CHARLOTTE — For Appalachian State head coach Shawn Clark, the turning point in Thursday’s season opener against East Carolina came a day before the ball was kicked off.
“Our guys were locked in,” he said. “We had our walk-through on Tuesday and our run-through on Wednesday and came down here Wednesday night. That’s when I told our director of football operations, ‘It’s over.’ I wasn’t worried about it. I knew this game was done. We were focused. We were ready to go. We were locked in.”
The Mountaineers went on to lead by as many as 24 points while cruising to a 33-19 win over the Pirates in the Duke’s Mayo Classic at Bank of America Stadium.
Not everyone in the crowd of 36,752 was as confident as Clark, especially after ECU’s Keaton Mitchell took a Holton Ahlers pass 63 yards for a touchdown on the second drive of the game to give the Pirates the early lead.
The lead lasted less than three minutes as App quarterback Chase Brice led a seven-play drive, finishing with a 34-yard touchdown to Thomas Hennigan. The Mountaineers would score on their next three drives as well to take a 20-6 lead into halftime.
“We made our mind up early that we were going to go out here and play the App brand of football,” Clark said. “On the second drive, our defense gave up a touchdown, and the offense answered.”
Playing in Bank of America Stadium for the third time in his career — he had mop-up duty in Clemson’s 2018 and 2019 ACC Championship Game victories — Brice had a strong outing in his debut as Appalachian State’s starter. He finished 20 of 27 for 259 yards and two touchdowns.
“I thought Chase played very well except for that pick in the end zone,” Clark said, referring to a fourth-quarter interception where App was attempting to go up 40-7. That was my fault. (Offensive coordinator Frank Ponce) wanted to run a different play, but I wanted to go for the jugular.”
Overall, Clark was satisfied with Brice’s play.
“We’re glad he’s on our football team,” he said.
On his third team in as many years, Brice took a big step toward exorcising the demons from last season’s struggles at Duke, where he ran a Blue Devils offense that led the nation in turnovers on its way to a 2-9 record.
Brice had just one game last year with better passing accuracy than Thursday’s performance and just three games with multiple touchdowns.
“Last year was last year,” he said. “I’m thankful for being a graduate. That was a huge thing for me when I first entered college. You never want to leave (as a transfer) twice, but it is what it is.”
Brice also seemed free of the pressure he appeared to feel last season at Duke.
“I’m honestly having fun again,” he said. “I’m enjoying football like I used to when I was in peewee. I’m just playing with my guys. I’ve got a great connection with the whole team and coaching staff. We have a lot of fifth- and sixth-year guys who decided to come back because they love ball. I’m a fifth-year guy who came back, and I love ball. Part of me loving ball is I want to do well.”
App also had a pair of 100-yard rushers in Nate Noel (126) and Camerun Peoples (100).
For ECU, Ahlers finished with 295 yards passing, but he struggled much of the night under pressure from the Mountaineers’ defense. App had four sacks, five tackles for loss and five quarterback hits.