By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
STATESBORO, GA. — Appalachian State is wondering if lightning can indeed strike twice?
Just a little over a year ago, the then-No. 5-ranked Mountaineers took down No. 1 Georgia Southern, 24-17, at Kidd Brewer Stadium in Boone, N.C., holding the Eagles to 201 yards of total offense.
ASU quarterback Jamal Jackson had 276 yards of total offense himself and threw for three touchdowns to lead the upset.
And with previously top-rated Eastern Washington losing last Saturday, 30-27 at Southern Utah, Georgia Southern ascended to No. 1 just in time to face Appalachian State again Saturday in a 2 p.m. at Paulson Stadium.
Last year's ASU-GSU brawl was also the first game covered by a new website called College Sports Journal — a destination on the Internet that is dedicated to giving readers the best experience it can find for following the Football Championship Subdivision and selected other college sports.
What better way to kick off a new online publication than with a No. 1 team being upset.
In the midst of preparations for Hurricane Sandy last weekend, we quietly celebrated our first anniversary at CSJ.
There were no cakes and the only candles were the exploding transformers going off around Philadelphia and its suburbs as the home base for CSJ endured the wind and torrential rains of a weather system dubbed "Frankenstorm" by some.
So it may be a week late, but what better place to commemorate our first of what we hope will be many years by covering another Appalachian State-Georgia Southern showdown — and the fact that the Mountaineers are targeting the No. 1 team in the CSJ FCS Top-25 makes it all the more appealing.
KICKING OFF OUR COVERAGE
Last year, to kick off our new publication, I traveled to my second home in Boone, N.C. and immersed myself for an entire week in everything related to the ASU-GSU encounter.
I spent hours studying game film at Kidd Brewer Stadium and we opened the curtains on our new website with several features and previews on the game.
There was a piece on Jackson contemplating a transfer from Appalachian State to Villanova after the 2010 season, which served as the first column in CSJ history:
There was a column on Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken's previous trip to Kidd Brewer Stadium, where then-head coach Paul Johnson returned to his native mountains to claim his first victory in Boone in 2001:
There was a piece on the unselfishness of ASU's DeAndre Presley, who went from All-American quarterback and Walter Payton Award finalist to defensive back in an attempt to best help his team, a move that has paid off with Presley now playing for the Miami Dolphins:
There was a historical piece in our CSJ Classic series that talked about the roots of the triple option in Southern Conference football, titled "There Is Nothing New Under The SoCon Sun":
We also had a preview on game day of the environment surrounding the Georgia Southern-Appalachian State clash:
There even was a look at the playoff picture in FCS by CSJ publisher Chuck Burton, of which both Georgia Southern and Appalachian State were big pieces in the puzzle:
And of course, there was the game story on Saturday when Appalachian State pulled off its upset of its big rival:
There was also in-depth coverage of the showdown between eventual national champion North Dakota State and Northern Iowa, a game matching the No. 2 and 3-ranked teams in the country:
And there was even a wrap-up of Lehigh's victory over Colgate as the Mountain Hawks marched to their second-straight Patriot League title and a run to the NCAA quarterfinals:
It made for an exciting first week in the history of College Sports Journal.
HAPPY NEW YEAR
A year later, I find myself in south Georgia, preparing for another game between FCS programs that have combined for nine national titles.
Appalachian State holds a 14-12-1 lead in the series.
And once again, one of these teams is ranked No. 1.
As usual when I'm covering a Georgia Southern game at Paulson Stadium, my home away from home is the residence of Don Heath, the longtime GSU beat writer for the Savannah Morning News and one of the best FCS writers in the country.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
The first meeting of the modern era between these two rival had large stakes when No. 1-seeded Appalachian State, with Sparky Woods as the coach, ended Georgia Southern's two-year run as national champion with a 19-0 victory in the 1987 quarterfinals.
