App State relishes win over UNC but moves forward

Appalachian State fans and staff celebrate after the Mountaineers defeated North Carolina 34-31 in Chapel Hill. It was App State’s first win over a Power Five school since its move to FBS. (Robert Clark / For the North State Journal)

CHAPEL HILL — The postgame celebration in the corner of Kenan Stadium’s East end zone on Saturday was a familiar one for Eliah Drinkwitz.

He had already taken part in two of them as the offensive coordinator at NC State.

This one, however, was different.

Not only was Appalachian State’s history-making 34-31 win against North Carolina Drinkwitz’s first major triumph as a college football head coach, but it also helped him accomplish a goal he set for himself — or, more accurately, set for him — when he was hired to replace former coach Scott Satterfield last December.

“When we took this job, the big thing was to do something that hasn’t been done before,” Drinkwitz said after the Mountaineers’ first victory against UNC in its first game against the Tar Heels since 1940.

“That’s how you keep moving forward as a program. Since we had been a (FBS) team, we had not beaten a Power Five team. In my job description was ‘to elevate the program.’ To beat a Power Five team is a way to elevate the program. We did that today.”

But that’s not all App State did Saturday.

Beating its higher-profile in-state rival on its own home turf didn’t just bring joy and bragging rights to a school and fan base itching to stake its claim as North Carolina’s best after averaging 10 wins a year over the past four seasons. Combined with Central Florida’s loss at Pittsburgh earlier in the day, it also put the Mountaineers in position to make a splash nationally.

If they can win their other Power Five matchup at South Carolina on Nov. 9 and run the table in the Sun Belt Conference, which they’re favored to do, the Mountaineers could legitimately find themselves playing in one of the New Year’s Six bowls come Jan. 1.

As exciting a prospect as that might be, App State’s ambitious first-year coach isn’t looking that far ahead.

At least publicly.

“(I’m) proud of our team, proud of our university, proud of all of our alumni for our win Saturday,” Drinkwitz said at his regular weekly press conference Monday. “It was a big game, a lot of excitement, a lot of energy. But for us, we’re moving on. Our goal is to win the Sun Belt championship and a bowl game with class, integrity and academic excellence.”

While the Mountaineers (3-0) have put the UNC game behind them and turned their attention to the next task at hand, starting with Saturday’s conference opener against Coastal Carolina, the importance of the victory cannot be overstated.

That’s especially true for a group of seniors that had come so agonizingly close to pulling off a breakthrough FBS victory earlier in their careers.

There were overtime setbacks to Tennessee in 2016 and Penn State last season, along with a one-point home loss to Wake Forest in 2017 in which the Deacons blocked a potential game-winning field goal with less than a minute remaining.

It was somehow fitting that Saturday’s victory was secured when one of those long-suffering seniors — linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither — got his hand on a last-second field goal attempt by the Tar Heels’ Noah Ruggles, causing it to fall far short of its mark.

“This program has definitely had some heartbreaking losses, but Coach Drink coming in here with a new mindset, everybody kind of got a fresh start from everything,” said junior wide receiver Thomas Hennigan, who had six catches for 90 yards. “These seniors have been through it all, countless hours, and it’s awesome to get those guys a big win during their last year.”

The postgame celebration both on the field with their fans and in the locker room with their teammates was epic in proportion. The challenge now is to avoid the hangover that often comes with such jubilation.

“Human tendency is to sit there and pat yourself on the back,” Drinkwitz said. “It’s my job and the coaching staff’s job, it’s the leaders on this football team’s job to put last week behind us.

“We’ll have a heck of a blowout banquet at the end of the year and, we’ll all tell war stories from the UNC game and all that bull crud. But right now, we’re focused on this (Coastal Carolina) game, this moment in this moment in time.”

Junior running back Darrynton Evans, whose three touchdowns helped secure the win in Chapel Hill, said he’s not concerned about a possible letdown.

“That’s one thing Coach Drink emphasizes, to be 1-0 for the week,” Evans said. “So we’re not trying to overlook anyone else that we play.”