COLUMBIA, S.C. — The moment that Appalachian State had planned for all week happened. That preparation allowed them to withstand an intense closing moment on the back of its defense.
Saturday was another celebratory night for App State (8-1) in stadium much bigger than its friendly confines of Kidd Brewer Stadium. Appalachian powered to a 20-15 victory against South Carolina, registering its second Power-Five win of the season.
Akeem Davis-Gaither, App State’s do-everything senior linebacker, said he was ready for it. All 11 Mountaineers were.
“We knew we were going to have to fight all the way to 60 minutes, and that’s what we did,” said Davis-Gaither, who blocked the kick that sealed App State’s 34-31 win against North Carolina on Sept. 21. “That last drive, them getting the first down twice and knowing that everybody was counting on us, the defense, that’s what we wanted.
“And we did what we’re supposed to do.”
First off, there’s a need to appreciate what the App State defensive unit accomplished before the final five minutes. The Mountaineers withstood two drives of more than 50 yards in the Gamecocks’ first two series, holding the SEC school to two field goals as Appalachian stayed in range.
From there, App State stifled South Carolina from accomplishing anything of note: the home team never went longer than 31 yards on their next nine consecutive drives. That stretch includes a series that started on App State’s 32 after an interception from quarterback Zac Thomas. The Gamecocks went only 4 yards forward and settled for yet another field goal.
Those early drives pumped adrenaline through an already hyped-up group. It only built on itself from there.
“To be honest, at the beginning of the game, when we saw our defense going on the field, every time we just stopped them,” said Nick Hampton, an App State outside linebacker. “So we just knew that they can’t win if they can’t score, so we just knew we had them there.”
At first, the defense held South Carolina in check so Appalachian could score. Later it would score itself, when freshman safety Nick Ross intercepted a batted ball and ran it in for a 20-yard touchdown. That score gave App State a 13-6 lead just before halftime.
“That’s a big play, especially in a game like this,” App State defensive back Shemar Jean-Charles said. “Proud of him too, that’s a young guy. That’s a freshman. He was able to step up for our team, our defense, and I’m proud of him for that.”
But South Carolina did not go quietly. It registered a third of its total yards (114 of 345) on its final two drives. The first drive, which started at the 21-yard line, featured a pass interference from Jean-Charles on a second-and-10 that App State had snuffed out. It ended with a 23-yard touchdown catch to wide receiver Bryan Edwards to bring the Gamecocks within five points. They scored with 2:58 remaining and got the ball back almost one minute later.
So there was the App State defense again, needing just one more stop. Jean-Charles said the Mountaineers had to lean on what they practiced to get through. And more importantly, lean on each other.
“Just having faith in the person next to you, that he’s going to do his job and to the best of his ability at the end of the day,” Jean-Charles said. “When you have that faith in the person next to you, it just makes your job easier, you know?
“. . . We actually went over this type of situation earlier this week in practice, and we went over it basically everyday.”
In its final stand, the defense caused some nearly game-clinching moments. First, Josh Thomas grabbed an interception that was wiped away by a defensive offsides penalty by Davis-Gaither on a third down.
Hampton sacked South Carolina quarterback Ryan Hilinski and caused a fumble, but Hilinski was able to land back on the ball.
Instead of App State ending the game, the Gamecocks kept their hopes alive by converting on two fourth-and-longs.
Jean-Charles said he expected South Carolina to look even more toward Edwards, who missed part of the first half with an injury. And he was right — Hilinski threw to Edwards on three consecutive plays at one point, targeting the 6-foot-3 receiver on the final play that fell incomplete.
In the end, Jean-Charles said it was about knowing how to react. And the defense’s response resulted in another statement non-conference victory.
“It just puts us in the mindset just that, when our backs against the wall, we basically have to knuck up and do what we’re here for, you know?” Jean-Charles said. “Football games, it’s back and forth. It’s momentum swings.
“As a defense you’ve got to learn how to basically have adversity and learn how to push through that to win the game at the end of the day.”