BOONE, N.C. — In the wind, the cold and the snow of Kidd Brewer Stadium on Thursday, 20th-ranked Appalachian State seemingly watched the cotton boll of its Cotton Bowl hopes wither and die on the vine as arch-rival Georgia Southern held on for a 24-21 victory before 18,796 brave spectators and the national-television, Halloween-night audience watching on ESPNU.
The uninspired Mountaineers (7-1 overall, 4-1 in conference) fell behind 24-7 early in the third quarter and came up short with a furious fourth-period comeback as two drives in the final 3:45 stalled and the Eagles (5-3, 3-1) captured a key Sun Belt Eastern Division win.
It was also the second year in a row when Georgia Southern knocked Appalachian from the national polls with an upset victory. The loss snapped the third-longest winning streak in the Football Bowl Subdivision at 13 games (only Clemson and Ohio State had longer streaks) and was the Mountaineers’ first home loss since the 22-21 defeat against Wake Forest in 2017, a span of 14 contests.
Digging Their Own Grave
Running back Wesley Kennedy III’s second touchdown scamper of the evening, covering 68 yards, and quarterback Shai Werts’ 55-yard scoring dash less than three minutes later in the third stanza buried App State in a hole even its usually-potent attack couldn’t dig out of.
ASU wide receiver Corey Sutton (six catches for 67 yards) scored twice in the fourth quarter on receptions of 10 and nine yards as frequently-beleguered quarterback Zac Thomas finished with three scoring tosses and 271 yards, but completed just 25-of-51 passes.
The lack of rhythm offensively on a night where the Mountaineers were limited to 152 rushing yards (76 of them from tailback Darryington Evans on 17 attempts) made playing calling an adventure for first-year head coach Eliah Drinkwitz, who admitted he went to the hurry-up too late in the game.
ASU had marched 92 yards in 10 plays at the end of the first half to score its first touchdown on Malik Williams’ 15-yard snare of a Thomas pass in the back of the end zone. But the fast-templed attack didn’t return until too late in the fourth quarter.
“The game played out, and we had two opportunities to win the game,” Drinkwitz said. “In the final two minutes, we didn’t get it done. So, it wasn’t anything game management or whatever, we had an opportunity to win the game and didn’t get it done.”
Drinkwitz was quick to take responsibility for the narrow defeat.
“That’s on me as a play caller,” he said. “I’ve got to put our guys in a situation to be more successful, and then as players, we have to convert,” he explained. “We have to take advantage of opportunities, and that’s on both sides of the ball. We didn’t get a turnover on defense.”
Georgia Southern actually fumbled the ball away once, but the ball-carrier was ruled down and Drinkwitz inexplicably didn’t throw his challenge flag to force a review of the play. ASU sophomore cornerback Shaun Jolly also dropped a potential interception that could have resulted in a clear path to the end zone, nearly 80 yards away in the first half.
The normally-stalwart Appalachian defense was burned for big plays as its allowed the Eagle triple-option offense to race for 335 rushing yards, led by 145 yards on only 13 carries by Kennedy.
“We just have to do our job on big plays,” said ASU senior free safety Josh Thomas. “You see what happens when we don’t do it, and we didn’t do it on big plays and you see what happens.”
Probably the biggest statistic of the game was on first-down efficiency. Georgia Southern averaged nearly six yards on first down, while Appalachian gained 3.9 yards per try.
But 50 of the 121 yards that the Mountaineers managed on first down were accomplished on that hurry-up drive at the end of the first half. If you remove that one drive, ASU averaged just 2.9 yards on first down and had 14 plays altogether of zero or minus yards on first down.
Special teams also let the Mountaineers down with dependable Chandler Staton missing his 29-yard, field-goal attempt in the third period into a stiff headwind.
Drinkwitz credited Georgia Southern for its consistent, almost-error-free play.
“They played a clean football game, a few penalties and no turnovers,” Drinkwitz said. “They converted their long field goal in the first half. We did not convert our field goal in the third quarter, and at the end of the day, that’s going to be the one that we wished we had back.”
Plenty Of Opportunities Left
Even with the devastating loss, Drinkwitz pointed out that the goal for the season remains the same and within App State’s reach.
The Mountaineers have an opportunity game on Saturday when they travel to South Carolina of the Southeastern Conference for a 7 p.m. encounter at Williams-Brice Stadium on ESPN2. A win would give Appalachian its second victory over a Power-5 conference team this year, adding to the luster of the 34-31 win at North Carolina on Sept. 21.
Further ahead, Appalachian needs to continue focusing on winning the Sun Belt championship again. The Mountaineers are tied in the loss-column of their division with Georgia Southern and Georgia State, but the Eagles have the toughest part of their schedule remaining with games at Troy and Arkansas State and home contests against Louisiana-Monroe and Georgia State.
App State follows up the South Carolina game with a return to conference at Georgia State on Nov. 16, a home encounter with Texas State and a trip to Troy.
The Sun Belt championship game would be hosted by Appalachian, if the Mountaineers can win out and Georgia Southern drops one of its final four games.
“We’ll put this behind us and keep moving forward,” Drinkwitz said. “There’s a lot of season left. There are a lot of things still to play for. Obviously, we don’t control our own fate. (Georgia Southern has) the tiebreaker over us, but there’s a lot of conference games left to be played.”
Things got a little brighter for App State in the bid for a possible New Year’s six bowl game when previously unbeaten and 15th-ranked SMU loss at one-loss Memphis, 54-48. on Saturday night.
Then 17th-ranked Cincinnati (7-1) dodged a big upset bullet by coming from behind for its 46-43 win at East Carolina. One-loss and then-No. 21 Boise State stayed in the hunt with its wild 52-42 triumph at San Jose State.
Navy broke into the top-25 this week by trouncing Connecticut 56-10 to improve to 7-1.
Depending on who wins the conference championships in the American Athletic Conference (Cincinnati, 7-2 Central Florida, Navy, Memphis and SMU are all in contention), the Mountain West (Boise State and San Diego State are both 7-1), Conference USA (Louisiana Tech is 7-1) and the Sun Belt, strength of schedule will likely decide the Cotton Bowl participant in the Group of Five (the Mid-American Conference doesn’t have a team with less than three losses still in contention).
Wins over North Carolina and South Carolina, a return to the top-25 (Appalachian is 27th in voting this week) and a conference title could still vault the Mountaineers to that date in the Cotton Bowl.
“We’ll move forward,” said Drinkwitz. “It’s all about being 1-0 (each week) and all about those things we preach when we win. We have to keep preaching them when things don’t go in our favor, and we have to keep believing in them. That’s what our team will do.”
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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