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More than mere 60 miles separate App State, ETSU

Joe Avento • Aug 28, 2019 at 2:30 PM

JOHNSON CITY — There was a time when Appalachian State was East Tennessee State’s biggest football rival. For years, the teams were in the Southern Conference together and the drive over the mountain was an easy one for both fan bases.

These days, there’s a lot more than 60 miles separating the programs.

Billy Taylor, who went 0-4 against Appalachian State as a player at ETSU, was the Bucs’ defensive coordinator the last time they won in the series. It was 1997 and Appalachian State was ranked sixth in what was then NCAA Division I-AA. The Bucs went into Boone, North Carolina, and handed the Mountaineers a 51-28 thrashing.

“The sad thing is you look back on that ’97 score and look at the directions the football programs took from there,” Taylor said. “They elevated their game while we were cutting back, and it’s amazing what it did for that university.

“When they became the three-time national champs, their enrollment numbers went up. It just makes you wonder if we had done that at the same time where we would be today. It was just two administrations taking two different avenues.”

Those avenues will intersect Saturday when the Bucs travel to Boone for a 3:35 p.m. kickoff.

While ETSU is in its fifth season back after dropping football for 12 years, Appalachian State has thrived, winning three FCS national championships before moving up to FBS, where it has won bowl games the past four seasons.

“That 12 years we didn’t have football, they certainly made it count,”

second-year ETSU coach Randy Sanders said. “Now we have to make ours count.”

While ETSU was on football hiatus, Appalachian State was beating Michigan in what many call the greatest upset in college football history.

“They were our biggest rival,” said Taylor, in his second stint as ETSU’s defensive coordinator. “It was something we always looked forward to.”

The schools’ first meeting came in 1929 and Appalachian State won 28-0. It began a trend that continued until their last matchup in 2003, a 21-7 Mountaineers win.

Appalachian State leads the series 32-13-1 and has a six-game winning streak over the Bucs.

“I remember we never beat them,” said ETSU offensive coordinator Mike Rader, a former Bucs wide receiver. “They were always good contests. Unfortunately we came up short.

“They’re historically a really good program that had a lot of success at the FCS level and, moving up to the FBS world, they’ve had a lot of success as well.”

Sanders said since it’s been 16 years between meetings, the fierceness of the rivalry has probably worn off a bit.

“I’m not going to downplay it, but I’m not going to play it up to our players, either, because what do they know about that rivalry?” the coach said. “Last time the game was played, most of them were still in elementary school. Some of them were probably in diapers.”

His players agreed.

“It’s a rivalry, but it’s not a rivalry that we have played in,” ETSU center Ben Blackmon said. “We’re not trying to downplay the rivalry, but it’s not a huge thing to us as players.”

Rivalry or not, the Bucs know what they’re up against on Saturday. Appalachian State is favored by 32.5 points.

Interestingly, Michigan was a 33-point favorite that fateful day that put Appalachian State on the national football map.

“They’re not just a step above, they’re one of the top 25 teams in the country,” Taylor said. “I think we’re playing a better team this year than when we played against the University of Tennessee last year.”

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