Last Updated on December 13, 2020 1:24 pm
STATESBORO, Ga. — Jalen Virgil extended his arms above his head to field the line-drive kickoff. While his decision to then take the ball out of the end zone was unexpected, the outcome didn't catch Virgil by surprise.
The latest App State-Georgia Southern rivalry game turned on a timely, “Breakaway” return and a second rapid-fire score.
Overcoming an early 14-point deficit, the Mountaineers dominated the second half Saturday night and ended the Eagles' home winning streak at Paulson Stadium with a 34-26 victory.
“I'm a former player here, I'm the head football coach now, and I know what this game means to me and this program,” head coach Shawn Clark said.
“I told the guys last Sunday that we're going to be judged on how we finish this thing. We're going to be judged if we beat Georgia Southern or not. Those guys came out and really stepped up and met the challenge.”
The Mountaineers (8-3, 6-2) still trailed 17-7 at the break but outscored the Eagles by a 24-3 margin in the first 17-plus minutes of the second half. Immediately after Georgia Southern (7-5, 4-4) made a 47-yard field goal to break a 17-all tie in the first minute of the fourth quarter, Virgil gave App State its first lead of the night with a 100-yard kickoff return.
Demetrius Taylor and Brendan Harrington combined for a stop to force a three-and-out punt, leading to a 70-yard touchdown run from Nate Noel on the first play of the next series, less than two minutes after Virgil had scored.
Virgil also had a 16-yard touchdown catch as part of a night in which he totaled 171 all-purpose yards, as he followed blocks from Tommy Wright, Gabe Montgomery, Tyler Bird and Malik Williams on the third 100-yard kickoff return in program history.
“It was a play I had been waiting on Coach (Brian) Haines, the special teams coordinator, to call,” Virgil said. “It's called ‘Breakaway,' and I faked like I was about to go to the hash and then took it across the field. In my head, I was like, I've been waiting for us to call this the whole game.
“It was kind of a line-drive type of kick, and I thought it was about to go over my head, so I needed to just catch this and see what happens. I haven't returned a kick in a minute, so let me just try it. When I caught it over my head, it probably looked suspect, but I caught it, saw an opening, just took off and used my speed to get there.”
The Eagles used a 78-yard touchdown pass to cut their deficit to 31-26 with 5:23 left — the two-point pass was incomplete — but Virgil's diving catch for a 33-yard gain and Noel's five carries for 22 yards on the drive to set up Chandler Staton's 37-yard field goal with 2:44 remaining.
Georgia Southern had one last chance to tie the game, advancing to its 44-yard line, but Nicholas Ross came away with App State's third interception of the night by easily picking off a deep throw at the App State 19 with 1:42 remaining.
App State improved to 23-5 in Sun Belt road games and snapped a 10-game home winning streak for Georgia Southern, which was 6-0 at Paulson Stadium this season.
“I'm proud as heck of this team and proud to be a part of it,” senior center Noah Hannon said. “I'm happy that we came down here and took care of business. It didn't look pretty at all times, but the fight just kept on going.”
Harrington and Kaiden Smith also picked off passes for the Mountaineers, while Jordon Earle recovered a fumble following a critical strip sack from Nick Hampton in the third quarter. Smith had a team-high 12 tackles, and Trey Cobb added 11.
Noel rushed for 103 yards on 13 carries, breaking free on his touchdown thanks to a perimeter block from Thomas Hennigan, and Zac Thomas' second touchdown pass of the night went to Hennigan.
Trailing 17-7 at the half, App State pulled even in the third quarter on Thomas' 9-yard touchdown strike to Hennigan to open the half and Staton's 33-yard field goal that followed the sack from Hampton, whose forced fumble was recovered by Earle at the App State 43.
App State fell behind 14-0 on a 28-yard interception return and a 14-yard touchdown run from quarterback Justin Tomlin, who missed the second half with an injury and was replaced by Miller Mosley. The Mountaineers began to get back into the game with a 17-play, 65-yard touchdown drive that took 7:27 off the second-quarter clock, and Georgia Southern converted a 33-yard field goal as the half ended.
Virgil's contested catch in the back-right corner of the end zone on a third-and-goal throw from the 16 produced App State's first points with 1:55 remaining before halftime. Despite being in a second-and-16 from its 29, a second-and-16 from the GS 47, a second-and-20 from the GS 41 and a fourth-and-1 from the GS 9 prior to the touchdown, App State had a third-and-8 conversion to Hennigan, a third-and-11 conversion to Hennigan and a 20-yard pass to Henry Pearson on the second-and-20 play before Camerun Peoples converted the fourth-down run from the 9.
Despite the early struggles, the Mountaineers improved their all-time record to 20-15-1 against Georgia Southern, including 4-3 since both programs joined the Sun Belt Conference in 2014. The Eagles had won the last two meetings.
“Me and my senior class, we've been saying all year — How do we want to end? How do we want to go out?” Smith said. “It's different for us because we haven't played without the goal of playing for a (Sun Belt) championship, so I'm proud of these guys for still being motivated and still coming out like that. Even though we were down, we pulled through.”