Miracle on the Mountain remembered
by Steve Behr Sports Editor
There was the 2005 semifinal playoff game when Trey Elder took over for an injured Richie Williams at quarterback and tossed a 45-yard touchdown pass to Dexter Jackson on Elder’s first play from scrimmage.
Furman quarterback Ingle Martin looked like he was going to give Furman a late lead with a short run, but he slipped on the 1-yard line, and the Paladins came up empty. Martin led another Paladins drive with less than a minute to play, but he fumbled while being sacked by Jason Hunter.
Omarr Byrom scooped up the loose ball and returned it to the Furman 1-yard line, where ASU preserved the win.
ASU won 29-23, and went on to win its first of three national championships.
Then there was the 2004 game when Williams completed 40-of-45 passes, including 28 straight, but scored the winning touchdown with a 13-yard keeper, giving ASU a 30-29 win.
Those were nothing compared to what happened at Kidd Brewer Stadium in 2002.
RELIVING THE MIRACLE
Appalachian State’s 16-15 victory over the Paladins on Oct. 12, 2002, is still one of the most memorable victories, playoffs or otherwise, at The Rock.
It was 10 years ago this season when ASU defensive end Josh Jeffries intercepted a Billy Napier two-point conversion pass, ran 12 yards with the ball, and then pitched it to speedy cornerback Derrick Black.
Black outraced the Furman offense to the goal line, giving the Mountaineers a defensive two-point conversion, and a 16-15 lead that would stand.
It was named No. 6 in the Top 10 plays of the week by ESPN at the time. It’s one of the top all-time memories in Appalachian State football history.
“It’s one of the great plays in the history of college football,” Mountaineers coach Jerry Moore said. “It’s kind of like (Doug) Flute’s throw with time running out and it’s kind of like the Stanford band being on the field. Four of five things come to mind and that’s one of them. It was a great play. Everybody who saw it will never forget it.”
The teams were part of the SoCon’s Big Three; Georgia Southern was the other member at the time. Wofford was starting to emerge as a SoCon player, but the Big Three was the establishment of the league.
The games between Furman and Appalachian State were always hard hitting and usually very close. The 2002 edition was no different.
Furman held a 9-7 lead on the strength of three field goals, when ASU fullback Joey Hoover caught a 24-yard touchdown pass from Joe Burchette with 5:39 left in the game. That play put the Mountaineers in front 14-9.
But Napier led the Paladins on a 13-play, 73-yard drive that ended with a third-down touchdown pass to Bear Rinehart that gave the Paladins a 15-14 lead.
Furman coach Bobby Lamb chose to go for two, instead of kicking the extra point, even though there were just seven seconds left in the game. Make it and any Appalachian State field goal merely ties the game.
It was a move that completely backfired.
At the beginning of the season, Jeffries said he and Black made a pact that if Jeffries ever got a chance, he would create a turnover and then get the ball to Black, who was one of the fastest players on the team.
Jeffries, then a senior, was an All-American and was also on his way to making Appalachian State’s 75th anniversary team. He saw that the Paladins had run the same play in similar situations, and thought they would run it again on the two-point conversion.
He shook off a cut block from Furman’s left tackle and picked off Napier’s pass at the Paladins’ 4-yard line. Jeffries returned the ball to the Furman 16, where he lateraled it to Black.
Black, with an escort from Jeffries and safety Nygel Rogers, did the rest by returning the ball for the defensive two-point conversion. Napier was the closest Paladin to tackling Black, but he could not get close enough to the cornerback along the Furman sideline at the Paladins’ 39-yard line to get a good hit on Black.
The only player who could catch up to Black was Rogers, who tackled Black in the end zone. That sparked a massive celebration that cost ASU 15 yards on the ensuing kickoff.
Ah yes, the kickoff. Furman had to kick off to the Mountaineers. A good onside kick could have given the Paladins a chance at a game-winning field goal.
Jeffries made sure that would not happen. He recovered the onside kick, and the Mountaineers held on to win the game.
“I remember it was great,” Moore said. “It was one of those things that you almost had to be there to witness it to believe what just happened.”
It almost didn’t happen. With ASU leading 14-9, Napier fumbled the ball while running left. The Paladins got a huge break when the ball went out of bounds before four Mountaineers could pounce on it.
Reinhart scored on the next play.
Moore said there was little ASU could have done to win the game had Jeffries not picked off Napier’s pass.
“I’m sure we had a plan, but at that point, it would have kind of been like the Flute thing,” Moore said. “You would have had to run the kickoff back and they probably would have squibbed it. You’ve got very little chance or no chance.”
A DIFFERENT VIEW
Not everybody at the game has such fond memories. Current ASU receivers coach Justin Stepp was a freshman redshirting for the Paladins that season. He was on the sidelines in uniform that game since a Paladin receiver was injured, and he might have been called into the game.
Stepp remembers an exhilarating victory turning into a crushing defeat in a manner of seconds.
“I was in the middle hugging half the team,” Stepp said. “I turned around and I saw (Black) going down the sideline and I turned and looked and said ‘Does that count?’ and they said, ‘Yes.’ That’s two points and we just lost that game. I’ve never in my entire life gone from the ultimate high to the ultimate low that quick.”
Stepp said Napier took the loss especially hard since he changed the original play at the line of scrimmage.
“It was always a highly-competitive game, and the winner would be the conference champ,” Napier, an assistant coach at Colorado State, said. “We beat them my junior year and won (the conference), and then that game was my senior year.”
Stepp was a graduate assistant at Clemson when Napier was an assistant coach there. He remembers having to relive the play more often than he’d like.
“Literally, everywhere we went, everybody asked him if he was the guy who threw the two-point conversion,” Stepp said. “He always had to relive it everywhere he went.”
Stepp said Napier is “cordial” when asked about the play, but “it still makes him sick.”
“It cost us a conference championship,” Stepp said. “He checked out of a call, so there’s a little more than just he threw the interception. He checked to the play. He’s got a little more invested into it.”
Not surprisingly, the bus trip back to Greenville, S.C., was silent and depressing. Stepp said Lamb took the blame for the play by going for two in the first place. It still didn’t take the sting out of the loss.
“It was an emotional locker room,” Stepp said. “It was tough. Coach Lamb had a really tough time with it. The bus ride back was pure silence. Nobody said anything, and half the people didn’t even eat their food. It was a long bus ride back and it was just unbelievable. Nobody had ever been through anything like that.
“We thought we had it won. Nobody in a million years thought it would end up like that.”
ONE OF A KIND
There have been other memorable plays in Appalachian State’s history. Corey Lynch’s block of a Jason Gingell field goal that sealed the Mountaineers’ 34-32 historic upset of Michigan immediately comes to mind.
Marques Murrell’s sack of Northern Iowa quarterback Eric Sanders forced a fumble that Hunter returned 15 yards for the game-winning touchdown that gave the Mountaineers a 21-16 victory in their first Division I-AA national championship.
There’s Scott Satterfield’s game-winning touchdown pass that beat The Citadel 28-24 in the final game of the 1995 regular season that preserved an undefeated regular season at 11-0. On fourth down, Satterfield found Ron Gilliam in the back of the end zone with 1:39 left in the game to get the win
There’s two-time Buck Buchanan winner Dexter Coakley dominating No. 1-ranked Marshall in ASU’s 24-14 victory. Coakley finished with 15 tackles, three for a lossand forced a fumble.
And just pick one of several Armanti Edwards specials.
None of those plays have the word “Miracle” attached to them. Those who saw the 2002 “Miracle” won’t forget it any time soon.