Scott Fowler

On a night that could’ve been special, App State didn’t look deserving of the Top 25

I traveled to Boone on Halloween night to watch the 20th-ranked team in the country and try to figure out how good Appalachian State really was.

The answer, at least on Thursday: Not good enough.

The Mountaineers lost for the first time in 371 days, falling 24-21 to a Georgia Southern team that first bullied App State (7-1) at the line of scrimmage and then held off a furious comeback.

It was a weird night in a lot of ways, not the least of which was App State losing its 13-game winning streak inside its home stadium to a team that completed exactly one pass the entire game. One!

Snow flurried down for about half the game, without sticking, and yet leaves were falling at the same time. So it was fall and winter simultaneously.

And the wind was gusting at up to 40 mph and whipping hard after one Appalachian fourth-quarter touchdown as one of the flag-bearers attempted to run a flag around the field as usual to celebrate. Instead, the wind wrapped the flag completely around the goalpost crossbar, bringing the whole maneuver to a dead stop.

Unpredictable weather is partly what Boone is known for, as well as for a football team that has dominated the Sun Belt Conference for years.

But on this night, against a backdrop that the Mountaineers should have been familiar with, App State looked nothing like a team that should be ranked in the Top 25.

Not No. 20, not No. 25, not anything. Not now.

The Mountaineers also almost surely lost their chance at the Cotton Bowl in this upset — the spot that goes to the highest-ranked “Group of 5” conference championship team at the end of the season. And, at least temporarily, they have lost their chance to control their own fate in the Sun Belt.

App State, a 15-point favorite in the game, had its chances. But those chances were short-circuited by some poor execution and a game plan by head coach Eli Drinkwitz that was too conservative early. By the time Drinkwitz finally “threw caution to the wind,” to use his phrase, Georgia Southern led 24-7 and there was only 10:38 remaining in the game.

By then, Drinkwitz had already punted three times in spots where I would have gone for it on fourth down. One of those came on fourth-and-8 at the Georgia Southern 12, trailing 24-7 with most of the third quarter gone. Drinkwitz ordered a 29-yard field goal into that howling wind, which Chandler Staton then missed.

Still, App State’s last-gasp comeback nearly worked. Its defense, gouged for 335 yards rushing by a Georgia Southern offense that walked straight out of the 1940s, stepped up with four consecutive drives at the end of the game where the Eagles didn’t get a single first down.

The Mountaineers brought the score back to within 24-14 and then 24-21, then got the ball back at their own 28 after another clutch defensive stop, with 3:45 left and two timeouts. Plenty of time. The stadium rumbled.

Then came the poor execution. With a second-and-7 at his own 47, quarterback Zac Thomas ran for three yards on one scramble and threw uncatchable passes on the final two downs.

The Mountaineers actually got the ball back one time after that, but there was too little time. Wide receiver Malik Williams dropped a great throw at the Georgia Southern 38 and App State ran out of time on a desperate multi-lateral play at around midfield.

It was a desultory App State performance, at home, against a three-loss Georgia Southern team that is talented in a few ways but limited in a number of others.

“It hurts,” said Thomas, who threw three touchdown passes but also completed fewer than half of his passes (25 of 51) in that gusty wind. He was hurt by drops, too.

“It really sucks,” safety Josh Thomas said. “I’m not going to lie to you.”

There was some symmetry to the loss.

App State’s most recent defeat had come on Oct. 25, 2018, also on a Thursday night and also against Georgia Southern. The Mountaineers were ranked then, too. They recovered from that 34-14 loss to win six straight games, the conference and a minor bowl game.. That’s now the best-case scenario for this team.

App State has the chance for another big non-conference win — joining the one it already grabbed against North Carolina on Sept. 21 — when the Mountaineers play at South Carolina on Nov. 9.

But it won’t win that game playing anything like this. The Mountaineers were a little bit like that snow/leaves combination Thursday night, looking like they weren’t sure what they wanted to be.

The Halloween result? A loss that will haunt App State’s season.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.