By BJ Bennett
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SouthernPigskin.com Senior Editor B.J. Bennett talks about Saturday's Appalachian State-Georgia Southern game, which was a battle for the ages.
By B.J. Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com Senior Editor
SouthernPigskin.com Senior Editor B.J. Bennett talks about Saturday’s Appalachian State-Georgia Southern game, which was a battle for the ages.
I’ve been to so many football games, they often blend together like rain drops in a puddle. I’ve been to Orange Bowl games, conference championship games, seen #1 play #2, been on the sidelines for some of the most storied rivalries in college football history. I’ve seen games from the upper deck, from the 50-yard line and from the press box. I’ve been bundled in a blanket with freezing temperatures, I’ve been shirtless in the sweltering sun. On a chilly, overcast afternoon in Statesboro on Saturday, I saw a game that stands out above most of the rest.
SouthernPigskin.com took three people to the Appalachian State at Georgia Southern game and did so because we were expecting something special. Heading into Saturday, the series record between the two rivals was tied at 11-11-1. It’s fitting that a one point victory pushed the series in the Mountaineers’ favor. With the Eagles having won in Boone last season, Appalachian State came to Paulsen Stadium looking for revenge. After losing their last two home games in overtime, Georgia Southern was looking for redemption. The motivations were obvious.
Midway through the first quarter, another staff member leaned over and mentioned how evident it was that these teams were evenly matched and how he thought the game was destined for overtime. With under 2:00 to play in the fourth quarter, Appalachian State leading 37-34 and Georgia Southern deep in Mountaineer territory, his hunch seemed to be right. Then a wild set of events came into play. An interception, followed directly by a safety, gave the Eagles the ball back with a minute left to play down just one point. After eight lead changes, 880 yards of total offense, 50 first downs, a punt return for touchdown, a fourth quarter kickoff return for touchdown that was called back due to injury and a game that left a stadium full of people nearly speechless, the score finally held: Appalachian State - 37, Georgia Southern - 36.http://sports.espn.go.com/photo/2007/0901/ncf_a_moore_275.jpg
“This is a rivalry, so this one is always going to be crazy. The three years I’ve been here, all three of them have been crazy,” ASU quarterback Armanti Edwards stated. “It’s hard to rank them all, but as far as the toughest one, it has to been in the top five.”
Veteran coach Jerry Moore, who has been the head coach in Boone since 1989 and has seen as much football as any coach in the game, felt similarly.
“It’s in the top ten, I can tell you that,” he said. “It was a great football game. I’m hoping that that was the game that we needed to put it all together when you had to do it.”
Moore praised his team for stepping up in clutch situations, showing resolve and playing with determination. That’s what championship teams do.
“We made some mistakes, just like they did, but we played hard enough to overcome them. That’s what we needed to do because you are not going to go out there and play against a ball club like them and play perfect,” he added. “You have to accept some adversity every once in a while in a ball game like that and then be able to bounce back from. We just kept coming, kept coming, kept coming.”
As Edwards knelt down, slid down rather, to end this game, he not only secured one of the wildest victories arguably in SoCon history, but also rejuvenated and maybe even fortified the three-time defending champions.
“It shows how good we bond with each other. We could have easily broke down. When they got the long ball, then came down here and threw the interception about two or three plays later. We could have broke then,” Edwards said, referring to how his defense responded after giving up a long pass.
The victory was filled with storylines for the Mountaineers. Edwards scored five total touchdowns. Walk-on Josh Johnson, who was given the game ball, had 83 total yards. Sophomore receiver CoCo Hillary caught a pass from Edwards which converted a key fourth down, which led to a touchdown, in the fourth quarter.
“It’s exciting, because you are thinking about how you contributed to that touchdown or contributed to that first down. It’s a good feeling, especially with it being here at Georgia Southern with the atmosphere,” Johnson beamed.
For the Eagles, the loss was a difficult one. In their last three home games, Georgia Southern has lost two overtime games and a one-point thriller, all league games.
“Give us four points either way and we are a top team in the nation I think, I think we are still the top team in the nation. Our record and the wins might not show that. I don’t think that anyone would say we aren’t a good team. A break here or there and we would be ranked with the App State’s, Elon’s and the Wofford’s,” said an emotional Raja Andrews of GSU after the loss. “It’s disappointing, but at the same time we know we have a good team and we still have a lot more games to play and we will see how the outcome is at the end of the season.”
