CHAPEL HILL — All week long, Eliah Drinkwitz went out of his way to downplay the significance of Appalachian State’s matchup against North Carolina.
Saturday, after leading his team to a 34-31 victory at Kenan Stadium to stake its claim as the premier program in the state, the first-year coach finally let his guard down and his true feelings be known.
Yes, the game was a big deal for the Mountaineers, who had not played the Tar Heels in nearly 80 years. But no, he insisted, the result was anything but an upset.
“We belonged on that football field today and we wanted to prove it,” Drinkwitz, the former NC State offensive coordinator, said. “We had a 1-0 mentality and we knew we were worthy to win the game if we went out and played the way App State football is supposed to be played.”
Things didn’t exactly start out according to plan after UNC scored just 17 seconds into the game on a 75-yard kickoff return by Michael Carter and a 21-yard touchdown pass from Sam Howell to Dazz Newsome.
From that point on, though, it was the Mountaineers (3-0) that took the game to their higher-profile in-state rival.
The momentum changed hands slowly, with App State having to settle for Chandler Staton field goals when its first two drives stalled.
The seismic shift came late in the opening period when on a third-and-7 play from the UNC 33, defensive end Demetrius Taylor came into the backfield unblocked and leveled Howell from his blind side. The massive hit caused a fumble that Taylor picked up and ran back 20 yards for a go-ahead touchdown.
Taylor came through the position normally manned by All-ACC left tackle Charlie Heck, who missed the game with what was described as an upper body injury.
It wasn’t the last time that the Mountaineers took advantage of the Tar Heels’ banged up offensive line, which was also without starting center Nick Polino. It also wasn’t the last time Taylor wreaked havoc on Howell.
On the very next series, the 6-foot-1, 275-pound junior tipped a pass in the flat and pulled it out of the air for an interception that led to one of running back Darrynton Evans’ three touchdowns in the game and helped App State open up a 27-10 lead.
“We knew what we needed to do,” Drinkwitz said of his team’s decisive answer of 20 unanswered points.
“Our guys just stayed in there and fought. They kept swinging. They just kept swinging.”
It was a relentless approach the Mountaineers knew they would have to take against a UNC team that has turned fourth quarter comebacks into an artform. This time the Tar Heels (2-2) didn’t wait until the final 15 minutes to make their move.
They scored with one second left before halftime to cut the deficit to 27-17, then got back to within a single score by driving 98 yards on 15 plays late in the third quarter. But instead of getting knocked back, App State answered right back.
Quarterback Zac Thomas hit Thomas Hennigan with a 31-yard pass down the far sideline, then connected with Malik Williams on a 43-yard connection to the UNC 3. Two plays later Evans got into the end zone for the touchdown that provided what turned out to be the winning margin.
“We wanted to take momentum back, obviously,” Thomas, who went 20 of 20 for 224 yards, said. “When we came to the sideline, we were talking about they haven’t been able to cover our deep shots all night. We’d been hitting them, Thomas (Hennigan) had been going up and making catches.
“We spent countless hours on doing those plays. That drive really was confident. We knew what we were doing, we executed it and obviously it paid off.”
UNC wasn’t done, though.
Howell, who threw for 323 yards and three touchdowns, did what he could to engineer yet another winning fourth quarter rally. He got his team to within three again by reaching up to corral a high snap and score from two yards out with just over three minutes remaining.
Then, after App State left 30 seconds on the clock after its final possession, the freshman quarterback drove UNC to the Mountaineers’ 39 before running out of time. Unlike last week at Wake Forest when the Tar Heels mismanaged the clock in the final seconds, they left enough time for one last miracle field goal attempt.
Noah Ruggles’ 56-yard attempt, however, was tipped at the line and never had a chance.
“You just look back and see if it made the distance or not,” said Mountaineers Akeem Davis-Gaither, whose birthday was Saturday. “Then the celebration was on.”
It was an especially emotional celebration, considering that this group of App State seniors had come agonizingly close to earning their first win against a Power 5 opponent in overtime losses at Penn State and Tennessee earlier in their careers.
“I had a couple moments where I just sat down and cried because it’s so much bigger than football,” linebacker Jordan Fehr said, holding two fingers close together. “Freshman year, to come this close at Tennessee. Sophomore year, Wake Forest. Last year, Penn State — being this close every time. To be able to finally do it, it means more than anything.”
For UNC, the second straight close loss means that the promising start that included comeback wins against South Carolina and Miami has all but been negated. With defending national champion Clemson up next on the schedule, coach Mack Brown and his staff are now in a position of having to find answers.
According to Brown, they can start by getting off to better starts.
“We’ve got to start better, you know and it sounds funny,” the Hall of Fame coach said. “We’ve got a long kickoff return and a one-play touchdown. Sometimes, that goes against you because you go, ‘Oh, this is going to be easy,’ and we call those ‘imposters’ and I worried about it when it happened because it was too easy, but then they came right back and got a field goal and then we had the two turnovers that led to 14 points and dig us in a deep hole. Again, we worked our way out of it, but we’ve got to play better in the first three quarters.”