Saturday, September 12, 2020

App State Downs Charlotte in Season Opener

BOONE — Not many fans. No shortage of rain. Some first-game mistakes. Strong debuts from Charlotte linebacker Tyler Murray and running back Tre Harbison III along with a school-record 97-yard kickoff return from redshirt senior Aaron McAllister.

None of that prevented a resilient and resourceful App State team from opening a late-starting 2020 season with a 35-20 home victory against Charlotte on Saturday.

Holding an eight-point lead in the closing minutes, the Mountaineers' defense made two impressive stands, including one inside the 20-yard line to set up the game-clinching touchdown drive. With App State taking over following a fourth-down stop with 5:03 left, Marcus Williams Jr. put together runs of 34 and 22 yards before Daetrich Harrington scored on a 15-yard run with 1:15 remaining.

When senior safety Kaiden Smith intercepted a pass at the App State 22 with 32 seconds left, the celebration for head coach Shawn Clark's first regular-season win could commence in a mostly empty Kidd Brewer Stadium — because of state COVID-19 guidelines that limit outdoor gatherings to a maximum of 50 spectators, only a small number of physically spaced parents of App State juniors and seniors were able to attend.

"We had the motto today, and all camp, of no excuses," Clark said. "It didn't matter if there were no fans in the stands, four inches of water, three turnovers — it didn't matter. I can't say enough about our players and this program."

The second-year Charlotte coach felt a little different. "Frustrated," said 49ers head coach Will Healy. "They got after us running the football.  They created some turnovers. To be honest we stayed in it on special teams.  We gave ourselves a shot on special teams. To beat a team like App you have to play better on both sides of the ball."

On a rain-soaked afternoon at The Rock, the Mountaineers totaled 308 rushing yards, including 117 from Williams and a career-high 102 from Camerun Peoples. They scored once apiece, and Harrington scored twice in the fourth quarter of his 60-yard outing. Zac Thomas' 204 passing yards included a 51-yard touchdown pass to Thomas Hennigan, who made five catches for 120 yards.

Charlotte was paced offensively by Tre Harbison, who totaled 93 yards and a touchdown in his debut for the 49ers.

After Charlotte followed Hennigan's touchdown with a school-record 97-yard kickoff return by Aaron McAllister to trail just 21-20 late in the third quarter, Daetrich Harrington capped a 14-play, 75-yard drive with a 4-yard touchdown run.

The 49ers advanced into App State territory on the next possession but had to punt thanks to Brendan Harrington's tackle for a 4-yard loss, Spurlin's sack for a 6-yard loss, and Shemar Jean-Charles' third-down breakup. Charlotte recovered a fumble on the next play to gain possession at App State's 20-yard line but was not able to take advantage of the turnover.

"We work hand in hand — once the D-line gets in the quarterback's face to rush him and pressure him, it makes our job easier in the back end," Jean-Charles said.

App State marched into scoring range on its first drive of the game, but Charlotte forced a fumble at the goal line and responded with a 12-play, 91-yard touchdown drive that ended with Harbison's 14-yard scoring run.

Peoples, who suffered a season-ending injury in the 2019 opener, made his official return to begin App State's third series and had six carries for 53 yards on a 67-yard touchdown drive early in the second quarter. He opened the quarter with gains of 14, 5, and 10 yards before capping the drive with an 8-yard gain and an explosive 16-yard touchdown.

Special teams kept the game much closer than that stat line would have indicated. Charlotte converted a 23-yard field goal with 1:52 left before the break and blocked a 34-yard field goal as the half ended with the score 14-10.

After the 49ers converted a 49-yard field goal to cut its second-half deficit to a single point, four Peoples runs for a combined 24 yards preceded Thomas' 51-yard touchdown pass to Hennigan.

Peoples' previous career-high of 69 rushing yards came on just three carries in the 2018 bowl win. Williams, a redshirt senior, made his fifth career start and eclipsed 100 rushing yards for the fourth time in an App State uniform. Daetrich Harrington, like Peoples, has dealt with his own share of adversity based on injuries that sidelined him for long stretches in 2019 and 2018.

"We've all been through a lot, and we all keep each other up," Harrington said. "Even going back to my freshman year, we've all been through a lot not playing as much as you'd like, getting injured, those seasons not finishing the way you'd want it to finish. We all have that chip on our shoulder.

"It was a hard-fought football game," Will Healy added after the game. "We had a couple opportunities in the red zone and kicked field goals instead of scoring touchdowns. That was a big deal. You have to score touchdowns against great teams. I'm proud of our guys and excited about where our team is but today App was definitely the better football team."