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App State triumphs over Gardner-Webb to open football season

Ashton Woodruff
Redshirt freshman quarterback Ryan Burger takes a snap in the first quarter against Gardner-Webb Sept.2. Burger threw for 70 yards and one touchdown in his first career start.

The Mountaineer football season got off to a successful start Saturday with a 45-24 victory at home against the Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs.

“A great team win,” head coach Shawn Clark said. “We had 36,000 App fans at The Rock today, which is huge.”

After receiving the opening kickoff, the Mountaineers advanced the ball 26 yards down the field to set up a 44-yard field goal attempt by junior kicker Michael Hughes, which was unsuccessful.

The first quarter was marked by strong defense from both teams, with the next three drives resulting in three-and-outs.

Pregame conversation focused around redshirt freshman quarterback Ryan Burger, who was announced the starter Monday. His first career touchdown pass came at the end of the first quarter, with junior tight end Eli Wilson making the catch to give the Mountaineers a 7-0 lead.

The Gardner-Webb offense found their footing in their opening second quarter drive, as running back Jaylen Brown notched an 8-yard rushing touchdown to tie the game. 

A holding penalty on redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Jayden Ramsey put the Mountaineer offense behind the chains on the following drive, resulting in App State’s second three-and-out of the game. 

The next drive by the Runnin’ Bulldogs was the longest of the game, with 16 snaps across more than five and a half minutes. However, Gardner-Webb only advanced 44 yards on the drive, forcing them to settle for a field goal to give the Bulldogs a 10-7 lead.

The next two possessions were scoreless for both teams, but a poor punt from Gardner-Webb allowed the App State offense to take the field at the Runnin’ Bulldogs 32-yard line.. 

Junior quarterback Joey Aguilar looks downfield before rushing and throwing for his fourth touchdown. (Ashton Woodruff)

Prior to the drive, Clark elected to pull Burger from the game and replace him with junior quarterback Joey Aguilar, with Burger experiencing pain in his hand. The decision quickly proved to be the right one, as Aguilar’s first throw as a Mountaineer was a 32-yard touchdown pass to redshirt junior wide receiver Kaedin Robinson to give App State a four-point lead at halftime.

In his post-game press conference, Clark described Burger’s injury as a “jammed finger,” with further updates about his condition expected in the coming days. 

“I thought we needed a spark to get us going,” Clark said when discussing his decision to make the quarterback change. “Ryan will get checked out by our doctors tonight and tomorrow morning, and we’ll have a better understanding of what’s going on.”

The second half started with another rushing touchdown from Gardner-Webb, putting the visitors up 17-14. The Mountaineer offense responded quickly with a 65-yard drive ending with a 26-yard pass to redshirt junior wide receiver Dashaun Davis, which put App State back ahead by four.

The back-and-forth scoring in the third quarter continued with the Bulldogs’ next possession, as Brown secured his third touchdown of the game to put Gardner-Webb back in front. Their lead would not last long, as redshirt sophomore wide receiver Dalton Stroman caught a 43-yard reception to give the Mountaineers their third consecutive touchdown drive. 

On the following drive, the App State defense found their footing once again and forced a quick three-and-out by Gardner-Webb. The next drive resulted in a  43-yard field goal by Hughes.

The following possession for Gardner-Webb ended quickly as it began with an interception on the first play of the drive by redshirt junior and Boone native Jackson Greene.

“Just a dream come true,” Greene said. “Being out there in front of all these fans, having the opportunity to rise and make a great play, it’s awesome.”

The third quarter ended shortly after the interception, but junior running back Nate Noel was quick to finish the job and score his first touchdown of the game to give the Mountaineers a 38-24 lead. Along with the touchdown, Noel finished the game with a net gain of 117 rushing yards and an average of 4.9 yards per carry.

The next two Gardner-Webb possessions resulted in turnovers, with an interception from redshirt junior inside linebacker Jack Scroggs and a fumble recovery by junior defensive end Montez Kelley to close out the game.

Junior wide receiver Christian Horn evades the Runnin’ Bulldogs defense Sept. 2. (Courtesy of Andy McLean, App State Athletics)

With less than two minutes remaining, junior wide receiver Christian Horn hauled in the catch on fourth down for App State’s sixth and final touchdown of the game. 

After being called up at a moment’s notice, Aguilar was quick to impress fans at Kidd-Brewer Stadium, putting up 174 passing yards, four passing touchdowns and an 85% completion rate. However, Clark was noncommittal on a starting quarterback moving forward.

“I don’t second-guess my decision that Ryan Burger was the starting quarterback coming out of fall camp,” Clark said. “Joey had a great week of practice, and so did Ryan. We’re not going to second-guess what we did, and Ryan Burger’s going to be a great quarterback here.”

The App State football season continues Sept. 9 when the Mountaineers pay a visit to UNC in their first rematch since the 63-61 barnburner last season. Kickoff is slated for 5:15 p.m., and fans can watch the game on ACC Network.

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About the Contributors
Spence Smithback
Spence Smithback, Reporter
Spence Smithback (he/him) is a senior journalism major, geography minor, from Jamestown, NC. This is his second year writing for The Appalachian.
Ashton Woodruff
Ashton Woodruff, Photo Editor
Ashton Woodruff (she/her) is a junior IDS Criminal Justice/Photojournalism major, and a Social Work minor. This is her second year with The Appalachian.
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