It was one of the coldest football days ever in Boone and when ASU officials tried to scrap the snow off the field, it turned the artificial surface into a sheet of ice.
GSU coach Erk Russell had to be coaxed into wearing a heavy jacket, instead of his usual shirt sleeves.
It got so cold at one point that a steamy fog began to rise from Russell's bald head.
SOUTHERN CONFERENCE BOUND
It took a move from the independent ranks to the Southern Conference for Georgia Southern in 1993 to make the Eagle-Mountaineer rivalry a fixture on the yearly FCS schedule.
In the first SoCon encounter between the two in 1993, a blocked punt turned the tide to allow GSU to escape Boone with a 16-14 victory — a win that helped the Eagles win the Southern Conference title.
It was ASU that was fighting for the SoCon crown a year later when Georgia Southern stunned the Mountaineers 34-31 in Statesboro — a game best remembered by Appalachian State fans for the fact that Scott Satterfield took over at quarterback from Andy Arnold.
A week later, ASU beat No. 1-ranked Marshall 24-10 at Kidd Brewer Stadium on the way to a run to the NCAA quarterfinals that ended with a narrow loss to national-runner-up Boise State on the blue Smurf Turf, 17-14.
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT
My initial ASU-GSU game came a year later when the Eagles came to Boone in 1995 to meet a Mountaineer squad that would finish the regular season undefeated at 11-0 and ranked No. 2 nationally behind McNeese State and would win 12 in a row before Stephen F. Austin pulled out a late win in the quarterfinals, 17-13.
About the only success that Georgia Southern generated on offense that day was when the Mountaineers slipped into their prevent defense at the end of both halves.
Clarence Sutton, a free safety that came to ASU on a track scholarship, ended the Eagles' last threat in a 27-17 decision with an interception off Kenny Robinson, hurdling potential tacklers as he returned the ball to safety.
A BLAST FROM THE PAST
The first time I ventured to Paulson Stadium — the place Eagle fans call Erk (Russell's) House and Six Flags Over Georgia (in honor of the six national championship flags flying just outside of one of the end zones) was in 1996.
For one of the few times in the past 25 years, neither squad would make the playoffs — the only other time that has happened was in 2003 — but they still came through with one of the most memorable finishes in the series.
It also was a game that permanently changed the face of ASU football.
Trailing 28-14 in the fourth quarter, Appalachian State benched option quarterback Gerard Hardy and brought in little-used reserve Bake Baker.
Baker threw three touchdown passes in the final minutes to lift the Mountaineers to a 35-28 lead, but with two-time Buchanan Award winner Dexter Coakley sidelined by a late-game knee injury, reserve linebacker Joey Hall came on to break up a fourth-down pass play from GSU signal-caller Robinson to preserve the win.
That game was the start of ASU's move away from the Nebraska I-Formation option and into a more modern emphasis on the passing game.
A BIG BREAK
After Appalachian State handled Georgia Southern 24-12 in Paul Johnson's first trip back home as a head coach, the series settled into the type of ferocity.
I was called on to write the game story for this contest for the Savannah Morning News and the focus for GSU quickly went beyond the game when Robinson broke his hand several plays into the Eagles' first possession.
That thrust a young quarterback named Greg Hill into the lineup and Hill would develop into one of the key cogs for the triple-option attack as Georgia Southern advanced to the national title game in 1998-99, winning the 1999 crown against Youngstown State, 59-24.
BACK TO THE TOP
In 1998 at Paulson Stadium, a quick start and a 37-24 victory by Georgia Southern vaulted the Eagles from No. 2 to No. 1 in the country.
GSU's high-octane squad stayed No. 1 until it was stunned by Massachusetts on a rainy, turnover-plagued day, 55-43, in the title game
The Eagles were top ranked a year later when Appalachian State earned a hard-fought 17-16 victory, torn down the goal posts at Kidd Brewer Stadium and paraded them through downtown Boone.
