By Mike Holloway
College Sports Journal
Editor's Note: See more of Holloway's work and the original version of this column at http://appstatecentral.com/content/mountaineers-survive-furman-and-claim-12th-socon-title.
BOONE, N.C. — After surrendering a 13-point halftime lead early in the third quarter, Appalachian (8-3, 6-2 SoCon) escaped Kidd Brewer Stadium with a 33-28 win over Furman (3-7, 2-5 SoCon) behind the right leg of Sam Martin and a dominant fourth quarter performance from the Mountaineer defense.
The victory clinched a share of the Southern Conference championship for ASU, their seventh in the past eight seasons and 12th in program history, tying Furman's conference record.
It also marked the Mountaineers' seventh win in the last eight games against Furman and ninth consecutive victory over the Paladins at home.
An overflow Black Saturday crowd of 28,986 was on hand to witness a back and forth affair in the latest chapter of this storied Football Championship Subdivision rivalry.
Appalachian came out of the gates fast, starting the scoring with a 27-yard field goal to cap a 9 play, 65-yard opening drive.
After Patrick Blalock forced and recovered a quarterback Reese Hannon fumble on the Paladins' second possession, ASU needed just four plays to capitalize as Steven Miller found the end zone from eight yards out.
Leading 10-0 before the conclusion of the first quarter, it seemed for a moment that the Mountaineers were poised to run away in front of the home crowd. However, the Paladins had different ideas as Jerodis Williams took back the ensuing kickoff 100 yards to cut the margin to 10-7.
Williams' second kickoff return touchdown of the season kept Furman in the game early, as they trailed by only three points at the end of the first quarter in spite of being outgained 140-27 on offense.
The Mountaineers responded on their first drive of the second quarter with a creative 5 play, 48-yard touchdown drive including a previously unseen offensive wrinkle.
After hauling in a 19-yard reception to set up Appalachian with goal to go, Andrew Peacock took a reverse option to the right side of the field where he connected with tight end Drew Bailey for a seven-yard touchdown on his first career pass attempt.
Peacock, a junior wide receiver who came to Appalachian from Northern Durham High School as a decorated 4-year starter at quarterback, played his best game in an ASU uniform.
Along with throwing his first collegiate touchdown pass, he set career highs with 11 receptions and 130 yards, including a key 18-yard touchdown reception from Jamal Jackson in the waning moments of the first half to send Appalachian to the locker room with a 27-14 lead after a Furman defensive touchdown had trimmed the lead to six.
The seemingly safe 13-point advantage evaporated in less than 20 seconds of game time, beginning with a 10-yard touchdown strike from Reese Hannon to Jordan Snellings with 9:28 remaining in the third quarter.
On the very next play from scrimmage, Carl Rider scooped a Tony Washington fumble and took it 27 yards to paydirt, giving Furman a 28-27 advantage in spite of only having the benefit of a single offensive touchdown.
Jamal Jackson, Miller and the Appalachian offense responded with a 73-yard drive to reclaim a narrow 30-28 advantage on a 19-yard field goal from Sam Martin. It was a lead that they would not relinquish.
The ASU defense took control from that point forward, beginning with a Demetrius McCray interception on a badly overthrown pass from Hannon.
Led by All-American senior linebacker Jeremy Kimbrough who set a career high with 17 tackles, the Mountaineers were stifling as they forced the Paladins to punt on three consecutive possessions in which they gained a total of 31 yards.
A 32-yard field goal from Sam Martin, his fourth of the evening, extended the margin to 33-28 with 6:04 on the clock. However, Appalachian was only able to gain one first down on their final possession and had to punt the ball away, giving the Paladins one last shot at the upset with 1:57 to play.
Fortunately, Martin continued his excellent work with a clutch 62-yard punt that backed Furman up to their own 1 yard line.
Reese Hannon showed some moxy for a freshman quarterback in a hostile environment, as he led his offense on an efficient drive with time winding down. No throw was bigger than a 26-yard completion to Ryan Culbreath on fourth and 15 following a false start on offensive lineman Tank Phillips.
Even after the catch and run by Culbreath that moved the ball to the Appalachian 37 yard line, the crowd at Kidd Brewer Stadium was deafening as the home team closed in on a championship, forcing Phillips into his second false start penalty in three plays and moving the ball back to the 42.
Following consecutive incompletions that left the Paladins facing another fourth and 15, senior Troy Sanders came up with the game-ending interception against a heated rival for the second time in as many weeks.
It was a fitting end to Senior Day, with the reigning Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Week sliding down at the 20 yard line as time expired.
Sanders put together another great performance from his strong safety position, notching 7 tackles and a pass break-up along with the deciding takeaway.
The Mountaineers' upperclassmen came through in the regular season finale as the defense was once again, anchored by seniors Demetrius McCray (5 tackles, 1 INT), Brandon Grier (5 tackles, 1 QB hurry), Sanders and Kimbrough.
On the other side of the ball, fellow senior tailback Steven Miller wore down the Furman defense with 170 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries.
However, no one played a larger role in allowing the Mountaineers to hang on than senior punter, placekicker and kickoff specialist Martin.
Martin was perfect on four field-goal attempts with a long of 47 yards, kicked five touchbacks and averaged 50.5 yards per punt including the booming 62-yarder late in the fourth quarter.
His performance earned him Southern Conference Special Teams Player of the Week in his final regular season game in the black and gold. It is the seventh such award of his illustrious career.
Freshman Sean Price followed up his dominant performance at Georgia Southern with another triple digit day, catching 10 passes for 115 yards.
Price and Peacock gave the Mountaineers two 100-yard receivers in the same game for only the fourth time in school history. P
rice also became the first freshman in ASU history to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards as he sits at 1,029 yards at the end of the regular season and is only 45 yards shy of Randy Moss' all-time FCS freshman record set in 1996.
After securing their eighth Division I victory and a share of the Southern Conference championship, the Mountaineers enter their bye week with a firm grasp on a bid to the FCS playoffs for the eighth consecutive season.
In all likelihood, they will also receive a bye in the first round of the postseason and at least one additional home game which would be played on Dec. 1.
The rest could not come at a better time for a weary Appalachian State team, having endured the wear and tear of eleven weeks without respite. Jamal Jackson and Brandon Grier are also each recovering from knee injuries sustained over the last month.
Although Jackson passed for 332 yard to become only the fourth ASU quarterback to pass for 300 yards in consecutive games, he also took 5 sacks on Saturday.
While he has continued to make plays with his arm, his escapability is not what it was before the injury.
This team will go as far Jackson leads them and as a group, the Mountaineers stand to benefit greatly from an extended break from game action.
As the rest of the playoff hopefuls take the field this weekend in an effort to state their final case for inclusion, the Mountaineers have the luxury of resting at home as they await Selection Sunday.
In a season full of ups and downs, this gritty young Appalachian team has already made a convincing case of their own.