Football is arguably the sport that least lends itself to the monumental upset. Because fast always beats slow, and bigger always beats smaller and might typically makes right.
Then, one day, the game gets turned on its head.
Appalachian State knows the benefits of that one day better than perhaps any program in the nation. That’s why Penn State says it has to be aware of the pitfalls today.
“We have to get into the game-specific plans for App State,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said after a practice last week. “As you know, that’s one of the greatest upsets in college football history.”
It has nothing to do with the present, nothing to do with the current group of Mountaineers. But he didn’t need to say more.
No. 10 Penn State opens its 2018 season today with high hopes, championship dreams, a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback and a 3:30 p.m. battle at Beaver Stadium with the Mountaineers, an opponent used to derailing all of that.
One of the most consistent winners in the nation since joining the Football Bowl Subdivision and the Sun Belt Conference in 2014, Appalachian State is still best known for what it did 11 years ago today.
The Mountaineers scored 21 points in the second quarter and blocked a last-second field goal attempt to beat then-No. 5 Michigan, 34-32, at the Big House. A then-Football Championship Subdivision team, running past, around and through a national championship contender.
It’s still one of the biggest upsets in college football history. If not the biggest.
It also happened a long time ago. A handful of true freshmen who can make their debuts today for Penn State were just 7 on Sept. 1, 2007. But Franklin said he will still talk to his team about what happened that day, even if he won’t dwell on it.
“We won’t show it to them, but we will talk about it,” Franklin said. “This is a team that has played really well on the road. I know that was a long time ago. But even here recently, they’ve done a very good job.”
The Mountaineers, indeed, are no stranger to the difficult road environment.
Just last season, they played to a near stalemate in the first quarter against eventual national runner-up Georgia before the Bulldogs pulled away, 31-10. Sophomore quarterback Zac Thomas, who will make his first career start today against the Nittany Lions, led the Mountaineers’ lone touchdown drive in that game.
They also opened the 2016 season against then-No. 9 Tennessee, taking the Vols to overtime before falling, 20-13, at Neyland Stadium. In 2015, they started well before eventually getting blown out at No. 12 Clemson.
The Michigan upset is talked about more around the country, in places like State College, than it is in Boone, N.C., this time of year, Mountaineers coach Scott Satterfield insists. Coaches bring it up on the recruiting trail. Fans reminisce about it when they walk around campus. To him, it’s proof that on a special day, special things can happen.
But for every bit a warning sign as it is for a contender like the Nittany Lions, it’s a symbol for the upstarts like Appalachian State that the impossible is possible.
“You have to go in and have that belief you can get it done,” Satterfield said. “That game was the proof that you can get it done, and it just happens to be our school that did it.”