Every year, there are games like this in the first couple of weeks of the season as the big name schools tune up against the smaller schools, who agree to become their punching bag patsies in exchange for a huge paycheck. Typically, the scores roll up impressively: 72-10. Or 52-6. Or 62-3. Anything less than total annihilation is totally unacceptable, as the big teams jockey for early position in the rankings.
In the movies, the small team rolls into the big city — obviously the game is ALWAYS on the bigger team’s home field — and the players are awestruck by the sights and sounds around them. The venerable old coach is, too, but he won’t let his players see it. No, the idea is that we can WIN this game. We can prove the experts wrong. They have 11 guys and we have 11 guys. They put their pants on one leg at a time, just like we do. Their blood is red, just like ours. Of course, we could go on for awhile with these clichés, because we know these movies so well.
Remember the scene in “Hoosiers” when Gene Hackman takes his Hickory High team into the cavernous Indianapolis arena before the state championship game and measures the distance from the floor to the goal, and then to the free throw line? Of course you do. We love a story about the underdog winning, for lots of reasons. In reality, Hickory High loses 108-47, but in the movies, they win on a last second shot.
I have no idea if Appalachian State head football coach Jerry Moore took his players down on the field when the Mountaineers arrived in Ann Arbor, Mich., to play the role of the sacrificial lamb on Saturday (Sept. 1) against the fifth-ranked Wolverines. I have no idea what he said to the players before the game. I have no idea whether sophomore quarterback Amanti Edwards once dreamed of playing for the storied Michigan program but did not get recruited by any of the bigger schools because he was deemed “too skinny.” For the time being, the subplots remain obscure, but only for the time being.
What I do know is that, on Saturday, 109,000 Michigan fans gathered in the what they call the “Big House” to watch their team begin its quest for a national championship by vanquishing a plucky but entirely overmatched Appalachian State team. It would be “competitive” for a couple of series, before Michigan ultimately asserted its superiority in every facet of the game and rolled to a 46-17 win, a margin small enough to allow the Mountaineers to escape with their pride (and their health), but big enough to appease the coaches, sportswriters, and alumni.
But then, shortly after kickoff, the lights went down and the movie started. App State was competitive for a few series, as expected. Then they went up by a touchdown. Wait a minute, that wasn’t supposed to happen. Then they went up by two touchdowns, leading Michigan 28-14, before a late Michigan field goal brought the score at the half to 28-17.
That alone would have been the major sports story of the day, how tiny Appalachian State dominated mighty Michigan for an entire half in Michigan’s home opener, embarrassing them in front of their fans and an astonished array of experts trying their best to comprehend and explain it to fans across the nation during the halftime break. In the second half, Michigan would roar back and pull out the win, of course, but the damage had been done, the statement already made. ASU was on the map. The Mountaineers were Rocky, exceeding even the most fervent believer’s wildest expectations before finally succumbing. No other ending would be credible.
Indeed, when Michigan finally did take the lead late in the fourth quarter, followed shortly by an Appalachian State turnover with a little over four minutes remaining in the game, it appeared that the Rocky script was running true to form. The humiliated Wolverines would escape, breathe a deep sigh of relief, and hug the Mountaineers afterward, having gained more respect for them than they ever imagined. “No rematch,” they’d whisper. “No rematch.”
I guess it would just be too corny if the Mountaineers blocked a field goal, marched down the field to kick a field goal of their own to reclaim the lead, then blocked ANOTHER field goal as time expired to actually WIN the game. Who would believe it? We don’t want people rolling their eyes, do we? Don’t we need a plausible conclusion?
Well, no, I guess we don’t. Appalachian State 34, Michigan 32. The greatest upset in the history of college football.
See if you can find anyone this week in Ann Arbor who can’t correctly pronounce “Appalachian State.” Man, I LOVE this movie!