A windy and spooky Halloween night included plenty of rain, flurries of snow and a rare home setback for App State.
The first-place and 20th-ranked Mountaineers became the last Sun Belt team to suffer a league loss in 2019, as Georgia Southern used two long touchdown runs early in the second half to gain separation before holding on for a 24-21 victory Thursday night at Kidd Brewer Stadium.
App State receiver Corey Sutton’s touchdown catches with 8:22 and 4:47 remaining cut the deficit from 17 points to three, and the Mountaineers had possession twice in the final four minutes. A fourth-and-4 pass from midfield fell incomplete to end one series with 2:16 left, and App State got the ball back at its 16 with 1:10 remaining but no timeouts at their disposal.
The game ended with a completion and multi-lateral effort near midfield.
At 7-1 overall and 4-1 in the conference, App State is a half-game ahead the Eagles (5-3, 3-1) and Georgia State (6-2, 3-1) in the Sun Belt standings. The Mountaineers return to action next weekend with a Nov. 9 night game at South Carolina on ESPN2.
“We’ll move forward,” App State head coach Eliah Drinkwitz said. “It’s all about being 1-0 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.”
Thursday’s result ended a 14-game home winning streak for App State, which had won its last 16 home games against Sun Belt competition since a midweek loss to Arkansas State in 2015.
Akeem Davis-Gaither led App State with 16 tackles, and Zac Thomas completed 25 of his 51 pass attempts for 271 yards and three touchdowns with wind gusts topping 40 mph at The Rock. Malik Williams (eight catches), Sutton (six catches) and Thomas Hennigan (six catches) all had between 67 and 89 receiving yards.
“The locker room is pretty tough, but we’ll bounce back and be fine,” senior captain and safety Josh Thomas said. “We have to move on. We didn’t go 1-0 this week, but that doesn’t mean we can’t go 1-0 next week. That’s all we have to focus on.”
Zac Thomas needed less than two minutes late in the second quarter to direct a 10-play, 92-yard touchdown drive, which ended on Williams’ 15-yard touchdown pass with just six seconds left in the half, but Georgia Southern quickly turned a 10-7 lead into a 24-7 advantage thanks to Wesley Kennedy III’s 68-yard touchdown run and Shai Werts’ 55-yard touchdown run in the first five minutes of the third quarter.
The Mountaineers cut their deficit to 24-14 on Thomas’ 10-yard touchdown pass to Sutton midway through the fourth quarter. After an unsuccessful onside kick, App State regained possession with 6:05 left thanks to D’Marco Jackson’s third-down stop and safety Josh Thomas’ tackle for just a 2-yard gain on Werts’ fourth-and-3 keeper from the Mountaineers’ 38.
Zac Thomas’ 22-yard keeper and Marcus Williams Jr.’s 20-yard run to the Georgia Southern 9 set up Sutton’s acrobatic touchdown catch with less than five minutes left to cut the Eagles’ lead to 24-21.
App State responded with another three-and-out, starting with Noel Cook’s first-down tackle and a second-down stop from Davis-Gaither and Trey Cobb. Davis-Gaither batted down Werts’ third-down pass, forcing another punting situation, and the Mountaineers took over at their 28 with 3:45 left.
Darrynton Evans rushed for 16 yards on first down, but the drive stalled at midfield. On the final series, it appeared App State completed a pass to the Georgia Southern 38 with 12 seconds left, but a video review confirmed that the ball hit the ground.
“Coach always says to keep swinging, and that’s what we did tonight,” Hennigan said. “We ran out of time at the end.”
Georgia Southern jumped ahead on Kennedy III’s 2-yard touchdown run with four minutes left in the first quarter and Tyler Bass’ 49-yard field goal into a swirling headwind early in the second quarter. It marked the first deficit of more than seven points this season for the Mountaineers.
Trailing 10-0 and taking over at its 8-yard line with less than two minutes remaining before halftime, App State came to life as Thomas went 8-for-9 passing for 76 yards on the scoring drive. Williams made three catches for 41 yards on the series.
Evans’ 16-yard run, Sutton’s 11-yard reception and tight end Collin Reed’s 9-yard gain to the App State 44 took the clock under a minute.
A 10-yard completion to Williams and 7-yard pass to Hennigan led App State to take another timeout with 32 seconds left, and there were still 20 seconds remaining after Hennigan and Williams ran out of bounds to cap gains of 8 and 16 yards, respectively.
Thomas rolled right and fired a strike to the front-right corner of the end zone, where a stationary Williams kept both feet in bounds as he reached beyond the field to secure possession while then falling to the turf. Replay confirmed that his 15-yard catch would count with just six seconds left in the half.
The halftime break halted any momentum, and App State’s late rally fell short.
“We still have a lot of ballgames left to play,” Thomas said. “We have to go 1-0 each week like Coach Drink preaches and try to do the little things right and keep fighting.”
In addition to the nonconference game against South Carolina, App State still has conference games left against Georgia State, Texas State and Troy. Georgia State and Georgia Southern haven’t played each other yet, either.
“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. They have the tiebreaker over us, but there’s a lot of conference games left to be played.”