1. Boone is beautiful, cool, and…..a little weird.
Folks, I was wearing a coat this weekend. Granted, I was in a mountain house in Zionville, NC, but still……cool, crisp weather in the evenings in September? Yes, please.
Boone is a town I’d been to before, as I went to high school in (relatively) nearby Kingsport, TN. However, I hadn’t ever been there for a game before. As my buddy and I got within about 30 miles of Boone on 321, we gradually started seeing App State signs on billboards and light posts. By the time we made it past Blowing Rock and into Boone, we were logjammed in the middle of a sea of cars on King Street, a two-lane road that runs through the edge of campus and right into downtown Boone.
App State car flags adorned almost every single car and every light post. If someone wasn’t wearing black, they were wearing gold. Business signs rooting on the ‘Neers lined the streets throughout town.
Our Friday night was pretty low-key. We hit up a little restaurant/microbrewery called the Lost Province, which served some of the best artisan pizza I’ve ever had. Although I’m not beer snob guy and prefer my beers to come out of cans with blue mountains on the side, I found a Blond Ale that satisfied my palate among the dozens of options. We then went across the street and hit up Murphy’s, a little hole-in-the-wall Irish pub that had the layout – and smell – of the Tavern in the Grove. The place was loaded with Cane fans of varying sheets to the wind, as was a good part of Boone. The Cane fans traveled well, y’all.
Saturday was just madness. Well, eventually. We got up early and made it to Madeline’s on King Street for breakfast at 7:30, which apparently was about half an hour before everybody who works there made it – or anybody working on King Street, which was a complete ghost town. While we ate, a group of hippy-looking guys that appeared to have been chemically self-induced into another dimension ran down the street, waving their arms and making animal noises. Wearing the same thing we saw them wearing at Murphy’s the night before. Sleep is overrated.
After breakfast, we wandered across campus, where every nook and cranny of the dorm parking lots were loaded with tailgate tents, cornhole boards, smokers, and – well, a lot of Busch Light. Have to remind myself that it’s college, and even the best of us drank Southpaw, Natty Light, and Beast at one time. The women had a penchant for wearing jerseys with cut off shorts and boots, or black onesies. An obvious lack of sundresses.
Despite Twitter tough guys like this and the occasional sneer from some jackass, App State registers about a 1.2 on my crappy-fan-o-meter. That’s because since we first rolled into Boone on Friday afternoon, people could not stop seeing our orange gear and thanking us for coming to visit their town and community. Offering us a beer at their tailgate as we roamed campus. Telling us about their town’s history and the growth of the football program. (Did you guys know they beat Michigan once???)
Well, actually I’m talking about the gentlemen up there. From twenty-somethings to sixty-somethings, the gents were as welcoming and kind as you could hope. Almost to a person. The women, on the other hand, need to work on their southern hospitality. While walking across campus Saturday morning, we were greeted with a continuous medley of eff-you’s, middle fingers, go back to Miami, South Beach SUCKS, and other pleasantries. From the ladies. Almost exclusively. Without saying a prior word to any of them. Damned strangest thing I’ve ever seen anywhere I’ve been for a game, and this includes prior trips to South Bend, Baton Rouge, Tuscaloosa, Chapel Hill, Athens, etc.
Still, it was worth the trip. Since Miami will never play there again, you can take my word for it.
2. I should have known what was going to happen.
As we stood there tailgating and talking with an App State fan, a guy walked by in a t-shirt that said “I will give my all for Appalachian State today”. Then another guy walked by with it, and another. I looked down the path, and dozens of the same shirts were coming, worn by athletic-looking individuals.
Obviously, their version of the (insert mascot) walk was beginning. Right through the dorm parking lot, literally, while everyone was downing cold beer.
But what stood out to me was that almost each one of them was no bigger than my buddy Andy standing next to me, a former quarterback at East Carolina who stands at probably about 6’2, 220 pounds.
