By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
STATESBORO, GA. — The question before the crowd at Paulson Stadium on Saturday afternoon as No. 1-ranked Georgia Southern hosted Appalachian State in a Southern Conference first-place showdown was if lightning could strike twice?
Considering the weather phenomena — Hurricane Sandy — that struck much of the country this week in advance of this heated rivalry, it wouldn't have been surprising, even on this sun-kissed afternoon, to see the mighty Thor sending a few thunderbolts in the direction of the GSU campus.
Like a punch-drunk fighter, No. 15 Appalachian State somehow stayed on its feet long enough to score a 31-28 victory before a crowd of 22,155 fans, knocking off the Eagles as for the second year in a row when they came into this game ranked No. 1 in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Even with the loss, Georgia Southern (7-2 overall, 6-2 in league) earned at least a share of its 10th Southern Conference title overall and its second in a row when Wofford stumbled in double overtime to Samford, 24-17.
ASU (7-3, 4-2) can claim a share of that title and put itself in prime position for the SoCon automatic bid to the playoffs by beating Furman next weekend at home in another rivalry game.
Wofford and Chattanooga, which meet next weekend, can both still claim a share of the crown, but the only way Appalachian State miss out on the auto bid is with a loss to Furman, or if The Citadel finishes fourth in the standings with a three-way tie and Wofford beats Chattanooga.
The Southern Conference will have a two-loss champion for just the third time in its storied history, with one, two, or three teams joining Furman from 1981 and ASU and Wofford from 2007.
Georgia Southern had the Mountaineers on the ropes with 552 yards of offense, 38 1/2 minutes of possession time and 22 first downs, with quarterback Jerick McKinnon piling up 121 yards rushing on 21 carries and 106 passing on just 3-of-5 attempts.
Fullback William Banks added a career-high 129 yards rushing and three touchdowns, replacing Eagle All-American Dominique Swope, who was out for the second straight week with a concussion.
But the Eagles, who saw their FCS-best 14-game home winning streak snapped, left the game on the table with a pair of turnovers, two missed field goals, a blocked field goal and eight penalties for the loss of 90 critical yards.
And ASU took that glimmer of life and tore it open for a victory that may have salvaged the Mountaineers' season.
"I can't say enough about our players and the tenacity of this team," said veteran ASU coach Jerry Moore. "We didn't do anything really different (defensively in the second half), we just made tackles, we attacked a little more."
ASU junior quarterback Jamal Jackson, coming off an injury to his left knee, completed 21-of-34 passes for a career-high 383 yards and three touchdowns — including a 23-yard, back-shoulder throw to Tony Washington that put the Mountaineers ahead by three with 11:25 remaining.
"The bottom line is you have to make plays to win," said Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken. "We didn't, they did and won the FB game. That's football."
Sean Price caught seven of those passes for a personal best of 231 yards — the fourth-best receiving day in ASU history — and a controversial 56-yard touchdown that vaulted Appalachian State from a 21-10 deficit to within four points in the second period.
Price blew past the GSU secondary on the play and headed up the sideline, appearing to step out of bounds at the Eagle 35, but the officials missed the misstep and the tall and speedy wideout stormed into the end zone.
"I really couldn't tell you if I stepped out of bounds," Price said. "I just looked up and saw touchdown."
Another Jackson TD toss of nine yards to Malachi Jones — the first career score for the freshman — gave ASU its first lead at 24-21 with 49 seconds remaining in the first half.
Adam Scott blocked a 24-yard Alex Hanks field goal attempt on the final play of the first half to maintain the ASU advantage. Hanks also missed two other kicks from 26 yards away, one in each half.
That lead, or the missed opportunities, didn't seem like it would mean much with the Georgia Southern triple option grinding up the Mountaineer defense like top-round sirloin for much of the game.
When backup quarterback Ezayi Youyoute sliced through ASU on the opening drive of the second half for a 12-yard scoring scamper that put GSU ahead again 28-24, it seemed like there were plenty of points remaining for the high-flying Eagles.
But after not making a stop of its own accord all day, the Appalachian State defense suddenly began to make key plays.
The Mountaineers forced three GSU punts in the final 16 minutes and ended the Eagles' hopes with a Troy Sanders interception. Sanders also joined teammates Jeremy Kimbrough and Karl Anderson with a team-leading 10 tackles each.
Just like last year at Kidd Brewer Stadium when ASU stymied repeated Georgia Southern incursions into the red zone in the second half, the Mountaineers bobbed and weaved around Eagle threats again in this one.
"When it counts, I'm behind our defense," said Jackson. "They got a stop, they won us the game."
GSU had one last chance to pull out a victory — or at least tie the game — when it got the ball back with 7:46 remaining.
The Eagles drove to the ASU 22 and faced a fourth and four with 1:35 left on the clock, but Monken ruled against attempting a 39-yard field goal attempt that could have tied the game.
"On the field goal, I didn't know if we would be able to make it," Monken said, honestly.
An option pitch to Tray Butler advanced the ball for an apparent first down at the Mountaineer 16, but A-back Jonathan Bryant was called for an illegal block to nullify the play and push the Eagles to a fourth and 16 at the ASU 34.
"There were a lot of penalties," said Monken. "Foolish penalties get you beat. We made a lot of foolish penalties."
Not only did the flag cost Georgia Southern a first down, it also forced the Eagles into an almost must passing situation.
"We knew they were going to throw the ball there," said Sanders. "It was fourth and long and I knew I couldn't let anything get behind me."
McKinnon made a play fake and dropped back to pass, where he was challenged by ASU defensive tackle Ronald Blair.
McKinnon escaped and it looked like his best chance to get the first down was to scramble, but he tried to pass to a receiver that was well short of the yardage sticks.
The ball was tipped and floated gently through the air and beyond two receivers, where Sanders corralled it near the 20 and returned the ball to the 30 before being tackled with 53 seconds to play.
Sanders said that McKinnon had "locked his eyes on the receiver," allowing the ASU safety to make a break on the ball.
The two-play turn of events left the crowd and the Eagle team stunned.
"That last drive, I had all of the confidence in the world in our offense that they could get us back in the game," said GSU's All-American defensive tackle Brent Russell. "You don't blame anyone, you blame yourself for not making a play earlier."
Another officiating decision cost Georgia Southern points earlier in the second half.
Jackson appeared to be sacked for a safety on a second-down play, but he was ruled down about an inch from the goal line to the consternation of a Paulson Stadium crowd that was already fed up with the officiating.
Facing what Monken called "third and forever," Jackson was forced near the back end line and got off a back-foot, under-thrown pass that Price adjusted to and caught in acrobatic fashion near midfield and behind the defense with ASU needing 29 yards.
"I was just trying to get up the field," said Price. "It was a big momentum changer."
While ASU ends the regular season against Furman before earning a well-deserved bye week, Georgia Southern has more unfinished business.
The Eagles host Howard and the Bison's top-flight linebacker Keith Pough next Saturday, likely needing a win to reach the playoffs.
"This was a tough day, a tough pill to swallow," said Monken, whose team faces Georgia in its regular-season finale. "It's heartbreaking. You start the day with a chance to win a conference championship. Next week we will have to fight to win to even make the playoffs."
The mode was different in the ASU locker room, as the Mountaineers went from life support to controlling their own destiny.
"We are not there yet, but we took a giant step," said Moore. "It's just a growing up process. Anytime you beat somebody like this your confidence level is going to go up."