been affected by the block two minutes before. “A block affects you as a kicker,” Rauch said. “You question yourself. I didn’t think it would be blocked again, but I thought he would miss it.”
And Jackson didn’t know what to think.
So as 109,218 fans in the Big House held their breath, as the ball was snapped, as Gingell approached it, as Lynch came roaring in from Banks’ old spot to exploit the vulnerability Appalachian had discovered the night before, Jackson whispered a prayer.
Recalled Jackson: “I said, ‘Lord, all good things must come to an end. But not today. Please. Not today.”