BOONE, N.C. — After a timely touchdown from App State’s Camerun Peoples late in the first half, a fired-up Shawn Clark pumped his left fist, flexed from a squat position and engaged in a friendly tussle with lineman Cooper Hodges before slapping the right tackle on the helmet.
You think that score and this game meant something to the Mountaineers’ head coach, a 1998 graduate of App State?
Chandler Staton hit a go-ahead field goal from 45 yards out with 5:45 left, and the defense made a key stand before Nate Noel’s open-field running clinched a 31-30 victory over longtime rival Marshall on Thursday night in front of 28,377 fans at a rocking Kidd Brewer Stadium.
“Those were two great football programs, two great universities, that battled to the very end,” Clark said. “It was a 15-round heavyweight fight, and we were the last team standing.”
The biggest crowd for a midweek game at Kidd Brewer Stadium gave the Mountaineers (3-1) a lift as they climbed out of a nine-point hole and erased a fourth-quarter deficit in a win for the first time since midway through the 2017 season at Idaho.
“That’s outstanding,” Clark said. “That’s what great programs are built upon — the fan support, the support of our community. We can’t thank you enough … It’s made a big-time difference in our program and made a big-time difference in the game tonight.”
Following Staton’s field goal, Marshall (2-2) moved into App State territory, but D’Marco Jackson and Jalen McLeod forced a 6-yard loss after Brendan Harrington quickly disrupted the rushing attempt. Caleb Spurlin’s second-down pressure forced a throwaway, and a third-down incompletion led to a punt that gave App State possession at its own 8 with four minutes left.
Noel had gains of 11, 14, 41 and 22 yards on the final drive alone, smartly going down short of the end zone in the final two minutes to prevent Marshall from possibly regaining possession with an eight-point deficit. He finished with a career-high 187 yards on 20 carries.
“I kind of felt like it was a little (too) easy,” Noel said of the free path he had once he approached the 5-yard line. “I remembered the situation and knew to fall. I was thinking about the Todd Gurley situation that happened when he fell and scored accidently and they came back and won.”
Corey Sutton had 10 catches for 127 yards with one incredible, rally-starting score, and Thomas Hennigan contributed nine catches for 123 yards to help Chase Brice throw for 283 yards. Defensively, Jackson had another monster game with 14 tackles.
Peoples scored three first-half touchdowns, including one on a 2-yard run with four seconds left before the break, to help App State take a 21-20 lead into the locker room.
App State and Marshall played every year from 1977-1996 as SoCon rivals, with the Mountaineers’ last victory in the series being a 10-3 win in 1995, when Clark delivered a key block on the game’s only touchdown.
“I think we were bend but don’t break,” Spurlin said. “I think that’s from offense to special teams to defense. We compete and play hard. There’s nothing else to say about that. You watch the film, offense, defense and special teams all play hard.”
Michael Hughes made a TD-saving tackle on the opening kickoff, and a three-and-out stop by App State’s defense preceded a nine-play, 80-yard touchdown drive for the Mountaineers. Hennigan made two catches for 43 yards on the series, and Peoples scored the first of his three short touchdowns with 9:38 remaining in the period.
Marshall accounted for the next three scores, but stops at the App State 4 and App State 15 led to short field goals, and the Thundering Herd took a 13-7 lead on a 56-yard touchdown pass early the second quarter.
App State responded with a 15-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that covered 5:23, as Peoples scored on a 2-yard run midway through the quarter. Marshall immediately retook the lead on a 97-yard kickoff return by Rasheen Ali, but the Mountaineers had time for one more first-half drive following a third-down sack from Jalen McLeod.
Four completions by Brice and a pair of flags for defensive pass interference set up a first-and-goal situation from the 2 with eight seconds left in the half. With two timeouts at their disposal, the Mountaineers put the ball in Peoples’ hands, and he scored for the second time on the night with Spurlin providing a lead block.
Marshall capitalized on a defensive interception on a deep throw toward the end zone and a lost fumble near midfield in the third quarter, kicking a 46-yard field goal to take a 23-21 lead and adding an 8-yard touchdown run with 4:16 remaining in the quarter.
Trailing by nine points to start the fourth quarter, App State moved from its 38 to the Marshall 25 thanks to an acrobatic catch by Sutton. Two plays later, he improbably came down with a 24-yard touchdown catch at the left-edge of the end zone.
Officials reviewed the play and confirmed that Sutton dragged his back foot on the black end-zone turf just before his lead foot hit the turf out of bounds. Sutton reacted immediately to the arms-up signal from the official, sprinting roughly 50 yards to celebrate.
“I definitely practice it and feel like I have a good understanding of where my foot is when it’s still in bounds a little bit,” said Sutton, who used similar footwork on a highlight-reel catch against Troy in 2018. “This was a little closer and I wasn’t sure I was in until the replay.”
Marshall had an opportunity to extend its lead again, advancing to the App State 15, but a 32-yard field goal sailed wide right with 10:17 left.
App State took over from there, rushing for 111 yards, completing all five of its pass attempts for 86 yards and limiting Marshall to 71 yards of offense in a dominant fourth quarter. Noel had 104 rushing yards on nine carries in the final 15 minutes.
“We just came out and kept fighting and fighting and fighting,” Clark said. “That’s what this program is about. We’re going to fight to the very end.”
App State Athletics Strategic Communications contributed to this column