STATESBORO — Georgia Southern's fans had to wait a little longer, but they were ready to storm the field after the Eagles' 51-48 double-overtime thriller to beat their biggest rival, Appalachian State, on Saturday night.
The Eagles got the touchdown they needed when quarterback Kyle Vantrease found a leaping receiver Ezrah Archie in the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown grab. No extra point was necessary as Paulson Stadium's field almost instantly was swarmed with blue-clad fans.
"That was nuts," Vantrease, a sixth-year player in his first season with the Eagles, said of the postgame celebration when much of the announced crowd of 18,683 descended on the field. "Felt it a little against James Madison (an Oct. 15 home victory), but it's a different level when it's against your rival. Never in my life have I ever been a part of a stormed field, let alone two in one season. That's something that I will forever remember."
Archie also will remember making the game-winning catch, which he called a dream come true.
"I've seen this since I was a little kid," he said. "It's something you can't imagine until it happens. I just thank God that it did. It came true for me."
Appalachian State (6-6, 3-5 Sun Belt Conference) had been held to Michael Hughes' 33-yard field goal in the first possession of the second overtime.
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In snapping a three-game losing streak, GS (6-6, 3-5) earned bowl eligiblity with its sixth win and denied six-point road favorite App State, which had two of its six wins over FCS teams and only one counted toward eligibility.
Appalachian State needed only one play to score, as Nate Noel (12 carries, 171 yards, three TDs) found a huge hole to the left side and glided for 25 yards to the end zone. Hughes, who had missed a 30-yard field-goal attempt as time expired in the fourth quarter to leave the teams tied at 38, made the extra point for 45-45 and on to the second overtime.
Here are key takeaways from the culmination of "Hate Week 2022":
Live score updates: Georgia Southern Eagles vs. Appalachian State Mountaineers football
Year One under Helton
Clay Helton's first season at the helm in Statesboro began with enthusiasm, energy and the promise of better football after the 3-9 disappointment of 2021. His Eagles had a solid 3-1 start and for the campaign achieved highlight wins over a Power 5 conference team in Nebraska of the Big Ten and a home victory over then-No. 25 James Madison.
However, after entering the bye week at 5-3 and needing one victory to become bowl eligible, the Eagles lost three straight games going into Saturday night's regular-season finale.
A grueling schedule didn't help with no let-up in opposition. Three of the last four games were at home, and Georgia Southern has enjoyed a historically excellent home-field advantage at Paulson Stadium. But the first three outcomes were not what the Eagles needed, as they lost at home to two of the Sun Belt's better teams in South Alabama and Marshall, as well as a short-week road game at bowl-bound Louisiana.
The regular-season finale was the biggest win yet, and there's a bowl game to play. Bowl game announcements will come after the Sun Belt's championship game next Saturday between Coastal Carolina and host Troy.
Vantrease's final home game
It was another big passing day for Georgia Southern quarterback Kyle Vantrease, a transfer from the University of Buffalo where he was a three-year starter. It was a night the Eagles really needed it, too.
In his final regular-season game operating the Eagles' new, pass-friendly offense, Vantrease was 34-of-51 passing (67%) for 385 yards, three touchdowns and one interception, including the two TDs in overtime.
Archie, a sixth-year transfer out of Monmouth and a walk-on, made his first start and his first career TD catch for GS as big as can be. After one catch in five games, he added five for 71 and the score.
"A great experience," Archie said. "For Senior Day, I couldn't have asked for more."
Linebacker Marques Watson-Trent gave a shoutout to Archie at the postgame press conference.
"Just a guy who stays consistent in his effort and his work," Watson-Trent said of Archie. "I see him night in and night out getting hard work in. He got his opportunity to shine, he shined."
The Eagles finished with 487 yards of total offense, 102 rushing and 385 passing. None of it would have mattered without the game-winning score, which came on a broken play when Vantrease rolled right and saw Archie running a post pattern, then find a gap between defenders in the end zone. Vantrease's lofted a pass just over a defender in front of Archie, who rose up to snare it.