DOWN TO THE WIRE
The 2000 encounter featured another hot start by Georgia Southern and a big finish by the Mountaineers in a battle between the No. 1 and No. 5 teams in the country.
Georgia Southern's defense had knocked starting quarterback Joe Burchette out of the game with a sprained ankle and former starter David Reeves came on to replace him.
But with the Mountaineers threatening to win, Reeves was drilled by GSU linebacker Michael Youngblood on the second-to-last play of the game, separating his shoulder on the hit.
Reeves hid the injury — which would effectively end his college career — from the coaches to stay in the contest.
On his last college pass, Reeves threw an interception to Nate Gates at the goal line as Reeves attempted to complete a game-winning, 25-yard, TD toss and the Eagles escaped with a 34-28 victory.
Only a game-saving tackle and a tipped pass late in a semifinal game by Montana kept those ASU and GSU teams from meeting for the 2000 national crown — a title won by Georgia Southern with a 27-25 victory against the Grizzlies in rainy Chattanooga six days later.
STILL NO. 1
In 2001, Georgia Southern — top-ranked yet again — finally got that elusive win in Boone on the day that Adrian Peterson's 36-game streak of consecutive 100-yard rushing performances came to an end.
Quarterback J.R. Revere played keep-away with the Mountaineers and his final 72-yard touchdown run gave the Eagles a 27-18 triumph.
Later that year, Appalachian State had to travel to Statesboro for a quarterfinal playoff game and Georgia Southern won again after trailing the Mountaineers early, 38-24.
A day later, High Country native and GSU coach Paul Johnson announced he was taking the head coaching job at Navy and a week later, the Eagles' run of three straight championship-game appearances was stopped by Furman in a 24-17 loss.
The home field advantage reigned from 2002-2005 as the two teams spilt four games with Mike Sewak taking over the GSU program, but in 2006, it was Appalachian State that came in as the No. 1 team and the defending national champion.
That was also the last time I witnessed an ASU-GSU game at Paulson Stadium.
Georgia Southern was in the midst of, arguably, the worst season in school history under the direction of throughly-forgettable coach Brian VanGorder, who junked Johnson's triple option and moved future Payton Award winner Jayson Foster from quarterback to seldom-utilized receiver.
But for one game, the Eagles played their heart out.
It took everything that freshman quarterback Armanti Edwards and the Mountaineers had to push the game to overtime, where Appalachian State won 27-20 in the second extra session.
THE END OF A STREAK
In 2007, ASU had already beaten Michigan, 34-32, and would bookend that monumental victory with an unprecedented third consecutive national championship at the end of the season by throttling Joe Flacco and Delaware, 49-21.
But the then-No. 5 Mountaineers were stung by Foster and Georgia Southern, 38-35, to bring an end to ASU's 30-game home winning streak at Kidd Brewer Stadium.
No player on Appalachian State's roster had ever lost a game at home.
A blown call on a blocking-in-the-back penalty penalty may have saved Georgia Southern in that game after Dexter Jackson had returned a punt inside the Eagle 20 on the final Mountaineer possession.
ASU was heavily favored as the No. 2 team in the country in 2008 when it ventured down to Georgia Southern again.
The Mountaineers needed some late magic from Edwards and a intercepted pass by Travis Dowda off Antonio Henton at the goal line — Henton's second interception in the fourth quarter — to hang on for a 37-36 victory.
While ASU fans try to forget a 54-7 shellacking that Georgia Southern handed the Mountaineers at Paulson Stadium in 2004, GSU supporters don't like to dwell on the 52-16 thrashing the Eagles were dealt in 2009 at Kidd Brewer Stadium.
But a year later, that set the tone for another upset as coach Jerry Moore brought his No. 1-ranked Mountaineers to Statesboro again.
ASU completely dominated early, building a 14-0 lead, but the Mountaineers blew several opportunities to expand on that advantage due to turnovers and Georgia Southern battled back to tie the game before winning 21-14 in overtime after still another Appalachian State turnover.
