Ten years later: App State won at the Big House
Published 12:00 am Friday, September 1, 2017
By Dennis Davidson
SALISBURY — Mike Wright, of Rockwell, and Faith resident Greg Lowe speak of “the game” like it was yesterday.
And while today is the 10th anniversary of Appalachian State’s stunning upset of Michigan at “the Big House,” the trip to Ann Arbor is forever frozen in time for friends and fellow ASU alums Wright and Lowe.
Wright, Lowe and five others made the trek to Michigan for the epic, 34-32 victory, driving up and back. They have photos to prove it and memories that will last a lifetime.
The group — Andrew and Carmen Barrier, of Rockwell, Darren Chamberlain of Advance and Doug Reitzel of Galax, Va., and Wright and Lowe — that went to Michigan together sit next to one another at Mountaineers’ home games at Kidd-Brewer Stadium in Boone. When App State would go on the road, the group would all travel together to various sites around the Southern Conference.
The Moutaineers had won back-to-back FCS national championships in 2005 and 2006, so the group had witnessed those big games in Chattanooga, Tenn.
“So as soon as it was announced that our first game in 2007 would be at Michigan, I said ‘I’m in,'” remembers Lowe. “How could we pass this up? There was no doubt in our minds that we were going to Michigan.”
“Zero doubt … none,” added Wright.
Wright, an Ameriprise financial adviser in Salisbury, was vice president of the ASU Yosef Club advisory board back in 2007. In February of that year, Wright got a call from Gerald Adams, the top fund-raiser for Mountaineers’ athletics.
“We were supposed to have a meeting that Saturday in Boone and Gerald said there will be a big announcement,” recalled Wright. “I’m thinking we’ve got a million-dollar donor or something like that. Come to find out, we’re playing at Michigan.”
Vanderbilt was supposed to have gone to Michigan to open the 2007 season, but canceled. Michigan needed a game to fill out its schedule, “and $400,000 later, ink to paper, we’re going to Michigan,” continued Wright. “It was announced to the public at the beginning of March.”
During the 600-mile trip, the group talked about App State’s chances against the No. 5-ranked team in the nation at the top Division I level. At the time, ASU was still FCS, or the old I-AA level, but has since moved up.
“We talked about it, the whole trip going up, that we were two-time champs at our level and our team knew how to win,” said Wright. “We were returning dadgum-near everybody off a 14-1 team from 2006 that only lost to N.C. State — with a true freshman quarterback named Armani Edwards. We knew we had a good team.”
On the flip side, Michigan was led by future NFL players Chad Henne (still a QB with Jacksonville), Mario Manningham, Mike Hart and Jake Long. They were seniors who came back to go after a national championship.
Lowe, a senior data architect for Belk, said that along the way to Michigan, Wright coined the phrase, “it’s just another football game,” a mantra the group was going to live with, regardless of the outcome.
“We’ve been doing this long enough … the outcomes are secondary,” added Wright. “It’s become more about the experience. Now, don’t get me wrong. We’d like to win, but for me, it’s about the experience. No matter what, we were coming back on Sunday. These trips, we enjoy them and each other, and we were going to celebrate that Saturday night, win or lose.”
Michigan has one of the largest stadiums in the country, the reason for the nickname of “Big House.” So as the group settled into their seats as six of the 109,218 in attendance that stunningly sunny day, Wright and Lowe noticed that they were catty-corner, sort of end zone-to-end zone, across from the Wolverines’ student section.
“There were 20,000 students in that section, all wearing the same yellow shirt, with a block ‘M” on the front and the schedule on the back” said Lowe. “And there were just 3,000 ASU fans in the entire stadium.”
Almost as expected, Michigan took the opening kickoff and drove down the field for a quick 7-0 lead. What was less expected: Appalachian State tied the game very quickly on its first possession, the first clue that this was going to be a great college football game.
Edwards, now a sophomore, started a quarterback, setting the stage for a remarkable career in Boone — one that led him to be drafted as a wide receiver by the Carolina Panthers in 2010. He is still playing professional football with the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL.