"We had a fun little play called up," Vantrease said. "They covered it pretty well and I escaped the pocket. Ezrah, he's an experienced guy. He knows how to find the open grass on a broken-down play. I saw where he was going and there was just a whole bunch of grass. I wish I'd have thrown it a little higher — maybe a little nervous there for a little bit. But we got the win and that's all that matters."
Georgia Southern nearly defenseless
Appalachian State didn't attempt a punt until Clayton Howell's 38-yard boot with 9:31 left in the fourth quarter. Howell punted just twice all game.
The Mountaineers' offense kept the Georgia Southern defense on its heels the entire game. They ran when they wanted to run, often through huge rushing lanes where they traveled untouched for five and 10 yards at a clip. A few times, the safeties had to make touchdown-saving tackles.
In the regulation four quarters, App State totaled 608 yards of offense, 355 on the ground and 253 through the air. The final tallies including the two OTs were a 629 total, 376 rushing and 253 passing.
Making the Mountaineers settle for a chip-shot field goal might have felt like the closest thing to a defensive stop.
Kicker Michael Hughes made field goals of 22, 37 and 24 yards in regulation.
The Eagles entered the game near the bottom of the FBS in total defense (129th of 131 teams at 484.1 yards per game), rushing defense (129th at 227.6 ypg) and passing defense (104th at 256.5 ypg).
Yet despite all of the offensive production for Appalachian State, the game was tied at 38 in the fourth quarter.
A true team effort
Georgia Southern relied on its depth to fill positions and reserves during the game.
The list of those missing in action due to injuries included running backs Jalen White (knee) and Gerald Green (stinger), wide receiver Marcus Sanders Jr. (turf toe injured vs. Marshall), and defensive lineman LJ McCloud (foot). True freshman OJ Arnold got the start at running back and after the first series was on the sidelines for the rest of the game. Clay Helton said that Arnold rolled an ankle on the opening kickoff.
That doesn't include those already lost for the season in recent weeks, such as receivers Derwin Burgess Jr. and Amare Jones, long snapper Mark Langston and defensive lineman Latrell Bullard.
Junior running backs AJ Brown (14 carries, 62 yards, one TD) and Tyler Jordan (six, 11, two TDs), both walk-ons, scored their first career touchdowns, as did Archie and redshirt freshman tight end Evan Lester (three, 11).
The war of attrition forced bigger roles for less-experienced players, and they had to come up big in the biggest game of the year for the Eagles.
"We always say you never know when your opportunity is going to come," Helton said at the postgame press conference. "For us as coaches, you have to have the discipline to coach everybody each and every week because you don't know when it's going to be that next man's turn.
"Sometimes the light comes on in Game 1, sometimes it comes on in November. Sometimes it comes in the last game," said Helton, noting the contributions of players Saturday including Archie, Brown, Jordan and "a bunch of guys" including third-string long snapper Gaines Wood.
"You could write a fairy tale about it," Helton continued. "I'm so proud of this staff and these kids for preparing like starters each and every week, and waiting for their opportuinty. That's a story Ezrah will be able to tell forever, because you never give up on yourself, you always prepare and be ready for your teammates and your brothers. Tonight, he was."
When the Georgia Southern defense isn't containing the opposition, the GS offense has little wiggle room in its performance. The Eagles could hardly afford to turn the ball over.
On the first drive of the game, Vantrease fumbled when ASU's Andrew Parker pried the ball loose and recovered it.
In the fourth quarter with 11:39 showing on the clock, App State linebacker Logan Doublin was in pass coverage when he snared a ball intended for Khaleb Hood.
The first turnover resulted in three points for ASU. The second turnover was not converted into points.
But the GS defense stopped ASU twice on fourth down, including at the goal line in the first half, and once in the fourth quarter.
"The fourth-down stops were huge," Helton said. "It's really the difference in the game. Each one of them was in the red zone. Each one of them, one field goal (made) ends the game. They showed up and made some huge stops for us."
Nathan Dominitz is the Sports Content Editor of the Savannah Morning News and savannahnow.com. Email him at email@example.com. Twitter: @NathanDominitz
This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Georgia Southern Eagles football plays Appalachian State Mountaineers