Pirates win season opener
With consistent defense and a flare for the dramatic, the Pirates managed to overcome the Mountaineers, 35-13, and win the opening game of the season.
Last time these teams met, Appalachian found themselves in a big halftime hole and they managed a furious second-half comeback to almost steal one in Dowdy-Ficklen. But on Saturday, the Mountaineers disappeared like a bad magic trick.
The 14-10 halftime score gave the Pirates a little room to work with, but two minutes into the third quarter, App kicked a field goal and narrowed the margin to just one point, 14-13. That was the closest the Mountaineers would come, as the Pirates scored three second-half touchdowns to leave App in their rearview mirror. With this win, the Pirates have won the last six matchups against the Mountaineers.
The scorching game day saw many heat-exhausted fans, cramping players and a slow offense that needed a kick in the butt.
Godfrey “Chip” Thompson jump-started the Pirates quickly. After the first drive ended in a Rio Johnson interception, and subsequently an Appalachian touchdown a few plays later, someone needed to step up. After a punt, App got the ball again but this time Thompson wouldn’t give them the opportunity to score. Jeremy Grove laid a hard hit on QB Jamal Jackson jarring the ball loose and Chip did the “scoop and score” as he ran the fumble back 45 yards for a TD, tying the game at seven apiece.
Along with winning the turnover battle, causing three Mountaineer turnovers to only two Pirate giveaways, the ECU specials teams helped out the offense when they were struggling. Halfway through the second quarter, Justin Hardy returned a punt 43 yards down to the App 17 yard line. Three plays later, Rio Johnson threw an 11-yard TD pass to Andrew Bodenheimer to put the Pirates in front, 14-7, and ECU led from there until the final whistle.
After a last second field goal by App, the halftime score was 14-10 in favor of the Pirates.
With two and a half minutes left in the third quarter, Mountaineer kicker Drew Stewart hit another field goal to cut the Pirate lead to just one point, 14-13. Lance Ray responded, taking the ensuing kickoff 90 yards to the end zone, killing the App momentum, and getting the Pirate faithful back into the game with a 21-13 score. Ray’s TD was the first kick return for a TD since 2010, when Jonathan Williams returned a kick for a TD against Southern Miss.
A three and out by the Mountaineers gave the ball back to the Pirates. During their drive, the third quarter ended and it was time for NO QUARTER. The Pirates soon scored on a four-yard fade pass from Johnson to Hardy. The Pirates kept that commanding lead in the final quarter and only expanded it till the final whistle.
The Pirate defense was led by Kyle Tudor with 11 tackles and Jeremy Grove, who pitched in nine. Grove also caused both fumbles by the Mountaineers, one returned by Thompson for a TD. The other recovered by numerous Pirates—Terrell Stanley, Chris Baker and Damon Magazu.
The defense only gave up 102 yards to the Mountaineers in the fourth quarter and they locked down the end zone from App. Johnson added another touchdown later in the fourth on a QB scramble for six yards.
The Special teams were a solid group. Trent Tignor got his first career start as punter and he averaged 44.5 yards per punt, with his long going 58 yards. Warren Harvey also made all of his extra-point attempts, but he did miss his only two field goals.
“I have all the confidence in Warren, I didn’t hesitate to throw him out there for the 51 yard attempt,” said Coach Ruffin McNeil. “I know he can make it, we’ll do it again.”
In the end, the Pirates got the win 35-13 over Appalachian State. “I’m glad to get this win because wins are hard to get in this business,” said McNeil.
Other notables in the game included Michael Dobson with 19 carries for 78 yards; Reece Wiggins, who caught six passes for 45 yards; and Hardy, who added six catches for 38 yards and a TD.
This was also Ruffin McNeil’s fifth win against the Mountaineers (four as player, one as coach).
Next week, the Pirates go into Williams-Brice Stadium for a rematch against the South Carolina Gamecocks. The Gamecocks won their first game versus Vanderbilt, 17-13, on Thursday.
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