BOONE — It took some executive decisions, quick game re-planning, and a little bit of faith too.
But Appalachian State and Campbell pulled off a football game, a 52-21 win for the Mountaineers while they were missing 20-plus players and four staff members because of active COVID-19 cases and resulting contact tracing.
The team found out Wednesday it would miss a chunk of its roster, riding out the chaos that followed until kickoff came at noon Saturday.
“At first it was a little cloudy, if we were going to play or not,” senior guard Ryan Neuzil said. “But we just prepared like we were, just like the season — we weren’t sure it was going to happen.
“But we always made sure we prepared like we were going to play.”
Shawn Clark, App State’s first-year head coach, said the program learned about its personnel dilemma Wednesday afternoon. The statistics were officially released Friday: The program had three active cases, and tracing to one of the cases led to a quarantine of 18 players.
The offensive was hit the hardest — Saturday featured new contributors at the running back, tight end and wide receiver positions. Clark mentioned after the game that three offensive assistant coaches and a grad assistant were also part of the swath. Running backs coach Brian Haines, tight ends coach Justin Watts and wide receiver coach Pat Washington weren’t on the sideline.
“It’s hard to play college football with your whole team there,” said Clark, who seemed relieved after the Campbell win, “much less with three position groups gone.”
Clark made one quick choice on the spot during a team meeting. Milan Tucker, a freshman defensive back, would move to wide receiver. He made a similar decision later for Anderson Castle, asking the freshman linebacker to play running back.
The remaining offensive coaches — Clark, offensive coordinator Tony Petersen, offensive line coach Nic Cardwell and senior assistant to the head coach Lance Ware — spent Wednesday night, Thursday night and Friday morning cobbling things back together as best they could, Clark said.
The team didn’t have starters such as wide receivers Jalen Virgil or Malik Williams. Daetrich Harrington was missing the other two components of his three-headed running back trio that features Marcus Williams Jr. and Cam Peoples, too.
The Mountaineers offense, Clark said, had four wide receivers who could play. That group included sure-handed senior Thomas Hennigan and some players with sparse experience: junior Jake Henry and freshman Dashaun Davis.
They managed to make it work.
“I think what we went through in the past week basically, and you quarantine a whole bus,” said starting quarterback Zac Thomas, “I think that speaks highly of who we have as a football team and the type of players we recruit.”
Harrington ruled the day. He ran for 211 yards and four touchdowns, becoming the first Mountaineer to run for four scores since Armanti Edwards in 2009 against Furman.
The junior running back followed the channels of his offensive line, banging through contact and making long gains in the process. He had four runs longer than 15 yards, including one of his touchdown runs, a 40-yarder in the third quarter.
As the lead back on Saturday, he had 32 carries in by far the most work of his career. He joked that he might have to buy his linemen some gifts.
“I’m feeling good. I didn’t even know I could handle all the carries,” Harrington said. “I ain’t ever had that much, but I feel I could’ve took 10 more if I had to.”
Players after the game seemed happy the week was over. They'll have a longer break than usual — playing again on Oct. 7 in Boone against Louisiana — to get past it all. Kaiden Smith, a senior safety, felt like Clark managed to pivot the problem positively.
He thought it helped the locker room get through a tumultuous 72 hours.
“This year’s been different, obviously, in so many ways,” Smith said. “And adversity isn’t anything new to us. So it’s just another form of adversity.”
Neuzil added to that later, as the last man to face questions about the hellacious week that was where too many people stepped up for the team to count.
“I think we have faith in everyone out there,” Neuzil said. “At that point we know everyone can play.
“It’s just getting the assignments done and making sure everyone knows their jobs.”
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