BOONE, N.C. -- Marques Murrell forced two fumbles that led directly to touchdowns and Corey Lynch intercepted two passes and made a touchdown-saving tackle at the end of the first half to lead Appalachian State University to a 24-16 victory at Eastern Kentucky on Saturday evening.
The difference in the game were the timely big plays turned in by Appalachian's much-maligned defense, which surrendered 32.5 points per game a season ago. The Mountaineers forced four turnovers and held EKU to just 5-of-16 on third-down conversions in the victory, with all four turnovers coming courtesy of Murrell and Lynch.
Murrell notched ASU's first tide-turning play during the opening series of the contest. With Eastern Kentucky on Appalachian's 13 yard line and threatening to take an early lead, Murrell laid a jaw-rattling blindside hit on EKU quarterback Josh Greco, who coughed up the ball at the Mountaineer 25. Linebacker Brad West scooped up the fumble and rumbled 72 yards before being caught by EKU's Patrick Bugg at the three yard line.
Two plays later, Appalachian took a 7-0 advantage when quarterback Richie Williams glided into the end zone from three yards out.
Eastern Kentucky tied the contest at 7-7 with under a minute to go in the first quarter, as running back Mark Dunn capped a seven-play, 58-yard drive with a two-yard touchdown run.
Two series later, Murrell gave the Mountaineers the lead once again, as he forced EKU's Andre Ralston to fumble on the five yard line and fellow defensive end Jason Hunter picked up the ball and waltzed into the end zone for a 14-7 ASU advantage.
Appalachian maintained its seven-point lead heading into halftime thanks to Lynch. With 7:11 remaining in the second quarter, the sophomore safety picked off a Greco pass to stall an EKU drive inside the ASU 10 yard line. Then, on the final play of the first half, Lynch made perhaps the most important play of the game as he chased down Ralston from behind, tackling the speedy receiver on the one yard line, leaving a 74-yard gain for naught and sending the Apps to the locker room with their 14-7 advantage intact.
After gaining just 121 yards in the first half, Appalachian's offense displayed some firepower on the third play of the second half, as Williams avoided an EKU blitz and found senior wide receiver Jermane Little on a tunnel screen. Little did the rest, taking the pass and going 88 yards for his first touchdown since 2002 to give Appalachian a 21-7 lead.
The Mountaineers held on to the 14-point advantage for the rest of the third quarter, thanks in large part to Lynch, who once again snuffed out a potential Colonel scoring drive with an interception, this time on a tipped pass in the end zone.
In the fourth quarter, the Colonels began to chip away at the lead, notching a 22-yard field goal less than three minutes into the final period.
The contest see-sawed back and forth for most of the fourth quarter, before
EKU made it even more interesting by marching 65 yards in six plays to cut the ASU lead to just five with a 27-yard touchdown pass from Greco to Kyle Barber with 4:07 remaining. However, Appalachian made yet another big play on defense when it stopped Barber short of the goal line on the two-point conversion attempt to keep the lead at 21-16.
On the ensuing onside kick attempt, Appalachian's Jeremy Wiggins grabbed the ball, reversed field and scampered 27 yards to give the Mountaineers the ball on the Eastern Kentucky 20. Williams ran the ball five-straight times for 17 yards to chew up 3:19 before kicker Julian Rauch gave the Apps an eight-point lead with a 21-yard field goal with 48 seconds left on the clock.
Despite a pair of short completions, Appalachian's defense completed its bend-but-don't-break evening by stopping the Colonels at midfield as the time ran out.
In all, Eastern Kentucky out-gained the Mountaineers 455-334 and held a 38:04-21:56 advantage in time of possession, but Appalachian scored 14 points off EKU turnovers and held the Colonels scoreless on 4-of-7 trips inside the ASU 30 yard line to secure the victory.
The win snapped Appalachian's five-game road losing streak, which dated back to a 34-12 triumph at Elon on Nov. 8, 2003 and its three-year drought in season openers, dating back to a 46-26 victory over Liberty in 2001. ASU also claimed its first season-opening win on the road since it topped Wake Forest, 20-16, in Winston-Salem in 2000.
Murrell finished the evening with eight tackles, three-and-a-half stops for loss, two-and-a-half sacks and two quarterback hurries to go along with his two forced fumbles, while Lynch added seven tackles to his two picks. Linebacker Monte Smith and safety Jeremy Wiggins notched 12 tackles apiece to lead the Mountaineers.
Offensively, Williams went 16-for-31 for 234 yards and added 66 yards on the ground for his fifth-straight contest with at least 300 yards of total offense, while Little caught four Williams passes for 107 yards.
Appalachian looks to move to 2-0 for the first time since 1998 next Saturday when it travels to BCS opponent Kansas. Kickoff is slated for 6 p.m. CDT (7 p.m. EDT) at Memorial Stadium in Lawrence, Kan.