CHAPEL HILL — Jordan Fehr was looking for something.
Fehr, the starting inside linebacker for Appalachian State, stood in the North Carolina end zone, scanning the scene just after the Mountaineers clinched a 34-31 victory.
Fehr was still and emotionless. He stayed there a few seconds before he pivoted toward the visitors’ locker room. And as he turned, he had a big smile. He locked sights onto his family, which was mixed into the blues and whites, the blacks and golds.
He’d also found some serenity. A big matchup, after much heartbreak, had fallen in his and his fellow seniors’ favor.
“I just had a couple moments where I sat down and cried because it’s so much bigger than football,” said Fehr. “And freshman year, to come this close to Tennessee. Sophomore year, Wake Forest. Last year, Penn State.
“Being this close every single time. And to be able to finally do it. It means more than anything. That’s why we do it.”
Since App State moved to Group-of-Five play and started winning bowl games and conference titles, the Mountaineers haven't been able to beat the Power-Five schools they found on their schedule. And for Fehr and his class, it’d been especially brutal.
A 20-13 loss to Tennessee in 2016 that went into overtime and shifted because of a Volunteers’ fumble recovery score. A 20-19 defeat against Wake Forest in 2017, with an App State field goal getting blocked as time expired. A 2018 showdown with Penn State that ended again with overtime sadness as the Nittany Lions clinched a 45-38 win.
Appalachian found itself with another opportunity to break its winless P5 streak — which dated all the way back to it’s 2007 upset of Michigan. And it came with extra pressure as the program stared down UNC, the flagship university, and Coach Mack Brown.
The Mountaineers’ first drive featured a 35-yard catch by Thomas Hennigan. It set the tone for an App State passing game that found ways to steadily march.
Hennigan, a junior, flashed onto the scene in 2017 as a sure-handed safety net for then-quarterback Taylor Lamb. He made a one-handed catch in that Wake Forest matchup to set up a field goal that gave App State a late lead. It was one that obviously didn’t last.
His pain from those games was Fehr’s pain. It was time for that to go away.
“This program has definitely had some heartbreaking loses,” Hennigan said. “It’s definitely in the back of everybody’s minds that these seniors have been through it.”
Appalachian pounced on UNC early after weathering an initial shock. The Mountaineers watched the Tar Heels start with a 75-yard kickoff return and a touchdown pass the following play. They gained some ground thanks to two field goals from Chandler Staton.
Staton, a junior, missed a potential game-winning field goal against Penn State last season. He wouldn’t face a situation like that again.
That burden fell to North Carolina’s Noah Ruggles, who lined up a 56-yard field goal with five seconds left to tie the game. But there was no chance for App State heartbreak this time — Akeem Davis-Gaither slipped through and blocked it, prompting an explosion of excitement on the App State sideline and stirring the Mountaineers fans in Kenan Stadium.
Before the game, the App State football team watched a hype video. Coach Eli Drinkwitz said it pointed out all the times in recent years that the Mountaineers came close to upsets. But the point of this matchup with UNC, the first since 1940, and any game like this going forward.
When Drinkwitz was hired, it came with the expectation that App State football needed to stay on course and keep climbing upward. .
“When we took this job, the big thing was do something that hadn’t been done before,” Drinkwitz said. “ Like that’s how you keep moving forward as a program.
“... My job, in my job description, was to elevate the program. And so to try to beat a Power-Five team is the way to elevate the program. And we did that today.”
Drinkwitz maintained all week that the game against UNC was just one of 12 opportunities for App State to win. And even after all the jubilation, the celebration and adrenaline rush that comes with a win this validating, Fehr maintained that point.
The Mountaineers mounted an all-out assault on Saturday. Quarterback Zac Thomas connected with Hennigan, Corey Sutton and Malik Williams for explosive plays. Scoring drives were converted on short runs from Darrynton Evans, who had three touchdowns. Fehr and the defense forced three turnovers, one of which turned into a score as well.
Appalachian found something elusive. Fehr and the seniors had finally dropped their burden. Saturday was about proving the Mountaineers were worthy as the state watched and former players looked on.
“We went out and we played for App State,” Fehr said. “We did what we had to do and we put on for our school.”