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With the reset button hit, App State Football opened the 2023 season by rallying in the second half and winning in front of a big crowd at The Rock, 45-24 over Gardner-Webb.
Showcasing valuable depth, newcomers and non-starters delivered some of the biggest plays during the 45-24 victory against Gardner-Webb in front of 36,075 fans at Kidd Brewer Stadium on Saturday.
In relief of starting quarterback Ryan Burger, who went 7 of 10 with an early touchdown pass before exiting for the rest of the game with a finger injury, Joey Aguilar completed 11 of his 13 passes for 174 yards and four touchdowns. He threw a touchdown on his first play for the Mountaineers and set a school record for the most touchdown passes by a quarterback in his App State debut.
“Joey came in, his first collegiate pass for App State is a touchdown, and that gave us the spark we needed,” head coach Shawn Clark said.
Eli Wilson, Kaedin Robinson, Dalton Stroman, Dashaun Davis and Christan Horn had one touchdown catch apiece, and Nate Noel rushed for 117 yards and one touchdown on a career-high 24 carries.
Three turnovers forced in a span of eight minutes from late in the third quarter to early in the fourth enabled the Mountaineers to gain separation from the Runnin’ Bulldogs, who led 24-21 in the third quarter before App State scored the final 24 points against an opponent coming off an FCS playoff appearance in 2022.
With App State ahead 31-24 after a career-long field goal of 43 yards from Michael Hughes, defensive end Michael Fletcher’s second QB pressure of the game led to an interception from veteran safety and team captain Jackson Greene, who returned the ball 25 yards to the Gardner-Webb 23. Noel followed a 16-yard run with a 7-yard score, and pressure from Shawn Collins contributed to an interception by fellow newcomer Jack Scroggs shortly thereafter.
Kevin Abrams-Verwayne later forced a fumble that was recovered by newcomer Montez Kelley, and Aguilar’s fourth-down touchdown pass to Horn capped the scoring.
Burger and Aguilar both threw first-half touchdown passes, as Burger’s 12-yard strike to Wilson late in the first quarter followed running back Maquel Haywood’s fourth-and-2 conversion. The Runnin’ Bulldogs scored the next 10 points, and Aguilar took the field for the first time following a 14-yard punt that gave the Mountaineers possession at the Gardner-Webb 32 with 2:13 remaining in the first half.
Aguilar looked left and found Robinson wide open along the left hash at the 7-yard line. Robinson caught the throw, side-stepped one defender and scored easily to put App State back in front.
“You have to go out there and just play, no matter if it’s first, second, third,” Aguilar said. “It’s always next guy up, and you just have to be prepared.”
The Runnin’ Bulldogs began the second half with an 11-play touchdown drive, App State regained the lead on Aguilar’s 26-yard touchdown pass to Davis and Gardner-Webb took its final lead on running back Jayden Brown’s third touchdown — a 41-yard reception.
The Mountaineers went ahead for good on Aguilar’s 43-yard touchdown pass to a streaking Stroman down the right sideline, and back-to-back hurries from Nate Johnson and Fletcher forced a three-and-out punt.
Hughes’ field goal extended the margin to seven points, and the Mountaineers pushed their lead to a two-score margin for the first time following Greene’s interception to begin the next series. Returning to the sideline, he was swarmed by a big group that included head coach Shawn Clark and injured teammate Anderson Castle, a fellow Watauga High School graduate who managed to join the fray via his rolling scooter.
Nick Ross totaled 12 tackles to lead the defensive unit that had three second-half takeaways, while Andrew Parker Jr. and Tyrek Funderburk added six stops apiece.