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ATLANTA, Ga. — Facing a two-score deficit after a momentum-swinging touchdown on the road, App State swung back and kept on landing punches.
The 25th-ranked and first-place Mountaineers responded to the early adversity by scoring seven consecutive touchdowns en route to a 56-27 victory against Georgia State on Saturday night.
A defensive touchdown gave the Panthers a 21-7 lead late in the first quarter, but App State (9-1, 5-1) accounted for the next 49 points, with the first 28 producing a 35-21 halftime advantage.
“It's about staying in the fight,” App State head coach Eliah Drinkwitz said. “Every play has a life of its own. No matter what's happened, you have to play this play the best you can. That's what we did.”
During the 49-0 run, the Mountaineers' defense forced seven three-and-outs in nine possessions, and one of the other two possessions in that stretch ended with Shaun Jolly's second interception.
Jolly's second pick followed his tiebreaking interception return for a touchdown late in the first half, and Corey Sutton's three receiving touchdowns were part of a career-high 173 yards on eight catches.
Zac Thomas threw for 256 yards with four touchdowns through the air and one with his legs, while Darrynton Evans surpassed 1,000 rushing yards for the second straight season thanks to a 131-yard night that included two total touchdowns. App State has produced a 1,000-yard back for the eighth straight season, a streak that is tied for second nationally behind the 10 straight from Boise State.
Over the final three quarters Saturday night, after a strong start by the Panthers, the Mountaineers limited Georgia State (6-4, 3-3) to 33 rushing yards on 18 attempts and 140 offensive yards on 42 plays. Jordan Fehr finished with a team-high 10 tackles, D'Marco Jackson recorded a sack and the cornerback tandem of Jolly and Shemar Jean-Charles combined for six pass breakups.
“Our defense was playing a heck of a game, and they were getting stops that we needed,” Thomas said. “The offense was clicking enough to get the scores we needed.”
App State's four-touchdown run over the last 15:09 of the first half closed with Jolly's 30-yard interception return for a score with 2:18 left in the half and another Jolly interception that set up Thomas' 1-yard touchdown pass to Evans with 22 seconds remaining before the break.
After falling behind by 14 points, its second-biggest deficit of the season, App State answered with a five-play, 75-yard drive that ended with Sutton's touchdown reception on a 20-yard pass from Thomas. After a 3-yard run to open the drive, Jalen Virgil gained 22 yards on a reception, Malik Williams had a catch for 15 more yards and Evans rushed for 15 yards to the Georgia State 20.
Georgia State maintained a 21-14 lead until App State scored 21 points in the last 6:20 of the half. A defensive three-and-out meant the Mountaineers needed to go only 55 yards for the tying touchdown, which occurred on Thomas' fourth-and-1 keeper from the 3.
App State's defense officially forced two more three-and-outs in a row, with Jolly picking off a third-and-3 pass in front of the Georgia State sideline and sprinting 30 yards for his second defensive touchdown of the season.
“I was prepared, and the coaches put me in the right positions to make plays, so I had to take advantage of it,” said Jolly, who is from Stone Mountain, Ga. “The previous play they ran the same route, a 5-yard out, and the coaches got on me on the sideline that I had to make a play this time. They ran it to the field (side), same alignment, tight to the line of scrimmage. I knew that coming, and I just had to make the play.”
The Panthers picked up one first down on their next series, but Jolly stepped in front of the intended receiver and made a diving, rolling interception near midfield with 55 seconds remaining in the half. A defensive penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct and Thomas' 31-yard scramble to the 2 led to the short touchdown pass to Evans two plays later.
“That flipped the whole momentum of the game right before the end of the half,” Drinkwitz said. “We had just tightened it up. We get the interception return for a touchdown and get the pick and we score, that's a 14-point swing right there. That's the difference in the ball game.”
Evans opened the third-quarter scoring with a 29-yard touchdown run in which he landed on top of a Georgia State defender but didn't let his knees or elbows touch the turf. In the first five minutes of the fourth quarter, Thomas threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Sutton and Raykwon Anderson scored on a 5-yard run.
Sutton's first touchdown, a 12-yard reception with 5:13 left in the opening quarter, followed Georgia State's first touchdown. A 67-yard touchdown run and 34-yard interception return pushed the Panthers' lead to 21-7.
In addition to his three scores, which increased his two-year total to 15, Sutton also had receptions of 27, 50 and 40 yards.
“I've got a lot of confidence in our coaching staff and Zac and our O-line,” Sutton said, “so I felt just as good as I feel every game.”