ATLANTA — It is hard to believe that 24th-ranked Appalachian State could play so badly early in its Sun Belt Conference football showdown Saturday night at historic Turner Field and still find time to engineer its 56-28 victory over the Panthers.
Trailing 21-7 after Chris Bacon’s 34-yard pick-six near the end of the first period, the Mountaineers (9-1 overall, 5-1 in the SBC) regrouped for 28 points the rest of the half and totally blew out GSU (6-4, 3-3) in the final two quarters.
The primary problem for former Mountaineer defensive star and current Georgia State head coach Shawn Elliott and the Panthers was the inability of the secondary to cover Appalachian’s speedy wide receiver Corey Sutton, who burned the GSU defense for three touchdown receptions. Sutton grabbed eight passes for 173 yards and TDs of 12, 20 and 24 yards.
And the Appalachian defense that gave up 153 yards rushing in the first period, including Dustin Coates’ sparkling 67-yard scoring scamper made the necessary adjustments to limit the Panther attack to 33 yards the rest of the way.
“We started out real slow, there was some confusion,” ASU coach Eliah Drinkwitz said. “Credit to our coaching staff for getting everybody settled down and we just put the brakes on them.”
Sutton turned the tide late in the first quarter with his 20-yard touchdown, running a nifty route across the secondary and hauling in a precision pass from quarterback Zac Thomas (19-of-31 passing for 256 yards and four TDs) to pull App State within seven points.
A 50-yard hookup between Thomas and Sutton on the next ASU drive put the Mountaineers in position to score again, but Chandler Staton missed a field goal from 41 yards.
Undaunted, Appalachian gambled on fourth and one from the GSU three when it got the ball back and Thomas (six carries for 52 yards rushing) squirted into the end zone to tie the game.
Then cornerback Shaun Jolly made the biggest defensive play of the contest, anticipating an outside route for an interception and dashing 30 yards for the touchdown that gave Appalachian State its first lead at 28-21 with 2:18 left in the first half.
“The play before, they ran the same exact route,” said Jolly. “I was ready to jump the same route.”
Jolly intercepted another pass moments later at the GSU 48 and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty kept Appalachian’s offense in business. Thomas ran out of the pocket for 31 yards a play later to set up Darrynton Evans (18 carries, 131 yards and one touchdown rushing) for the one-yard TD pass off a waggle route with 33 seconds remaining on the clock.
“I thought for 26 minutes of the first half, we were in a great contest and were tied at 21 with a great team,” said Elliott, one of the co-captains of Appalachian’s 1995 Southern Conference champion and undefeated regular-season squad. “When you look at some of the bonehead stuff we did … great teams make you pay. We really couldn’t recover emotionally from that.”
Outgunning the Panthers
After trailing by 14 points, the Mountaineers rallied for 49 unanswered points to turn the game into a blowout.
Once that avalanche began, the Panthers couldn’t keep up with its offense limited by quarterback Dan Ellington’s torn ACL. Ellington (12-of-30 passing for 88 yards and one TD) wasn’t announced as a starter until Saturday afternoon and turned in a gutsy performance despite an injury that would have sidelined most players.
“As disappointed as I am talking to you about the outcome of that game, we all witnessed something tonight that was incredible,” Elliott said of Ellington. “He didn’t do it for himself, he did it for the guys in the locker room and for the coaching staff. It is truly a testament to the man the he is.”
But it wasn’t enough against an Appalachian program that is still in contention for a bid to a major bowl game and the Sun Belt championship.
“What a great opportunity for us to come in here and play against a great football team,” said Elliott, who served as an assistant for 13 seasons under College Football Hall-of-Fame coach Jerry Moore at his alma-mater. “That is a good football team. They are well-coached and do things the right way. You see why they are a top-25 team.”
David Coulson is an executive editor for the College Sports Journal, and has covered college football for over 40 years. Present in the press box during the legendary Appalachian State upset of Michigan, his extensive coverage of Appalachian State allowed him to write about the Mountaineers’ first-ever Division I title in the book
Magic on the Mountain: Appalachian State’s Amazing Journey to the 2005 NCAA I-AA Football Championship.
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