BOONE — History repeated itself on Thursday night and it spelled the end of an undefeated season for the Appalachian State football team.
For the second year in a row, Georgia Southern knocked off the Mountaineers when they were nationally ranked in a 24-21 win on a cold, and at times snowy, Halloween at Kidd Brewer Stadium.
A year after defeating the Mountaineers 34-14 in Statesboro, Ga., the Eagles handed No. 20 Appalachian State its first loss of the 2019 season, snapping a 13-game winning streak dating back to last season. The loss also knocked them out of the NCAA Top 25 rankings, which were unveiled on Sunday.
“The locker room is pretty tough, but we’ll bounce back and be fine,” senior captain and safety Josh Thomas said when asked about bouncing back. “We have to move on. We didn’t go 1-0 this week, but that doesn’t mean we can’t go 1-0 next week. That’s all we have to focus on.”
The Eagles’ upset victory didn’t come without a spirited comeback from the Mountaineers.
Trailing 24-7 after three quarters, Zac Thomas found Sutton on a 10-yard touchdown pass and had a chance to make it a one-possession game with a little more than six minutes to play.
The Mountaineers cashed in again, courtesy of Thomas finding Sutton on a 9-yard touchdown pass to cut Georgia Southern’s lead to 24-21 with 4:47 to play after Chandler Staton’s extra point.
“We just kind of abandoned the run, threw it down 17 and tried and got back into it,” said Appalachian State Head Coach Eliah Drinkwitz. “We kind of threw caution to the wind a little bit in those conditions. Hats off to those guys for making plays.”
Appalachian State (7-1, 4-1 Sun Belt Conference) responded with another three-and-out on defense, starting with Noel Cook’s first-down tackle and a second-down stop from Akeem Davis-Gaither and Trey Cobb. Davis-Gaither batted down Shae Werts’ third-down pass, forcing another punting situation, and the Mountaineers took over at their 28 with 3:45 left.
Darrynton Evans rushed for 16 yards on first down, but the drive stalled at midfield. On the final series, it appeared App State completed a pass to the Georgia Southern 38 with 12 seconds left, but a video review confirmed that the ball hit the ground.
The game ended with a completion to Thomas Hennigan and a multi-lateral effort near midfield.
After the game, Drinkwitz pointed to the kicking game as a big difference in the outcome. Tyler Bass converted on a 49-yard field goal early in the second quarter for Georgia Southern while Staton had a 29-yard attempt go wide right in the third quarter.
“Credit to Georgia Southern and Coach (Chad) Lunsford. They played a good football game. They played a clean football game, a few penalties and no turnovers,” said Drinkwitz. “They converted their long field goal in the first half. We did not convert our field goal in the third quarter, and at the end of the day, that’s going to be the one that we wished we had back.”
The Mountaineers struggled to find any sort of offensive rhythm early on as they came away scoreless on their first five possessions.
But on the final drive of the first half, they put together a well-executed two-minute offense for its own 8-yard line.
Reaching the red zone with 20 seconds to play before halftime, Thomas connected with Malik Williams on a 15-yard touchdown pass. Staton’s extra point cut the Eagles’ lead to 10-7 at halftime.
Williams led all receivers with eight catches for 89 yards. Hennigan (78 yards) and Sutton (67 yards) each had six receptions.
“They started out faster than we did. We didn’t convert third and short. I know on three drives in the first half, we started with two drops,” said Drinkwitz. “We just didn’t start fast enough. It took us a two-minute drive at the end of the first half to even score.”
The Mountaineers entered Thursday’s game averaging just over 244 yards a game on the ground but were held to just 152 against the Eagles.
On the other hand, Georgia Southern (5-3, 3-1) piled up 335 yards on the ground.
The two-headed attack of Wesley Kennedy III and Werts spearheaded the offense. Kennedy finished with 145 yards on just 13 attempts. The junior finished with two touchdowns, including a 68-yard scamper early in the third quarter.
Werts, who added 87 yards, pushed the Eagles’ lead to 24-7 after three quarters with a 55-yard keeper.
“The second half out in the third quarter, they went down and scored, and we went three-and-out; they scored again. That’s just not winning football,” said Drinkwitz. “We have to be better than that, but at the end of the day, offensively, it came down to third-down conversions, red zone offense, the missed field goal, third-and-shorts in the first half. They are going to be big for us to look at, fix and move forward.”
Notes: The Mountaineers will step out of Sun Belt play this coming Saturday at 7 p.m. as they’ll travel to the University of South Carolina. They return to conference play the following week at Georgia State. Thursday’s loss was the first home loss since a 20-19 defeat to Wake Forest back in 2017 — a streak of 14 games. Davis-Gaither paced Appalachian’s defense with 16 tackles and D’Marco Jackson added nine. Georgia Southern, which has now won four in a row, will travel to Troy on Saturday at 3:30 p.m.