It was a day anybody connected with the East Tennessee State football program will never forget.
Twenty-five years ago, ETSU pulled off the biggest upset in the program’s history, going on the road and beating North Carolina State, 29-14.
Even though a quarter of a century has passed, memories of that special game still burn brightly in the minds of those who were present on that crisp November afternoon in Raleigh, N.C.
“It was like we had won a playoff game,” said cornerback Rick Harris, who made one of the game’s biggest plays, an interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. “I think most of us immediately realized the magnitude of what we had just accomplished. I remember the joy of everyone hugging and celebrating in the locker room.”
N.C. State, which had played in the Peach Bowl the previous season, was just a few weeks removed from an impressive victory over No. 7 Clemson. The Bucs had opened the season with three consecutive victories, moving them into the NCAA Division I-AA rankings, before falling back to 4-4 heading into the money-making, non-conference game.
“It was a day we did something that probably just about everybody in the country thought we couldn’t do,” said Mike Ayers, ETSU’s head coach at the time. “We had a group of guys who believed long enough and hard enough. We were fortunate enough to make some big plays.
“That always will be a special game for us. Those guys will always have a place in my heart.”
Linebacker Billy Taylor, one of the team captains, said the upset defined the careers of many of the players who took part.
“One of the things I’m very proud of is I was one of the captains on the ETSU team that beat North Carolina State,” Taylor said. “That’s something nobody can take away from me or all of us on that team. We not only beat them, but beat them handily.
“It’s good when you feel like you’re supposed to go in and be the lamb being brought to slaughter for homecoming and you walk out feeling like you really turned the tables on somebody.”
It didn’t appear as though the Bucs would be turning any tables when N.C. State scored first. The expected Wolfpack win seemed well on its way.
Then Thane Gash, ETSU’s All-American safety, sent a message: His team wasn’t just showing up to collect a check. It was on a mission.
Gash broke through the line and blocked a punt, and four plays later quarterback Jeff Morgan scored on a 20-yard run.
“I was excited about that,” Gash said. “I don’t think I blocked any before that or after that. We prepared every week to win. Things went our way that day.”
With the two teams tied 7-7 at halftime, N.C. State basketball coach Jim Valvano, who was also the school’s athletic director, walked into the press box. While talking with ETSU basketball coach and A.D. Les Robinson, Valvano spotted a group of folks from Johnson City.
In his own colorful way, Valvano told the group that ETSU was being paid to come to Raleigh for homecoming and was not supposed to win, adding that somebody needed to get that message down to the coach.
The message never made it to Ayers. The Bucs opened the second half with an impressive drive, going 73 yards in 13 plays and taking almost seven minutes off the clock. It culminated in Morgan’s 7-yard touchdown pass to running back George Searcy, who went on to be the Southern Conference’s offensive player of the year two seasons later. Even though the extra point was missed, the excitement was beginning to build on the ETSU sideline.
Clinging to a 13-7 lead, the Bucs made their big move early in the fourth quarter. Morgan hit Cedric Solomon for a 40-yard pass completion. One play later, the quarterback took it in from the 1-yard line.
Suddenly, the unthinkable became thinkable, and the N.C. State homecoming crowd knew it. A smattering of boos began to rain down from the 35,400 fans at Carter-Finley Stadium with their team behind 19-7 after ETSU’s two-point conversion failed.
“That was big lift for us,” Taylor said. “When they started booing, we knew we were in a good position.”
That’s when Harris did his part, stepping in front of a Preston Poag pass and returning it 56 yards for a back-breaking touchdown. That, along with a two-point conversion pass from Morgan to running back Roosevelt Way, made the score 27-7.
“I’ll never forget it,” said linebacker and tri-captain Albert English, who played that day with a large pad on his chest thanks to a bruised sternum suffered in the previous game against Furman. “I think that N.C. State definitely underestimated us. I remember them hanging their heads when it got down to the fourth quarter and they realized what was about to happen to them.”
After N.C. State scored a quick touchdown and recovered an onside kick, the Bucs’ defense held the Wolfpack to two first downs on the final four possessions and turned away a pair of fourth-down attempts along the way. Juan McGarrah had ETSU’s second interception.
N.C. State finished the game by fumbling in its own end zone and recovering for an ETSU safety on the final play.
“We played real good defense against them,” said Ayers, now the head coach at Wofford. “And it was a day where offensively we were kind of hunting and pecking and made a couple of plays. Next thing you knew, the pressure went to their sideline, momentum came to ours and we got it done.”