On that first drive, facing a 3rd down-and-4, Edwards fired a pass to Dexter Jackson on a slant route that the speedster took to the end zone for 68 yards. Jackson was the Southern Conference 200-meter champion in track and his speed — and App State’s in general — was obvious.
Wright said he was immediately more optimistic about the Mountaineers’ chances that day. “We all said, ‘they can’t run with us,’ and we are creative in getting the ball into our playmakers’ hands.”
The cautious optimism soon went to pure, but guarded elation. After Michigan went up, 14-7, the Mountaineers used their team speed to stun the Big House, scoring 21 straight points. The Wolverines added a late field goal, but App State ran off the field at halftime, leading 28-17.
The score started making its way around the country and more people started tuning in to the Big Ten Network and the ASU radio network.
“We couldn’t believe it!” Lowe said, still getting excited, 10 years later. “We looked at each other and said, ‘did we really just put up 21 straight on Michigan?’ That’s when I started thinking, we really could win this game.
“But — we kept repeating, ‘it’s just another football game,'” continued Lowe.
Wright said he knew that the No. 5 team would make a run in the second half.
Hart, one of the best backs in the nation, sat out a lot of the second and third quarters, after taking a hit in the thigh from ASU safety Leonard Love, among others. He spent a lot of time on the sideline on a stationary bicycle.
“I won’t take the credit for slowing Hart down, because there were a lot of hits put on him early,” said Love, recently, from his home in Charlotte. “That worked to our advantage, because even though he did not play much, he was ridiculous. He was a great player and running back, probably the best I ever played against.”
Love also stopped a Michigan drive in the fourth quarter, with an interception of a Henne pass, deep in the Moutaineers’ territory, with ASU holding on, 31-26.
“We had a blitz on, but Henne ran a bootleg to his right, running away from the blitz,” remembers Love. “We had practiced against that bootleg play many times in preparation for the game. We were in a cover 3 and I was rolling in the middle of the field. We kind of baited Henne into thinking the receiver dragging across the middle was open and my eyes got big and I caught it, right in the bread basket.
It all happened really quick and I was super excited,” continued Love, now a national sales rep for Ames Company, “because, the game was really close and every play was so important.”
Hart had returned and his short TD run with 24 seconds left in the third quarter pulled the home team to within five points, before Love’s interception. Then, Hart’s electrifying, 54-yard touchdown run gave Michigan a 32-31 lead with 4:36 left in the game.
After Edwards threw an interception on App State’s next possession, it seemed that the favored Wolverines would just win going away.
However, the ASU defense stiffened again (it had already stopped two 2-point conversion tries) and forced a 43-yard field goal by Michigan kicker Jason Gingell. It was blocked.
With 1:37 on the clock, Edwards drove App State 69 yards in just over a minute, setting up Julian Rauch’s 24-yard field goal. The kick sailed through the uprights with just 26 seconds left. What a lot of fans don’t remember: ASU coach Jerry Moore chose to kick on first down.
“That was big, kicking of first down, because the field goal unit didn’t have time to think about it … they just went out and got it done,” remembers Wright. “Rauch had missed one earlier in the game … I would say he redeemed himself.”
Game over, right? No, not so fast. The one thing happened that ASU couldn’t let happen — a long pass play.
Manningham, who would later make a game-changing catch in a New York Giants’ Super Bowl victory over New England, pulled in a great catch on a 46-yard pass from Henne. “That was a great catch and maybe even a better throw from Henne,” said Love. “I was just glad he didn’t score, but still, it was kind of deflating for us, to have allowed that big gain in that situation.”
The play set up a last-play-of-the-game 37-yard field goal attempt by Gingell with six seconds left — and the block heard ’round the world.
ASU linebacker Corey Lynch, known for blocking kicks, took the field goal attempt in the chest, picked up the perfect bounce and headed for the Michigan end zone. He was brought down by Gingell at the 7-yard line, but the clock read triple zeroes. The Mountaineers had done it.
Love was on the field for the last play, but didn’t follow Lynch down the field. “I knew the game was over,” he said. “I took a couple of steps and then just stood in the middle of the field in awe, yelling and screaming.”
