BOONE, N.C. - Georgia Southern packed plenty of layers for a game where the temperature ultimately dipped into the low 30s.
Georgia Southern also packed its A-game.
The Eagles took on undefeated, 20th-ranked and hated rival Appalachian State on a freezing Halloween night that also featured heavy winds and even some snow. It also featured the Eagles knocking the Mountaineers - presumably - from the ranks of the unbeaten with a monumental 24-21 road victory.
“I’m so proud of our players and our staff,” GS coach Chad Lunsford said. “We had a short week to go and put a plan together. We came out here and executed and attacked.
“We wanted to see who could win if we got them in a 60-minute dogfight.”
For much of the game, it appeared that the Eagles (5-3, 3-1 Sun Belt) had their opponents handled. Wesley Kennedy III powered in from four yards out on the second GS drive of the night. Tyler Bass began the second quarter with a 49-yard field goal perfectly played against a driving crosswind and it was 10-0.
Leading 10-7 coming out of halftime, Kennedy ripped off a 68-yard touchdown run. Just a few minutes later, it was quarterback Shai Werts who was left completely unaccounted for on an option run, springing him for 55 yards and a 24-7 lead.
“We battled out there,” Werts said. “We knew (App) was a good team and that we had to make plays. We saw the defense doing their job out there and we had to do ours.”
Appalachian State (7-1, 4-1 Sun Belt) had been relatively dominant so far, having wrapped up all but one of their previous games well before the final minutes. Much of that was due to an explosive Mountaineer offense that averaged 41 points and 440 yards per game.
Georgia Southern (5-3, 3-1) shut down its rival for three quarters, but there’s a reason why App had its ranking.
Star Mountaineer Zac Thomas had engineered a 92-yard touchdown drive - all through the air - to beat the first half clock. Facing a 24-7 deficit with less than 10 minutes to go in the game, he went to work again. Thomas found Corey Sutton on a 10-yard dart to cut into the lead with 8:22 to go.
A three-and-out by the Eagles put the ball right back in Thomas’ hands and he responded again. He led the Mountaineers into GS territory and converted a 3rd-and-10 with a 22-yard scramble. Two plays later he found Sutton again and it was 24-21.
“You know, they got to us a little at the end, but they were the 20th-ranked team for a reason,” Lunsford said. “We never quit fighting and we were able to get those final stops when we needed them.”
The Mountaineers scored so quickly that they didn’t have to onside kick - and the App defense came through with another quick stop.
But the third time wasn’t a charm for Thomas as Appalachian turned the ball over on downs at midfield.
The Mountaineer defense gave its offense one final chance with a third straight three-and-out and App went to work from its own 16 with no timeouts and just over a minute to go. Thomas converted a pair of third downs as time quickly bled away.
Thomas appeared to find Thomas Hennigan at the GS 40 with nine seconds to play. Wind at the back of kicker Chandler Staton would have put him in range for a potential game-tying field goal, but a review showed that Hennigan lost control before completing the catch.
Trapped on it’s own 41, Appalachian State resorted to a short pass and schoolyard tactics. Hennigan hauled in a pass just over midfield and flipped it to Malik Williams, who shoveled it off to Cooper Hodges. When Hodges was surrounded, a final lateral attempt resulted in an immediate tackle and sealed the Eagle victory.
“This is a special group,” GS linebacker Rashad Byrd said. “We’re in it together. No one does it alone. We work hard as brothers and it’s a great feeling to plan on how to win this game and then see it happen.”
With the victory, the Eagles bring their first win home from Boone since the 2007 season. Following last season’s 34-14 triumph in Statesboro, this also marks the Eagles’ first consecutive wins over the Mountaineers since a four-game run from 2000-2002.
Georgia Southern dropped its Sun Belt opener, but has now rattled off three straight and is tied with Appalachian State and Georgia State in the loss column for the top spot in the Sun Belt’s East division.
The Eagles will get a bit more rest than usual due to the midweek game. They’ll be back on the road next weekend as they square off against Troy.