The football cliche may be as old as college football itself:
“On any given Saturday, anybody can win.”
Football coaches at Georgia Southern, Liberty and Elon might use some version of it Saturday. Then again, so might the coaches of the teams that will face those decided underdogs in their 2014 season-openers – N.C. State, North Carolina and Duke.
And Scott Satterfield, the coach at Appalachian State. He’s sure to use it one more time.
“We’ve proven it,” he said.
Seven years ago, Satterfield was the quarterbacks coach on Jerry Moore’s staff at Appalachian State when the Mountaineers went to Michigan, into the famed “Big House,” into a den of 110,000 Wolverines, and shocked the football world. The Mountaineers were 35-point underdogs. Their 34-32 victory, clinched by Corey Lynch’s block of a last-gasp field goal attempt by Michigan, quite possibly was the greatest upset in college football history.
Moore, now retired from coaching, likens it to the U.S. hockey team stunning the Russians in the 1980 Winter Olympics.
“In that it’s memory-making,” Moore said. “It’s one you remember the rest of your life.”
Seven years after the fact, the upset still resonates with underdogs everywhere – with Football Championship Subdivision teams looking to knock off Football Bowl Subdivision teams, or FBS newcomers looking to prove they belong, that they can play with the big dogs.
“It’s been the battle cry for a lot of folks,” said Justin Smith, N.C. State’s head football trainer.
In 2007, Smith was beginning his first season as football trainer for Appalachian State. His first game was at fifth-ranked Michigan.
“A surreal experience,” he said.
The Mountaineers also faced Georgia Southern in the Southern Conference, and Smith said a number of Wolfpack players approached him this week with questions about the Eagles, who are in their inaugural FBS season – along with Appalachian State – as new members of the Sun Belt Conference.
But the players couldn’t resist. They wanted to hear about that early September day at Michigan, and, as Smith noted, “I do love telling that story.”
On Thursday of game week in 2007, Smith said, a thunderstorm in Boone canceled the Mountaineers’ practice, and the players frolicked about in the locker room for a few hours. They flew to Ann Arbor, Mich., and practiced Friday at Michigan Stadium, allowing them to acclimate themselves to the size of the place, to the surroundings.
Call it the perfect storm.
“I think it helped us have fresh legs and the time in the locker room helped that team bond a little bit,” Smith said. “I think it was a blessing in disguise. We were ready in all aspects, really.”
The Mountaineers, who picked up $400,000 for the visit, will receive $1 million for their return Saturday to Michigan for the 2014 opener. Georgia Southern will earn $700,000 for its game against the Wolfpack. UNC is paying Liberty $350,000.
“Most refer to those games as ‘money games,’ ” Moore said. “Auburn, N.C. State, Wake Forest, LSU … they had been referred to as ‘money games’ when we played them. But from (2007) on, I always referred to them as ‘opportunity games.’ It’s a great opportunity to do something you’ll remember the rest of your life.”
Not overlooking Ga. Southern
That’s the approach Liberty coach Turner Gill likely is taking for his game in Chapel Hill. Or N.C. Central coach Jerry Mack against ECU.
Georgia Southern closed the 2013 season with a shocker of its own, going into Gainesville, Fla., into The Swamp, and beating the Florida Gators 26-20. The Eagles’ new coach, Willie Fritz, came to Georgia Southern from Sam Houston State, where he twice reached the FCS title game.
Few can appreciate a nonconference team winning in the The Swamp more than Wolfpack quarterback Jacoby Brissett. He transferred to N.C. State from Florida, sitting out the 2013 season.
“They’re going to come out ready to play, ready to take what they think is theirs,” Brissett said of the Eagles. “They’ll have in the back of their minds that they beat Florida, in a tough place to play, so why not here?”
Brissett also said he remembers App State’s stunner at Michigan, and the lesson that it taught for every underdog.
“There’s no reason any team should come into another place and think they can’t win,” he said. “Their mindset will be any team can win and they’ll be gunning for you.”
Talent gap, upsets shrink
Satterfield said he’s excited about going back to Ann Arbor, well aware the Mountaineers will have the Wolverines’ full attention this time.
“Obviously, it’s a different team and different coaching staff,” Satterfield said. “A lot is different.
“Michigan is a storied program that recruits nationally and signs four- and five-star players. Obviously, we’re a big underdog, again. But the fact we beat them in ’07 proves the underdog can win. Last year, FCS teams had more wins (over FBS teams) than they’ve ever had.”
Eight FCS teams beat FBS teams on the first Saturday of the 2013 college football season, topped by Eastern Washington’s win against No. 25 Oregon State. There were 16 such FCS upsets last season, 45 since the 2008 season began.
FBS teams are allowed 85 scholarships, leveling that part of the “playing field” for those moving up into the subdivision. On the FCS level, once called Division I-AA, schools are limited to 63 scholarships. As for facilities, coaching salaries, recruiting budgets … well, don’t ask.
But the talent gap isn’t what it used to be. As Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer put it, “Even at different levels of football, they have a lot of good football players and a lot of veteran football players.”
The Hokies begin the season Saturday against William & Mary, commemorating the 50th year of Lane Stadium but also mindful of what happened in their 2010 home opener – a 21-16 loss to James Madison, another FCS team.
“We’re starting a lot of new guys, so every game is a little bit different,” Beamer said. “You’ve got to go out and play.”
App State oozed confidence
The underdogs Saturday could make use of the “Jerry Moore Primer” for an upset. Embracing the opportunity and the media hype is a must. (“We fed off it,” Moore said.) Another, he said, was to be extremely well-conditioned. And he had his team go full-speed on special teams in preseason practices, not go through the motions.
Lynch’s big block didn’t surprise Moore, who said, “Lynch and others blocked about 20 kicks in two-a-days. We felt if we could win the special teams, we might have a chance. And we did.”
But there has to be that inherent belief the underdog can get the job done. The players and coaches must feel it, ooze it.
Appalachian State had gone 14-1 in 2006 – the only loss in the opener at N.C. State – and won its second I-AA national title. It was a team with Armanti Edwards at quarterback and plenty of skill in its spread offense, and defensive veterans such as Lynch, a safety who would play in the NFL.
Still, they were playing Michigan. Smith, the ASU trainer in 2007, said he went to school at Alabama and arrived in Boone believing the opener could be a nightmare.
“Coming from Alabama, I was of the mindset there was no way we can go up there and play with them,” he said. “I then got around the guys and started believing it.”
Part of the game plan, Moore said, was to extend offensive pre-snaps to burn more clock, shorten the game and rest the defense. By the third quarter, that had changed.
“I thought we were a little better conditioned than them,” Moore said. “The (coaches) in the press box were saying, ‘Speed this thing up – let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.”
In the pandemonium after the game, Moore and then-Michigan coach Lloyd Carr never connected for a final handshake. Moore said Carr did call the next day to congratulate him and that he put it on speaker phone so that his Appalachian State staff could hear it.
Smith remembers returning to the ASU campus that Saturday night, with thousands of fans and students waiting, cheering.
“That’s the closest I’ve ever been to being a rock star,” he said, laughing.
That’s what huge upsets can do for teams. It can make for instant stars and memories of a lifetime.
Appalachian State proved it.