GREENVILLE, S.C.- For those who attended the 2012 showdown between No.15 Appalachian State and No. 1 Georgia Southern, truly, they were treated to one of the greatest games in the storied rivalry between the two institutions.
Georgia Southern came into the match-up positioned to take the Southern Conference championship outright, while Appalachian State needed to win just to keep any aspirations of a Southern Conference title alive.
The Eagles were ranked No. 1 in the FCS Coaches Poll, while Appalachian State was ranked No. 14/15 in the Sports Network and Coaches Polls, respectively. It was a pairing of two FCS juggernauts, with a combined nine national titles. It was also the final time they would meet with a SoCon championship at stake, as both accepted Sun Belt Conference invitations a few months later.
With quarterback Jamal Jackson playing virtually on one leg, and the Mountaineers entering one of the harshest atmospheres for visitors in all of FCS football, it appeared they were merely participating in a Georgia Southern championship coronation. However, the Mountaineers fought valiantly from the outset.
Appalachian State, which had never defeated a No. 1-ranked foe away from The Rock, came to Paulson Stadium and made history. The Mountaineers earned a dramatic 31-28 win over the Eagles, in the process not only positioning for an eighth-straight FCS playoff bid, but with Samford’s 24-17 overtime win over Wofford, the Black and Gold had a chance to claim a 12th Southern Conference title with a win in the final game at home against rival Furman.
Jackson, a game-time decision to even play, put on one of the more remarkable road performances by a Mountaineer quarterback, hearkening back to Bake Baker’s 1996 performance in a win in Statesboro over Georgia Southern. Jackson finished the afternoon with a career-best performance, connecting on 21-of-34 passes for 383 yards and three scores.
Just as remarkable for the Mountaineers was the performance by redshirt freshman wide receiver Sean Price, who hauled in seven passes for an Appalachian State freshman record 231 yards, which included a dazzling 56-yard TD catch featuring a pair of spin moves. His elusiveness allowed Price to sprint free down the sidelines, finding his way to Paulson Stadium pay dirt. It was part of a 21-point second quarter outburst.
Price also hauled in a 67-yard catch with ASU in the shadow of its own goalposts on a third-and-29 play later in the ballgame that proved crucial.
The big second quarter came after ASU endured a haymaker early on. The Eagles came out with their stout running attack and No. 4 nationally-ranked defensive unit playing like the top team in all of FCS. GSU jumped ahead 14-3 through the first 15 minutes.
The Eagles found the end zone twice in the opening quarter from an unlikely player. William Banks, starting in place of an injured Dominique Swope at fullback, scampered in for scores of four and 20 yards, capping Georgia Southern drives of 58 and 60 yards.
The two scores by the Eagles followed an opening drive by Appalachian State, covering 65 yards in nine plays and capped by Sam Martin’s 28-yard field goal.
The Mountaineers began cutting into the deficit when senior running back Steven Miller plunged in from from a yard out to cap a seven-play, 74-yard drive just a little less than a minute-and-a-half into the second quarter. It was part of 60-yard rushing effort for the afternoon for the senior from Piscataway, N.J.
In true championship fashion, however, Georgia Southern answered to maintain its double-digit lead. Again it was Banks cashing in, finding a crease around the left side of the Mountaineer defense and breaking free for his third scoring run of the afternoon–this one from 36 yards out–to an impressive five-play, 80-yard drive.
The final five minutes of the half, however, belonged to Appalachian. After Price’s dazzling 56-yard catch and run, the Mountaineers trailed by only four, at 21-17, with 3:25 remaining in the half. ASU got the football back one more time before intermission, and the Black and Gold would make excellent use of the possession.
Jackson connected with another freshman wideout, in Malachi Jones, on a nine-yard scoring with just 49 seconds remaining in the half to give the Mountaineers the 24-21 lead going into the half. The lead stood going into the locker room when Alex Hanks missed a 27-yard field goal attempt.
Georgia Southern regained the lead in the third quarter when quarterback Ezayi Youyoute ran it in from 12 yards out.
Youyoute’s scoring run culminated a 12-play, 65-yard drive and took 5:32 off the third quarter clock. The Eagle touchdown would prove to be the only score of the third quarter, and momentum returned to GSU’s side.
The Mountaineers scored what proved to be the winning touchdown early in the fourth quarter, when Jackson tossed his third scoring pass of the day. On this one, he found Tony Washington for a 23-yard strike to the left corner of the end zone. ASU pulled ahead, 31-28, with over 11 minutes remaining.
It was the Appalachian State defense that helped cap the Mountaineers’ first win in Statesboro since 2008. It appeared Georgia Southern was putting together a game-winning drive in the waning moments, after converting a pair of huge third downs. GSU had the ball deep inside Appalachian State territory, at the 22-yard line.
But the ASU defense held its ground, forcing a fourth-and-four situation. Slotback Tray Butler converted what could have been a first down for the Eagles. However, he was aided by teammate Jonathan Bryant’s facemask, and the personal foul penalty brought the ball all the way back to the Appalachian State 34-yard line.
Instead of putting the game in the hands — or on the foot — of field goal kicker Alex Hanks, who had been shaky all season, the Eagles opted to go for it on fourth-and-16. ASU brought a heavy blitz against Georgia Southern quarterback Jerick McKinnon, who heaved a desperation pass into the air as he was hit. ASU senior safety Troy Sanders plucked the ball out of the air, preserving the win for the Mountaineers.
The epic victory over the top-ranked Eagles marked the second-straight season in which ASU had taken down a Georgia Southern team that entered the matchup ranked No. 1 in the nation. It also marked ASU’s fourth win in program history against an FCS No. 1 opponent. The Mountaineers picked up a share of their 12th Southern Conference title — tying a league record — when they edged Furman, 33-28, a week later at The Rock on Black Saturday. The back-to-back nail-biting finishes made for one of the most incredible two-week stretches in program history.