The Big House, which had been nervously quiet all day, was now eerily quiet.
“I’ve been in a lot of stadiums, but never had I heard that many people go so quiet after a game,” recalled Lowe. “You heard nothing but the handful of people in white.”
Nobody gave the group a hard time in the stands.
“Even though they lost, Michigan had the best opposing fans I think I’ve been around,” said Wright, who had seen less hospitable crowds while growing up in Florida. “I guess we had earned their respect.”
Wright said the group reveled in the stadium for a while, took some pictures and then walked to a restaurant called The Brown Jug. “Ann Arbor was a ghost town after the game,” he said. “I just remember the hostess, seeing our App State gear … giving us a bad look, but then smiling and saying, ‘come on in.'”
At the restaurant, Wright remembers all the messages he’d received during the afternoon.
“There were no iPhones then … we just had a flip phones and I didn’t check mine during the game,” said Wright. “When I did check, I literally had dozens of voicemails from friends and family. One friend in California had left a message: ‘Hey, are you watching this game? Ya’ll just beat Michigan!”
The aftermath of such a victory was, obviously, huge for the university.
“We didn’t expect to win, but when we did, there was that fame and accrediting that went with it,” said Lowe. “The school got what amounted to millions of dollars of advertising with the TV coverage that next week.”
The Mountaineers went from defeating the No. 5 1-A school in the nation to opening at home in Boone against a Division II school — Lenoir-Rhyne. ASU won, 48-7, but the story was a record crowd (at the time) of 30,000. “Everyone wanted to be a part of the buzz,” said Wright.
The team went on to win its third straight FCS national championship, but a few years later, the Michigan win became part of the process of Appalachian State moving up to 1-A.
Wright believes the Michigan victory advanced that move.
“In 2009-10, I was a part of the feasibility study for the move up,” said Wright. “Applications to the university had gone through the roof, and the Yosef Club, which had just passed $1 million for the first time in 2006, raised $2 million by the end of 2007. Now, it’s closer to $3.5 million. That win was a huge contribution to the eventual move up, I think.”
ASU now plays in the Sunbelt Conference at the BCS level and has gone to the Camellia Bowl in Alabama the past two seasons.
• David Jackson, then the award-winning, play-by-play radio voice of App State sports, has this take: “That was Appalachian’s 15 minutes of fame and it’s turned into 10 years of fame and will go well beyond that. It’s a moment that every program in the country, regardless of sport or size, would love to have, and Appalachian State is fortunate to have one.”
Jackson said that he was exhausted after the broadcast. “That last five minutes took about 21 elapsed minutes to play and every single play was like a heavyweight fight, where there was a punch and counter punch,” said Jackson, now president of the Boone area of chamber of commerce and still works closely with the university. “Before the game even ended, we were starting to understand the impact a win would have on the university and the football program and even the town, if they could pull it out.”
• Most people don’t remember that App State did not go undefeated that season. The Mountaineers actually lost two Southern Conference games — Wofford and Georgia Southern — but won 13 games, including a 49-21 whipping of Delaware for their third straight FCS title.
• Moore retired as the Moutaineers’ coach after 24 seasons in 2012. He compiled a record of 215-87 at Boone. Scott Satterfield followed Moore and is now in his fifth season.
• After the loss to ASU, Michigan was trounced the next week by Oregon, 39-7, but rebounded nicely. The Wolverines went on to a 9-4 season and a win over Florida in the Capital One Bowl, 41-35.
• Lynch, who blocked the field goal attempt at the end of the Michigan game, was injured as a sophomore in 2004. He received a medical red-shirt year or would have exhausted his eligibility in 2006. “How crazy is that,” laughed Wright. “Without that, he never plays in the game at Michigan.”
“It’s kind of scary,” added Lowe. “The circumstances don’t align themselves without that almost divine series of events happening in the past. Lynch doesn’t use up his eligibility in 2006 and comes back in ’07 to be at that point, to make that play, in that game. The stars were aligned.”