Dick Sheridan was in his second season as N.C. State’s head coach, and the ETSU staff was familiar with him from his years at Furman. That familiarity played a role in the outcome.
“Our coaching staff did such a great job that day,” said Taylor, now associate head coach and defensive coordinator at Tennessee Tech. “Being a coach now, I can’t overemphasize the job Coach Ayers and all the coaches did. We went in with a really good plan.”
Harris joined Taylor in crediting Ayers with setting the table for the stunning win.
“I remember watching film that week and Coach Ayers saying to me that I was a better player than their receivers and he expected me to play on an ACC level,” Harris said. “Going into the game, the thing I had the utmost confidence in was that our secondary could match up with their receivers. We had some people at the skill positions that I felt could hold their own against their people.”
Harris was a self-admitted “big-time talker,” and he had plenty to say during the game while breaking up two passes in addition to his interception.
“There was a lot of conversation between me and the receivers, especially (Charles) Davenport,” he said. “But at no point did I get the feeling that they thought they were in trouble of losing the game.”
Somehow the Bucs won despite fumbling six times. They lost five of them. Morgan, also a tri-captain, led ETSU with 68 rushing yards while throwing for 127. He completed 9 of 19 passes with a TD and an interception. N.C. State outgained ETSU 317-298 in total yards.
“When people say we beat North Carolina State, they think we must have played close to a perfect game, but we really didn’t,” Taylor said. “We just really outplayed them on the defensive side of the ball and when our offense had chances to score, they did.”
Gash, who went on to play four seasons in the NFL – three with the Cleveland Browns and one with the San Francisco 49ers – before a neck injury ended his professional career, made 15 tackles. That led a defensive charge that limited the Wolfpack to 3.3 yards per play.
“It was just our day,” Gash said. “We weren’t surprised. As a team, the ebb and flow ... we were doing really well. They never got it back from us once we got ahold of it.”
ETSU had 12 tackles for loss. Scott Kirby made four of his 11 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
The Bucs benefited from four special-team gaffes by N.C. State. In addition to Gash’s blocked punt, Wolfpack kicker Mark Fowble missed two field goal attempts, from 36 and 39 yards out. N.C. State also had a monumental bad snap on another field goal try, one that resulted in a 35-yard loss.
Ayers recalls still feeling giddy as the players and coaches sat on a hill outside the locker room eating their postgame meal.
“Everybody was just sitting there,” he said. “They were looking at the scoreboard and eating chicken. It was something.”
On the way back to Johnson City, one of the team’s buses broke down. “Nobody cared,” Ayers said.
English, who had 12 tackles, helps coach a high school team in the Florida in his spare time these days, and he passes the lessons he learned from the monumental upset down to the players.
“I tell it often,” English said. “How you can overcome insurmountable odds despite the competition and being the underdogs. It was something I’ll never forget.”
The euphoria of the big win lasted exactly one week. The Bucs went back on the road and lost to VMI the following Saturday, causing Ayers to say at the time “We went from the penthouse to the outhouse.”
“At that time, I-AA teams just weren’t beating D-I teams, so we were definitely feeling ourselves,” Harris said. “And perhaps, that feeling ourselves was the reason why the following week we went to VMI and got beat. That was one of the most difficult losses for me to digest in my football career. It was like we left everything we had on the field in Raleigh the week before.”
Looking back, Harris says the two weeks of the N.C. State and VMI games epitomized the 1987 season. The Bucs finished with a 5-6 record two years after going 0-10-1 and a year after going 6-5.
“I feel as though that ’87 team was better at facing adversity than we were at handling success,” he said. “ For a two-week period, myself and that team experienced extremes on opposite sides of the spectrum – an amazing high against N.C. State and a debilitating low in the loss to VMI.”
Ayers was forced out at ETSU after the season and wound up at Wofford, where he has been since. He has been the Southern Conference coach of the year five times in the last 10 seasons and was the I-AA national coach of the year in 2003, the same year ETSU announced it was dropping football. Since ETSU opted out of the football business, Ayers’ Wofford teams have won 67 games in eight-plus seasons.
Regardless of the other wins or losses, on that one fateful day in Raleigh, the Bucs did more than play with the big boys. They beat them.
“It was something I feel very proud of because I feel it was one of the two or three biggest wins in East Tennessee State football history so far,” Taylor said. “I say ‘so far’ because I still hope they’ll bring it back sometime soon.”