CHARLOTTE — Appalachian State put an impressive package on display in a 33-19 win over East Carolina in the Duke’s Mayo Classic at Bank of America Stadium in the season opener for both clubs on Thursday night.
The Mountaineers have 17 returning starters from a 9-3 team and proved to be kings of the Queen City with a 487-376 lead in total yardage.
The Pirates had the early advantage as Keaton Mitchell went 63 yards with a short pass from Holton Ahlers to give ECU a 6-0 lead with 10:22 left in the first quarter. Owen Daffer pushed the extra point wide right to lessen the momentum of the quick strike.
“That was a snap-hold issue,” said third-year Pirates coach Mike Houston. “That wasn’t Owen’s fault.”
Appalachian matched the score with a 34-yard toss from Duke transfer Chase Brice to Thomas Hennigan to tie the score at 6 with 7:20 left in the first period. Chandler Staton connected on the conversion to put the Mountaineers ahead to stay at 7-6.
A 21-yard scoring run by Camerun Peoples pushed the lead to 14-6 with 1:37 to go in the opening quarter. Staton kicked field goals of 21 and 38 yards in the second quarter to help Appalachian to a 20-6 lead at the half.
A Hail Mary from Holton Ahlers to C.J. Johnson at the close of the half was initially ruled a touchdown, but the score was overturned after a video review by the Sun Belt Conference officiating crew.
“I didn’t really understand that,” Houston said. “Usually they say there has to be conclusive evidence, but I didn’t see it. We lost to a good football team. Calls didn’t have anything to do with it, but we sure didn’t get a break on the calls tonight.”
A long run by Ahlers into the red zone in the second quarter was nullified by a holding call. Ahlers appeared to have been targeted with a helmet to helmet hit in the fourth quarter, but, again, no call.
Daffer’s 38-yard field goal with 9:23 to go in the third drew the Pirates within 20-9 but the Mountaineers answered 33 seconds later as Brice hit Corey Sutton for an 18-yard score.
Peoples ran 12 yards for a 33-9 lead with 13:37 left to play.
ECU closed the gap to 33-19 on a 39-yard field goal by Daffer and a 38-yard touchdown pass from Ahlers to Ryan Jones, a former linebacker at Oklahoma, who has converted to tight end for the Pirates.
Ahlers completed 22 of 40 passes for 295 yards with two TDs and one interception. Ahlers was sacked four times. Mitchell was ECU’s leading rusher with four carries for 50 yards.
Mitchell was also ECU’s top receiver with five catches for 79 yards.
Nate Noel ran 15 times for 126 yards for Appalachian. Peoples had 14 carries for 100 yards.
Brice completed 20 of 27 passes for 259 yards with two scores and one pick. Hennigan had four receptions for 114 yards.
“We’ve got to grow up to play in these games like this,”Houston said. “We were playing a veteran team that’s won a lot. It was a really, really intense ball game. We did some good stuff, but just too many mistakes.”
The Mountaineers led 226-86 in rushing yards.
“There were times when we ran the ball really well,” Houston said. “And there were times we played really well defensively. But our inability to run the football and not making some plays in the passing game that were there was really the difference.”
The Pirates will take on South Carolina in Greenville in their second game of 2021 on Saturday, Sept. 11, at noon.
“We’ve got to use this film,” Houston said. “It’s going to be a great film to watch because you played a quality opponent. We’ve got another tough opponent coming into Dowdy-Ficklen (Stadium) next week. We’ve got to correct our mistakes and get better.”
ECU has worked to build its fronts but Appalachian was stout in the trenches.
“I thought Appalachian’s defensive line got the better of us up front,” Houston said. “To a degree, their offensive line, too. I thought there were times when our D-line showed a lot of promise.”
Brice stepped into a leadership role on an experienced and talented unit.
“He’s got a strong supporting cast,” Houston said. “You have four sixth-year senior receivers. two quality running backs, a quality offensive line. He’s got a great surrounding cast. There’s not as much pressure on him as there was last year.”
Ahlers directed the ECU offense to 20 first downs.
“I thought he did some good things,” Houston said. “There are some things he can improve on.”
The Pirates had won six straight in the series. The Mountaineers last topped ECU in 1975.