“How in the hell did this team even stay with Tennessee?” I said to Andy as they walked by. If I was a gambling man, I would have laid action on the Canes right at that point. Our boys certainly have speed, but in this matchup, they had a whopping size advantage as well. I knew that going in, but I didn’t know it was going to be THAT much of a disparity.
3. Curing the Golden Willies
Still, even though the Canes had the clear advantage, I’ve been trying to kick this awful feeling instilled by Al Golden and his band of merry ne’er-will-doers. That the sky is going to fall. That the other shoe is going to drop. That to hell with our level of play and the talent of our players, WE are going to play down to YOUR level today.
And on Miami’s first play, Mark Walton shut up what had been a frenzied atmosphere with an 80-yard house call. Then, in the third quarter, the Canes opened the door a crack. After Kaaya’s interception and Lamb’s subsequent touchdown pass, the stadium sounded and felt like it was about to cave in.
But, where a bad pass or decision would have snowballed into a run of penalties, punts, and turnovers in previous years, Kaaya and the offense re-wrote an ending to that movie we’d seen far too many times. On third down and ten, in the midst of a deafening roar, a gimpy Kaaya dropped back and lofted a deep ball down the sideline that Ahmmon Richards snared over his shoulder, blindly, in stride.
Just like that, the Canes slammed that crack in the door shut and crushed the collective soul of the ‘Neers fans and players, punching it in a few plays later for a 31-10 lead that everyone in the building knew was enough.
But, for Mark Richt, it still wasn’t enough. Kaaya hit Richards again on a deep ball, putting the Canes in the red zone. Kaaya then hit Stacey Coley to push the lead out to 38-10 to end the third quarter. But that wasn’t even enough. With the game in hand, Richt kept his best tailback in the game, and Walton added a cherry on top with a 10-yard run to firmly place the dagger – from tip-to-hilt – deeply inside the ‘Neers chest.
Along with that metaphorical death of the ‘Neers chances in that game possibly came the death of the nervous feeling that I – and probably many other Cane fans – held while watching the Canes in recent years: that nothing was over until it was over. That a Nebraska meltdown could still be hiding in the shadows.
Nope. This one was over when the Canes walked on the field. They knew it, and they showed it from the opening kick. Mark Richt has me starting to look at the Canes in a different light. And it’s a light that I hope shines bright for a long time.
4. Welcome to 2016, Brad Kaaya.
The Canes have effectively finished what some would call a preseason, with the meat of the schedule beginning on October 1 at Georgia Tech. Fortunately for the Canes, the preseason also ended with Brad Kaaya getting back on track.
After two unspectacular home games, Kaaya showed the touch and poise of an NFL-caliber quarterback. Aside from the stellar numbers (21-27, 368 yds, 3 TD, 1 INT), he hit on some passes that your average – or above-average – quarterback simply isn’t going to compete. The deep out where Berrios dragged a toe was across the field on a rope. The two balls to Ahmmon Richards were perfect fade patterns hit right in stride over the outside shoulder. Couldn’t have placed them any better.
Kaaya also showed the toughness of playing hurt after tweaking his knee on the turf trying to chase down an App State player after throwing an interception on the goal line, a play that Richt called “greedy”. After jogging off the tweak on the sidelines, he reentered the game and let touchdown drives on the following two drives to bury App St.
Games can swing on a handful of plays. Against the likes of Georgia Tech, FSU, UNC, Virginia Tech, and Notre Dame, the Canes will need big plays out of Kaaya. Saturday was a sign of hopefully great things to come this year from #15.
5. Pick of the week.
After Ohio State’s disrobing of Oklahoma last week, I stand at 2-1-1 ATS. And speaking of being disrobed, FSU looks to get back on track this week in Tampa against USF, for which Raymond James Stadium will be filled with garnet and gold. FSU simply is much more talented than USF and will be looking for blood after arguably the school’s worst performance ever. Yikes. The line is FSU -6 right now, according to VegasInsider.com. Get it while you can. FSU (-6) 38, USF 16.