One of the Eagles’ biggest rivals, ASU quarterback Armanti Edwards, had high praise for his opponent.
“This is a great team, actually. All three games they have lost in the SoCon combined have been by maybe seven points total. So they easily could be 4-0 in the SoCon right now,” Edwards acknowledged.
Moore could identify with the situation GSU head coach Chris Hatcher is now in, as his Eagles (1-3 in SoCon play) very nearly weathered the storm against 2nd rank Appalachian State.
“I’ve been there. There will be several teams that won’t be as good as Georgia Southern,” Moore said in reference to the playoffs. “All of us coaches are wanting to increase the numbers, 16 to 24 possibly. If there were that, they could still have the same season they are having right now and still have the possibility to be in.”
Ah, the beauty of a playoff system.
“We were that way in 2004. If we would have gotten into the playoffs in 2004, I think we would have won the national championship. I think we were better in ’04 than we were in ’05. But we didn’t even get in the playoffs. It just happens sometimes. These kids will feed off this, they are young just like we are young,” Moore later said.
This wasn’t a playoff game, but it sure felt like it. With two tremendous teams going back and forth all game long, you would have thought a championship was on the line. There were plenty of empty seats at Paulsen Stadium—because nearly everyone in the overflow crowd of close to 25,000 stood all game long.
“Oh man, this is probably number one,” Appalachian State defensive back Cortez Gilbert said when asked if this was the craziest game he had ever played in. “Just because we are up, then they are up. It’s just like…wow, man, come on let’s go home. Let’s knee it and get out of here. I’ll say its number one, its number one for me.”
The fact that a now 1-3 team can take the three-time champions down the wire speaks volumes about the Southern Conference.
“To me, this is the hardest conference. You hear about James Madison’s conference, but there are a lot of us ranked in the top ten,” Gilbert added. “This is the meat of our season. We are about to play Wofford in a few, Elon in a little bit, we are about to play Chattanooga. We are about to play in some real good games. I think this is the hardest conference.”http://assets.espn.go.com/photo/2007/0902/ncf_g_edwards_195.jpg
The college football heavyweights, the championships, the league depth, the passion; consider the SoCon the SEC without the bright lights.
College football today is a game with 90,000-seat stadiums, press boxes larger than school administration buildings and in-your-face coverage. Part of the foundation of such intensity and fervor is a league that has quietly been cultivating southern college football for decades. The game we know and love literally grew up in the Southern Conference. To find the foundation for ACC and SEC football, you have to go the league’s roots. Saturday in Statesboro, we saw the best football at any level has to offer.
The game was one filled with emotion. On the fourth down on Georgia Southern’s final drive with just seconds to play, someone on the sidelines looked up to the sky and asked Erk for a little assistance. It was that kind of day.
Appalachian State is no newcomer to the big stage. If the Mountaineers win the national championship this season, the seniors will leave Boone with four title rings on their hands. Four years, four championships potentially. Enough said. There have been countless huge conference games the last few seasons, postseason battles with the likes of James Madison, Richmond, Delaware, Massachusetts, Youngstown State, Northern Iowa and many others.
Then there was Michigan. Appalachian State became the first FCS (or 1AA) school to beat a ranked FBS school in college football history. And the Wolverines weren’t just ranked, they were fourth. The road game wasn’t just away from home, it was at The Big House. In that game, there were comebacks, big plays and arguably the most famous block since the Yankee Navy in the Civil War.
With all that in mind, ASU receiver CoCo Hillary, who led the team in receptions with four in the 34-32 win over Michigan last season, echoed the sentiments of his teammate Gilbert about their 37-36 victory over Georgia Southern being the wildest game he has ever been involved in.
“This definitely has to be number one,” Hillary nodded. “A lot of things went down in this one game that go on in a whole season. We came out the victors and there isn’t a greater feeling. I’m telling you it feels good, it feels real good.”
Hail to victors. Appalachian State has heard that before. The Mountaineers’ 37-36 win over Georgia Southern might not have got them on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but on a blustery Saturday in Statesboro, the rain never did fall. Though it came close, neither did the reign.
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