Huesman steps in for Thomas, Mountaineers outlast Georgia State 17-13

App+State+senior+wide+receiver+Malik+Williams+reaches+out+to+make+a+55-yard+catch+in+the+third+quarter+that+would+set+up+the+first+Mountaineer+touchdown+of+the+game.+

Samuel Cooke

App State senior wide receiver Malik Williams reaches out to make a 55-yard catch in the third quarter that would set up the first Mountaineer touchdown of the game.

Silas Albright, Sports Editor

In a tightly-contested defensive battle that saw preseason Sun Belt Offensive Player of the year Zac Thomas go down with a late injury, the Mountaineers edged past Georgia State 17-13 on Saturday at Kidd Brewer. 

“It was a big-time college football game here at The Rock,” App State head coach Shawn Clark said. “It’s never easy to win, but we’re going to celebrate this win and get ready for Coastal.” 

Later that drive after Thomas was injured, App State took its first lead of the game on a 10-yard touchdown run from sophomore running back Camerun Peoples with 4:55 to play. 

On Georgia State’s next drive, the Mountaineer defense held strong, forced a stop, and the offense was able to stay on the field for the rest of the game to secure the victory and remain undefeated against the Panthers all-time (7-0). 

Georgia State drew first blood in the game, converting on four third downs on its first possession before capping it off with a 19-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Cornelious Brown IV to wide receiver Sam Pinckney. Pinckney was alone in the corner of the end zone and made the catch to give the Panthers an early 7-0 lead. 

The Mountaineers offense went three-and-out on their first possession of the game, but senior defensive end Caleb Spurlin forced a fumble that junior linebacker D’Marco Jackson recovered to give possession back to App State at midfield. The Mountaineers had a first and goal from the 2-yard line following a defensive pass interference call, but couldn’t punch it in and settled for a 21-yard field goal from senior kicker Chandler Staton. App State forced three fumbles in the first quarter but only recovered one, and trailed 7-3 going into the second quarter. 

The second quarter was mostly a defensive stalemate as the only points came on a 23-yard field goal from Georgia State kicker Noel Ruiz with 11 seconds left before halftime to push the Panther lead to 10-3. The App State defense kept the Mountaineers within striking distance, limiting Georgia State to a field goal after they had a first and goal opportunity from the four yard line with a chance to take a two-possession lead with a touchdown.

The Mountaineer offense struggled throughout the first half, getting out-gained by the Panthers 211-89. App State also seemed to feel the absence of usual No. 1 running back Daetrich Harrington as the run game was held to just 2.1 yards per carry for 41 yards in the first half. 

App State started the second half with the ball, but the drive sputtered to an end before midfield. After the punt from senior Xavier Subotsch, the Mountaineer defense again held strong, forcing a quick three-and-out to get the ball back. 

After a couple of first downs, senior quarterback Zac Thomas lofted a pass to the end zone intended for senior wide receiver Malik Williams, but Georgia State safety Antavious Lane came down with the ball for an interception to give the Panthers the ball back with 6:54 left in the third quarter, leading 10-3. 

After another stop from the defense, Thomas went long for Williams again, this time connecting for a 55-yard gain over the middle to put the Mountaineers 10 yards away from a game-tying touchdown.

Two plays later, junior tight end Henry Pearson caught the first App State touchdown of the day, and Staton’s extra point tied it up at 10 apiece with 46 seconds left in the third. 

On Georgia State’s ensuing possession, Brown connected with Pinckney for a 40-yard gain on a third down that helped set the Panthers up for a 32-yard field goal to take a 13-10 lead with 12:29 left to play. 

After quick three-and-outs by both teams, App State got the ball back with 9:28 to play. Thomas led the offense into Georgia State territory using both his arm and legs before a big hit near the sideline left him on his back, forcing senior backup Jacob Huesman to come in under center. 

“Really, I was just upset at first at the call,” Huesman said. “I thought there needed to be a penalty thrown, but it is what it is and you can’t change that. So from there, I peeked around the corner, I see he’s down, I gotta go.” 

On a critical third and eight, Huesman connected with senior wide receiver Thomas Hennigan for 14 yards and a fresh set of downs at the GSU 22-yard line. Hennigan has been less than 100% healthy for several weeks but hasn’t missed a game of his senior season. 

“That guy represents everything that this program stands for,” Huesman said. “For him to come out and make that kind of play, help me out as a quarterback, he’s just a guy that does the right thing. Not to mention he’s one of my best friends, too.”

Huesman said that play will be “one of the best memories” he’ll keep from his App State career.

After Hennigan’s first down, Peoples finished off the drive with a 10-yard rushing strike to give App State its first lead of the game at 17-13 with under five minutes left to play.

App State sophomore running back Camerun Peoples celebrates after scoring the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. (Samuel Cooke)

“Especially with Zac (Thomas) going down, we’re all a family, so it becomes personal,” Peoples said. “We all just stepped up and Jacob stepped up in a big way.”

On the Panthers next possession, App State sophomore linebacker Nick Hampton and senior defensive end Demetrius Taylor combined for a sack for a loss of seven yards on a Georgia State first down, igniting the crowd and Mountaineer sideline. Two players later, junior cornerback Shaun Jolly broke up a third down pass attempt to force a punt and give the ball back to App State with the lead and only 3:32 to play.

“I feel like on the defensive side of the ball, we’re gonna play our ball,” Jackson said. “We got a standard and we meet it every game. We know what we need to do and we practice it all week, so it shouldn’t be a problem (to) take care of business on that end.” 

The Mountaineer offense was able to bleed the clock out after picking up a couple of first downs.

Thomas finished the day 16-for-22 for 146 yards, an interception and a touchdown through the air. He also rushed 11 times for 36 yards. Huesman completed 3-of-4 passes for 33 yards on the day. Peoples led the rushing attack with 67 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. Tight ends Pearson and sophomore Miller Gibbs combined for seven catches and 62 yards while Williams caught three passes for 60 yards. 

The App State defensive unit totaled nine tackles for loss, nine pass breakups, four QB hurries, three forced fumbles and three sacks in the game while holding the Panthers to their second-lowest point total of the year. 

“Every single time we brought pressure, their quarterback didn’t want anything to do with it,” Jackson said. “He just kept on trying to get rid of it really quick, so we knew we had to get our blitzes there on time and be able to hit home real quick.” 

Junior linebacker Trey Cobb finished with a team-high 11 total tackles. Jackson recorded nine total tackles, including two for loss and one sack while also registering two pass breakups and a QB hurry. Taylor finished with seven total tackles, including 3.5 for loss and one and a half sack. He also had a QB hurry and forced a fumble. 

“Winning is winning. At the end of the season, they don’t care if it’s 17-13 or 28 to nothing, a win is a win,” Clark said. “We have a lot to improve on and a lot to get corrected, but we’re not going to take away from this win.”

The Mountaineers (6-1, 4-0) will next be in action Nov. 21 when they travel to Conway, South Carolina to take on the undefeated No. 15 Chanticleers of Coastal Carolina (7-0, 5-0) in an important Sun Belt East division matchup. Kickoff is set for noon and will air on ESPN2 or ESPNU.