By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
MOBILE, AL. — What appeared like it would be a first-half TKO turned into a nerve-racking final two quarters for Appalachian State on Saturday night, but the Mountaineers regained their bearings at the end for their 34-27 Sun Belt Conference victory over South Alabama.
Zach Matics drilled two long field goals, including a 50-yarder to tie the game with just under seven minutes to play and Jalen Moore overcame a first-half fumble to scamper into the end zone for the winning touchdown from 18 yards with one minute, 16 seconds left.
The win — which came despite four crucial ASU turnovers — clinched second place in the Sun Belt for App State and gave the Mountaineers (10-2 overall, 7-1 in league) just their fourth 10-win season in school history.
Arkansas State (9-3, 8-0) clinched the Sun Belt title with a dominating 55-17 win at home over Texas State (3-9, 2-6) on Saturday afternoon to finish its league slate undefeated.
Georgia Southern’s stunning 34-7 loss at home to Georgia State (6-6, 5-3) pushed the Eagles (8-4, 6-2) to third place and made Georgia State bowl eligible with its sixth win.
ASU will find out what bowl game it will be invited to on Sunday, though reports from around the country have the Mountaineers playing in the Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama on Dec. 19 against a team from the Mid-American Conference.
“I’m proud of our resiliency,” third-year ASU coach Scott Satterfield told an ESPN3 reporter. “We don’t like turnovers, but we like wins.”
South Alabama (5-7, 3-5) was looking to become bowl eligible with its sixth win after playing in its first bowl a year ago, but the Jaguars came up short in the final minutes against the Mountaineers’ prolific attack (301 yards rushing and 465 yards of total offense).
Appalachian could have easily been ahead 41-7 at halftime, but the Mountaineers fumbled twice at the goal line, with the miscues by Moore (14 carries, 84 yards, two TDs rushing) and Marcus Cox (14 carries, 192 yards on the ground) coming on back-to-back, second-period drives and also mismanaged their final drive when there was time to get into Matics’ lengthy field-goal range.
Cox scampered 74 yards on the first play from scrimmage to set up Appalachian’s first touchdown, with Moore dashing in from the three on the next play.
South Alabama answered with a 12-play, 75-yard drive as quarterback Cody Clements slipped into the end zone from the three to it on its opening drive.
But App State throttled the Jaguar offense the rest of the half, forcing three Clements’ interceptions.
The Mountaineers needed only four more plays to recapture the lead, with Simms McElfresh turning a simple slant pass from Taylor Lamb into 58 yards and the go-ahead touchdown by breaking tackles and racing across the goal line.
Early in the second period, Cox took advantage of a coverage bust and Lamb found him free in the back of the end zone on the wheel route for 18-yards to increase the lead to 21-7.
Though the two fumbles stymied Appalachian, that edge was expanded to 24-7 when Matics crushed a career-tying 51-yard field-goal effort right down the middle with 1:24 left in the half.
“Zach Matics has been awesome all year,” said Satterfield. “He is huge for us. He is one of the best kickers in the country.”
Clements fired his third interception to Alex Gray on the next play, but clock management kept Matics from having another field goal opportunity after ASU took over at its own 43.
Those missed opportunities came back to haunt the Mountaineers in the second half.
Redshirt freshman Dallas Davis came off the bench in the third quarter and immediately sparked the Jaguars. He led them to a drive for a field goal to start the half and then took advantage of Ricky Ferguson’s fumble on the ensuing kickoff at the ASU 21.
Gerald Everett scored the first of two rushing touchdowns from the two and suddenly the Mountaineer lead was cut to 24-17.
Appalachian managed only one first down on its next two drives and South Alabama constructed a 13-play, 91-yard march to deadlock the contest.
Everett’s one-yard, second-effort plunge made it 24-all with 13:20 remaining.
Lamb (15-of-23 for 163 yards, two TDs) had a pass picked off by Jeremy Reaves on the next play from scrimmage at the ASU 45 and the Jaguars took their first lead on Aleem Sunanon’s second field goal, from 41 yards out, to make it 27-24 with less than 10 minutes on the clock.
But then the Mountaineers finally responded to the pressure.
Cox slashed through tacklers for 27 yards and App State took advantage of a pass interference penalty for a third-down conversion to get the ball into Matics’ range.
Matics was about as perfect as a kicker could be on his 50-yarder to tie the game again at 27 and the Appalachian defense forced a three and out, highlighted by Devan Stringer’s sack of Davis on third and two.
Facing fourth and two from the USA 46, Appalachian put the game in Moore’s hands and the freshman sliced away South Alabama’s bowl hopes.
This budding, first-year star smashed for four yards to keep the drive alive and then sprinted 24 yards on the next play to move the ball to the USA 18.
All that the Mountaineers needed now was to run the clock down and let Matics close it out with another field goal, but instead Moore ripped through the line and got a push from his offensive line for the final yard and the winning score.
Appalachian’s defense made sure that touchdown held up after some missed tackles on the kickoff gave the Jaguars the ball at their own 47 on Terrence Timmons’ 46-yard return.
Two rushes gained seven yards, but ASU pressured Davis into consecutive incompletions to end South Alabama’s hopes.
There were many defensive stars for the Mountaineers, with linebacker Eric Boggs leading the way with an interception and double figures in tackles again. App State also picked up four more sacks.
And so now it is on to a bowl game in two weeks.
“We are super excited now,” said Satterfield. “We are really excited to be 10-2 and we’re very excited to be going to our first bowl game.”