Then he stood and watched helplessly as Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley took his team down the field in less than a minute to tie the score at 38. The Lions went on to win in overtime.
“I was flashing back a little bit to be honest,” Thomas said Monday. “I had a lot of faith in our defense, but I couldn’t help but think how close we’d been and how close we were again.”
The day Thomas and many of his teammates left not-so-Happy Valley heartbroken, Drinkwitz was 484 miles away, helping North Carolina State open the season with a win against James Madison in his role as the Wolfpack’s offensive coordinator.
Now he was Appalachian State’s head coach. He had talked to his players in the days leading up to Saturday’s visit to the Tar Heels about the near miss at Penn State and how confident he was the Mountaineers would get to the finish line this time in a Power Five team’s stadium.
“We talked about it all week,” he said. “But once the game started Saturday, we had to put it behind us and focus on today.”
Appalachian State had led for most of the afternoon, but with 30 seconds left, North Carolina, having closed the gap to 34-31, took over at its 20-yard line. Five plays and 25 seconds later, it was at the Appalachian State 39.
There was irony in the distance: Thomas had driven his team to the Penn State 39 in the final seconds with the score tied only to watch Chandler Staton miss from 56 yards.
“I was thinking maybe we’d get a block,” he said.
They did. Linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither got a hand on the ball, and it never got close to the goal post. Game over.
“Our seniors deserved this one,” said Thomas, a redshirt junior. “They’d been close against Power Five schools in the past but never got a win. Now they’ve got a win.”
Long before any of the current players arrived on the scenic campus in the North Carolina mountains, Appalachian State pulled off what is arguably the biggest upset in college football history — opening the 2007 season by going to Michigan and stunning the fifth-ranked Wolverines, 34-32. It was the first time a Football Championship Subdivision or Division I-AA team had beaten a ranked major college team. That game has been the subject of an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary and a book, “Appalachian State Silences the Big House.”
Back then, Appalachian was the team in the FCS. It had won back-to-back national titles and would go on to win a third at the end of the 2007 season under Coach Jerry Moore. It was the biggest little college football program going.
The Mountaineers made postseason play 18 times during Moore’s 24-year tenure, but with the school planning to move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision, Moore was pushed out after the 2012 season and replaced by Scott Satterfield, who played quarterback for him in the 1990s.
Since becoming eligible for FBS postseason play in 2015, Appalachian State has won or tied for the past three Sun Belt Conference titles and won four straight bowl games. That success got Satterfield the Louisville job in December.
His first job as a college coach was as a quality control coach at Auburn in 2010. The Tigers went 14-0 that season and won the national championship.
“Two additions to the team that year,” Drinkwitz said with a laugh. “There was Eliah Drinkwitz and, oh, Cam Newton. Clearly we both impacted the team.”
From there, Drinkwitz embarked on the kind of coaching odyssey most young assistant coaches follow. He spent two years at Arkansas State, two at Boise State and then three at North Carolina State. When Satterfield got the Louisville job, Appalachian State looked to Drinkwitz — only 35 but ready to be a head coach.
“On the one hand, I was taking over a place that had been nothing but successful under Scott,” he said.
“That was a good thing, but it also made the job hard. Scott’s an App State Hall of Famer. His legacy and his record were both incredible. I couldn’t exactly come in there and shake things up. Why would you? They’d just won 11 games, the conference title and a fourth straight bowl game.”
Drinkwitz took a more subtle approach: make some small changes and see whether the program could do something it hadn’t before. That wasn’t a long list. In fact, exactly one thing popped up as an immediate goal: Beat a Power Five school as an FBS member. The Mountaineers had played games at Tennessee, against Miami and at Georgia in addition to at Penn State. They also had lost, 20-19, at home to Wake Forest.
There were two games against Power Five schools on this year’s schedule: at North Carolina in September and at South Carolina in November.
“We went to Chapel Hill believing we were going to win because we were going to be the better team that day,” Drinkwitz said. “When we got down 7-0 right away, that belief was important.”
So was Thomas, a baby-faced, small-town kid from Trussville, Ala. In the games he has started and finished (he went out injured after one series in a loss last season to Georgia Southern), the Mountaineers are 14-1.
“I call him the silent assassin,” Drinkwitz said. “Sometimes you’re talking to him and he’s just looking at you blankly. Except he’s not. He gets it all. He’s quiet but knows just what he’s doing out there.”
Now 3-0 — and 44-11 since the start of 2015 — Appalachian opens conference play Saturday against a Coastal Carolina team that’s 3-1, including a win at Kansas. Drinkwitz’s not concerned about a letdown because he knows his players believe they still have a lot more to do.
“Honestly, we understand we have to go 1-0 every Saturday,” Thomas said. “But we’d like to get to a New Year’s Six bowl game.”
That would require going undefeated — and some help. When one of the seniors brought it up as a possible goal before the season, Drinkwitz refused to put it on the list.
“You talk about something like that too much, it adds pressure,” he said. “But I told them I would hold them to that standard every day.”
One goal — a Power Five win — has been met. Others loom, including the date in Columbia. For the biggest little college football program going, there’s still a lot to be done.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.