Combined with Samford's 24-17 double-overtime win over Wofford on Saturday, No. 15/14 Appalachian State (7-3, 5-2 SoCon) once again controls its own destiny in the pursuit of its seventh Southern Conference championship in eight years. The Mountaineers can clinch the SoCon title with a win over Furman (3-6, 2-4 SoCon) next Saturday at Kidd Brewer Stadium.
Despite the demoralizing loss, No. 2/1 Georgia Southern (7-2, 6-2 SoCon) backed into at least a share of its second-straight SoCon crown with Wofford's loss.
While Appalachian State's offense and some timely Georgia Southern miscues kept the Mountaineers in the game for much of the afternoon, it was the performance of the Appalachian defense that proved to be the difference down the stretch.
Appalachian, which trailed 14-3 after one quarter and 28-24 going into the fourth, took a 31-28 lead on Tony Washington's acrobatic 23-yard touchdown catch with 11:25 to go in the ballgame.
From there, the story was the Mountaineer defense. After not forcing Georgia Southern's first punt of the ballgame until just 11 seconds remained in the third quarter, Appalachian turned in three-straight three-and-outs down the stretch.
However, the Mountaineers punted back to GSU with 7:46 to go and the Eagles began to methodically move down the field against the Mountaineers' fatigued defense, which was on the field for 38:32 on the afternoon. Georgia Southern converted a pair of third downs on the drive and moved all the way to the Appalachian 22, where it faced fourth-and-four with 1:35 to go.
On the fourth-down play, Tray Butler rushed for what would have been a first down but was aided by teammate Jonathan Bryant grabbing a would-be tackler's facemask. The personal-foul call backed GSU up to the 34 yard line and, not willing to put the game in the hands of 51-yard field goal attempt by place-kicker Alex Hanks (who missed three field goals earlier in the game), Georgia Southern head coach Jeff Monken elected to go for it on fourth-and-16.
Under heavy pressure from Appalachian defensive end and Georgia native Ronald Blair, GSU quarterback Jerick McKinnon heaved up a desperation pass on fourth-and-16 that was intercepted by Mountaineer safety Troy Sanders with 53 seconds left to seal the Mountaineers' sixth victory in its last eight games against Georgia Southern, including three of the last four played at Paulson Stadium.
Although the game will likely be remembered for the heart-stopping finish, the story of the afternoon was Appalachian's offense, particularly the play of junior quarterback Jamal Jackson and freshman wide receiver Sean Price.
Jackson, who sustained a knee injury in the first quarter of last Saturday's win at Western Carolina, torched a Georgia Southern defense that had allowed just 147.8 passing yards per game on the season (good for fourth nationally) for a career-high 383 yards and three touchdowns.
Once again, Jackson's favorite target was Price, who set an Appalachian State freshman record with 231 yards on seven receptions. His dazzling 56-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown was one of the biggest plays of Appalachian's 21-point second quarter while his 67-yard gain on third-and-29 from inside the Mountaineer one yard line in the third quarter flipped field position and set up the Apps' late defensive surge and, ultimately, Washington's go-ahead touchdown early in the final period.
Sanders had 10 tackles, including two for loss, to go along with the game-clinching interception to lead Appalachian defensively. Filling in for regular starter Brandon Grier for the second-straight week, linebacker Karl Anderson also recorded 10 stops, as did fellow linebacker Jeremy Kimbrough.
Kickoff for next Saturday's pivotal regular-season finale versus Furman is set for 3:30 p.m.
NOTES: Appalachian State moved to 4-5 all-time against teams ranked No. 1 in one of the major NCAA Division I FCS polls (media or coaches - Georgia Southern was No. 1 in this week's coaches' rankings) ... the win was Appalachian's first-ever against a No. 1 team on the road ... Price extended his own Appalachian freshman record with his fifth 100-yard game of the season and set a new freshman record with his eighth touchdown reception of the campaign ... Price also holds the school's freshman records for receptions (58) and receiving yards (914) ... Price's 231 yards are good for a tie for fourth in Appalachian's single-game history overall and were the most by any Mountaineer since DaVon Fowlkes' school-record 280 yards against Elon on Nov. 6, 2004 ... freshman Malachi Jones' nine-yard touchdown catch with 49 seconds to go in the second quarter was the first of his career score ... the win was Appalachian's first in a game that it trailed after three quarters since it came back from a 28-14 deficit after three periods at Chattanooga in the 2010 season opener.