The giant was going to slay Jack and burn his beanstalk. Goliath was going to smother David and obliterate his slingshot. The cheetah was going to bring down the gazelle and enjoy him as an appetizer.
In other words, 2007 brought a typical season-opening nonconference mismatch in college football. Fifth-ranked Michigan of the mighty Big Ten was surely going to cruise against Appalachian State, often referred to as “Appy,” of the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS).
Everyone was set for the blowout on a hot Sept. 1 afternoon in Ann Arbor. But the teams and officials knew better.
John O’Neill, the referee for the day, certainly did. “Appalachian State had just won back-to-back (NCAA Division I-AA and FCS) national championships,” he recalled. “Regardless of the level you play at, if you’re a national champion, let alone back-to-back, you’re pretty good.”
“We knew this wouldn’t be a cakewalk for either team,” said head linesman Brent Durbin.
So while the country prepared for a blowout, the officiating crew prepared for a football game.
Durbin felt typical Week One vibes going in. “It’s the start of the season,” he said, “and everyone’s been beating up on their own teammates, and it’s time to go out and play somebody else.” Umpire Bryan Neale noticed the same, what he called, “Week-One excitement.” “Players have been in camps, we’ve been officiating scrimmages,” he said, “and all anyone wants is a real football game.”
Because their home stadium held 16,000 fans, one might think a look at 109,000 fans filing into Michigan Stadium might have unnerved the Mountaineers. Not so, said O’Neill. As he and Neale headed to the sideline for the pregame conference with Mountaineer coach Jerry Moore, he was simply taking it all in. “He was as loose as could be,” O’Neill said. “In fact, he was telling Bryan and me that he had now been in every Big Ten stadium. He was more excited about that than about anything.”
He’d have more to be excited about when the game ended.
Michigan scored a touchdown on its first drive. “It was typical, methodical Michigan,” O’Neill said. “Grind them, grind them, and a pretty long run inside that drive. So two minutes gone and it’s 7-0. So we’re thinking, ‘OK, maybe this is going to be what everyone thinks it’s going to be.’”
Hardly. Everyone soon discovered Appalachian State was “a good speed team,” as Durbin recalls.
Their swift wide receivers turned a couple of quick slants into touchdowns, and the Mountaineers had an astonishing 28-17 lead at halftime. Viewers, both in Michigan Stadium and watching at home on the brandnew Big Ten Network, kept waiting for Michigan to take control and dominate. It didn’t happen that way. Instead, viewers were treated to a classic “muscle versus speed game,” as O’Neill called it.
As it grew late, Neale was surprised by the score. “Referees all say, ‘I don’t even know what the score is,’ but I really don’t,” Neale said. “My brain just doesn’t work that way. I’m one of those guys who gets in there at halftime and says, ‘Who’s winning?’ Even though I’ve written all the scores down on my game card. I didn’t even realize until it was getting to the end that this was actually a really close game. It didn’t even hit me.”
It surely hit the capacity crowd. Their Wolverines clawed back to take a one-point lead with five minutes left in the fourth quarter on a 54-yard run by Michael Hart. But the Mountaineers completed a drive with a couple of clutch Armanti Edwards passes to kick a field goal with 21 seconds left to take the lead, 34-32.
Even that was not the end. One more big play — a 46-yard pass from Chad Henne to Mario Manningham — set up a 37-yard field goal attempt that would win the game for Michigan. “It wasn’t a long field goal,” O’Neill recalled. “I’m thinking, ‘Michigan is going to eke out a win.’”
Until it didn’t.
“All of a sudden I see this Appalachian State kid (Corey Lynch) come in untouched,” O’Neill said. “He could have caught the ball; he was that close. He blocks the kick, and it bounces back up, and he’s got a beeline to the end zone. I’m thinking they’re going to beat Michigan by nine!”
As O’Neill and his crew chased the play down, Lynch was brought down inside the 10 yardline, solidifying the two-point victory. Just like that, the stadium took on the atmosphere of the campus library.
“It was the most eerie, weird feeling I’ve had at a game where it doesn’t match what you’re used to,” Neale said. “I mean, it was dead silent. That didn’t sound like Michigan Stadium at all on that play.” – Bryan neale
“Nobody had left because it came down to the very end,” O’Neill said. “There were 108,000 stunned-silent people and about 500 cheering — the Appalachian State contingent.”
Only after the game did the crew realize the history they had just witnessed. Neale said he really understood only as he was heading back to his Indiana home and heard sports radio gushing about the outcome. He didn’t feel a shock so much as “just ‘Wow.’ Appalachian State, which nobody knew anything about, at least up in Big Ten country, just beat one of the biggest, most storied programs ever.”
O’Neill, Durbin and Neale have all springboarded to the highest echelons of football officiating; the first two have BCS National Championship Games to their credit, while Neale now serves as an umpire in the NFL, where he is a playoff regular. Still, each is aware of what that day meant. “It was an honor to work it,” Durbin said. Neale is still brought back to that historic September afternoon from time to time. When Neale meets Michigan supporters who learn he officiated Big Ten football, they sometimes ask if he has officiated any Wolverine games. “I say, ‘I probably worked the worst game you’ve ever watched.’ They say, ‘No, you didn’t!’ They don’t even say what game it is. They know.”
Neale also says that afternoon changed his approach for future games. “This game forced me to amp up my research,” he said. “I wouldn’t have officiated the game any differently, but what if I knew how good Appalachian State was?”
“This game is the poster child for ‘anything can happen’ in high school or college football,” O’Neill said. “You can’t officiate to statistics. You can’t officiate to what your gut tells you. You can’t officiate to ‘there’s no way this is going to happen.’ You have to officiate every play start to finish in seven seconds.”
Because sometimes Jack does slay the giant.
Paul Hamann is a freelance writer from Vancouver, Wash.
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