- Appalachian State safety A.J. Howard stole the momentum away from Troy. The Trojans still escaped with the upper hand in the Sun Belt Conference title chase.
Howard's improbable defensive touchdown ignited a first-half rally for App State, which took its final lead on a late touchdown run from Jalin Moore, but Troy running back Jordan Chunn's 11-yard touchdown run with just over a minute left lifted the Trojans to a 28-24 victory in a back-and-forth showdown for first place.
The Mountaineers (7-3, 5-1) had one final chance to pull out the road win, but Taylor Lamb's desperate heave on a snap from the Trojans' 38 was batted down in the end zone, prompting Troy players to charge the field and celebrate with their fans.
"It just stinks to come out on the other end of a great game," Lamb said. "I wish we could have gotten this one because we all knew it was a big game. But we have to step up as leaders and finish the season."
Never miss a local story.
Appalachian State, Troy and Arkansas State entered Saturday with no Sun Belt losses. The Trojans (8-1, 5-0) host another standings-shaping game Thursday when the Red Wolves (5-4, 5-0) visit Veterans Memorial Stadium. The Mountaineers don't face Arkansas State this season, meaning they'll need lots of help to possibly earn a share of the title.
Appalachian State and Arkansas State were both undefeated in the Sun Belt when they played last season in Boone, and the Red Wolves' victory forced the Mountaineers to settle for second place in the league.
They were in position to become the front-runner after Moore, who had two touchdowns during a 91-yard performance, scored on a third-and-goal carry from the 5 with 3:29 left.
Troy quarterback Brandon Silvers completed a 43-yard pass to Sidney Davis on a fourth-and-6 play from the Trojans' 46 during the next series. Chunn's touchdown on the following play capped a 129-yard night while sending the home crowd into a frenzy.
Lamb completed four straight passes to help Appalachian reach Troy's 38 in the closing seconds, but the game ended with three consecutive incompletions.
"We knew we were going to have a great college football game tonight," App State coach Scott Satterfield said, "and we didn't disappoint. I think both teams played their hearts out and made great plays."
The Mountaineers were in danger of trailing at least 17-0, possibly 21-0, after one of Troy's seven third-down conversions in the opening half moved the ball to App State's 35.
Howard and linebacker John Law converged on receiver Sam Letton as he bobbled a short pass, and Howard ripped the ball away from Letton before sprinting 71 yards down the right-sideline for a momentum-swinging touchdown.
Letton's inability to ever gain control of the ball could have made the official ruling an interception, but Howard was credited with a fumble return.
"It definitely sparked a little comeback and gave everybody motivation that we knew we could play with these guys," Howard said.
Appalachian ranked No. 2 nationally with 16 interceptions entering Saturday.
Appalachian forced a punt after cutting its deficit to 14-7, and Ike Lewis' 40-yard reception on a third-and-7 pass from the Mountaineers' 24 set up the game-tying sequence. Moore stepped out of one tackle before still-arming another defender on a 32-yard touchdown run with 6:06 remaining in the second quarter.
Troy maintained possession for the rest of the half, marching 49 yards in 15 plays, but Ryan Kay missed a 43-yard field goal as time expired.
The Mountaineers took their first lead early in the third quarter. Lamb's fourth-and-1 keeper from the App State 44 and Marcus Cox's chain-moving run on a third-and-13 play set up a season-long field goal of 47 yards from redshirt freshman Michael Rubino.
Appalachian started its next drive at the Troy 39 thanks to a 13-yard punt. But senior center Parker Collins' late hit moved the Mountaineers back into their own territory, and Silvers broke loose for 51-yard touchdown run on the next possession.
Appalachian had allowed only two defensive touchdowns in its first five Sun Belt games – one against reserves with four seconds left in a 37-19 win over Idaho, the other on a 3-yard drive that followed a blocked punt by Texas State – before Troy scored two in the first quarter and finished with four against the Mountaineers' highly ranked unit.