We've already taken a look at the 2011 ASU victory.
So can the Mountaineers (6-3 overall, 4-2 in league) send another thunderbolt the Eagles' way this Saturday?
In some ways, it would seem about as unlikely as some of those other upsets in this intriguing series.
Appalachian State is 89th nationally in rushing defense and has been torched in two other games against triple option teams.
The Mountaineers allowed 463 yards on the ground and 618 yards of total offense in a shocking 52-28 loss at home to The Citadel to open Southern Conference play.
Two weeks ago, at home against Wofford, ASU was pierced for 393 rushing yards and 440 total yards in a 38-28 defeat to the Terriers.
Somehow, ASU's young and banged-up defense will have to hope that Jackson and company can play ball-control and keep Georgia Southern's potent attack on the sidelines.
GSU (7-1, 6-1) ranks second only to Wofford nationally in rushing (387 yards per game), is 17th in scoring (34.9) and 18th in overall offense (441 yards).
Wofford averages 393 yards a contest, while The Citadel is fifth at 301.
Georgia Southern has plenty of weapons on offense with the likes of sophomore fullback Dominique Swope (729 yards rushing, 5.6 average, 12 TDs), but it has been the switch from athletic sophomore quarterback Ezayi Youyuote (450 yards rushing, 4 TDs) to steady junior Jerick McKinnon (992 yards of total offense) that has made the Eagle attack more efficient.
The Eagles are also fourth nationally in total defense (280 ears), sixth in scoring defense (16.5) and fourth against the pass (148 yards) with its blitz-oriented, heavy-pressure scheme and its strength inside with the likes of All-American defensive tackle Brent Russell.
Jackson, who ranks 15th nationally in total offense (284 yards per game) sat out much of last week's 38-27 win at Western Carolina with a knee injury. He is expected to start against GSU.
Sophomore Logan Hallock came off the bench in the first quarter and completed 20 consecutive passes and finished 20-of-21 overall with 230 yards passing and 248 yards of total offense to earn national freshman of the week honors.
Hallock, who tossed two touchdown passes, had seen limited action and hadn't thrown a pass before last Saturday.
THE KEY FOR THE MOUNTAINEERS
A big key for ASU on Saturday will be the play of running back Stephen Miller, one of the national offensive players of the week for CSJ.
Miller broke loose for his second 200-yard rushing effort of the season against WCU, scampering for 245 yards rushing and finishing with 270 all-purpose yards.
The hard-working senior has 1,077 yards and nine TDs rushing and is effective as a receiver with 25 catches for 328 yards and four more touchdowns.
Miller isn't the only threat when Appalachian State passes the ball.
Sean Price has been one of the brightest of freshmen talents in FCS, with 51 catches for 683 yards and seven TDs. The lanky speedster has four 100-yard receiving games already to break a school record for freshmen.
Junior Andrew Peacock is just as proficient as Price, tying the freshman with 51 receptions to lead the team for 514 yards and a pair of score.
WHAT'S AT STAKE?
A victory for Georgia Southern would clinch the second-straight Southern Conference title for the Eagles and would put them in the driver's seat to be home in the friendly confines of Paulson Stadium for the playoffs.
A loss would leave the possibility of a potential four-way tie for the SoCon crown between GSU, ASU, Wofford and Chattanooga.
The stakes are even higher for Appalachian State.
Losing would put the Mountaineers squarely on the bubble for keeping a seven-year run of playoff appearances alive and would also end ASU's hopes of regaining the SoCon title.
Georgia Southern broke a record-tying string of six consecutive SoCon crowns for ASU last season — a record that the Mountaineers share with the Eagles.
Winning this game would put the Mountaineers in position to win the league's automatic bid by beating Furman at home the following Saturday.
But in a game with the tradition of this series, you can likely thrown all of those stats and all of the title and playoff implications away and expect the unexpected to have more impact on the final result than anything tangible.