MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Appalachian State quarterback Taylor Lamb took the final snap and turned toward the sideline to celebrate. A few feet away, running back Marcus Cox dropped to one knee and pointed skyward.
The Mountaineers had just won another Camellia Bowl.
Sweet Home Alabama, the sequel.
App State, which earned a dramatic Camellia Bowl victory last year in its FBS postseason debut, returned to Montgomery and claimed a 31-28 win against Mid-American Conference representative Toledo on Saturday night.
"It's beautiful to go out on top," senior linebacker Kennan Gilchrist said. "I'm almost thinking this is our second home."
The Mountaineers (10-3) never trailed, four times taking a seven-point lead, only to see Toledo (9-4) come back to tie the score on each occasion.
Redshirt freshman Michael Rubino kicked a 39-yard field goal with 5:14 remaining to break the final tie, and App State forced a short field-goal attempt after John Law, Montgomery native Josh Thomas and Myquon Stout stopped backup running back Damion Jones-Moore for no gain on a late third-and-2 carry from the 8.
The Rockets took a five-yard delay penalty, and Jameson Vest's 30-yard kick might have snuck between the uprights from 25 yards out, but officials signaled no good as the ball sailed over the right upright with 1:48 remaining.
“Trying to worry about the angle, (you) let him back up a little bit and trust our players,” Toledo coach Jason Candle said. “If we had to go out and do it again, I’d kick the field goal again.”
Cox was 2 yards shy of posting his fourth straight 1,000-yard season when he sealed the outcome with a 10-yard gain on the first play of the final series. When time ran out, the Mountaineers stormed the field amid cheers from their vocal following.
Cox, who missed almost five full games earlier this season because of a leg injury, also exceeded 5,000 career rushing yards thanks to his 143-yard, one-touchdown effort. Lamb was named the MVP after throwing for 119 yards and rushing for a career-high 126, topping his previous high of 103 yards as a sophomore.
App State reached 10 victories for the second straight year and became the first FBS team to win two bowl games in its first two years of eligibility. Last season, it overcame a 24-7 deficit to beat Ohio 31-29 on a last-second field goal from Zach Matics.
Rubino's field goal delivered a familiar ending to a game that played out much differently, as the Mountaineers committed no turnovers Saturday and avoided falling behind to their MAC opponent.
"It was really a wild game and a very entertaining game for the fans, probably for ESPN and everybody watching," fourth-year App State head coach Scott Satterfield said. "It was a great college football game. When it comes down to the end like that, it takes the small things to win."
Appalachian State forced Toledo into three-and-out punts on five of its first six possessions, but big plays helped the Rockets keep pace.
Lamb accounted for two touchdowns, starting with a 16-yard score on a shovel pass to Deltron Hopkins midway through the first quarter. Toledo tied the game less than two minutes later on the 16th touchdown catch of the season by 6-foot-5, 270-pound tight end Michael Roberts.
The Mountaineers regained the lead on Cox's 13-yard touchdown run, but Toledo pulled even on Kareem Hunt's 26-yard touchdown run with 2:45 left in the first half.
Lamb's 13-yard touchdown run on a fourth-down keeper early in the third quarter gave Appalachian a 21-14 lead that lasted until Toledo quarterback Logan Woodside helped tie the game again with a 4-yard touchdown pass. Moments later, true freshman Darrynton Evans returned the kickoff 94 yards down the right sideline for a touchdown.
"It dropped in front of me, I picked it up, and my man Jaylan Barbour, he picked up a big-time block," Evans said. "From there, it was off to the races."
Woodside's 58-yard completion set up another tying touchdown, this one on a 1-yard run by Hunt in the final minute of the third quarter, and the Mountaineers passed on a chance to attempt a tiebreaking 38-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter.
Bentlee Critcher's incomplete pass on an unsuccessful fake didn't come back to bite App State, as Rubino drilled a field goal from roughly the same distance but the opposite hash mark (the left one) five minutes later. The three-point advantage held up even though Toledo returned the kickoff to its 43 and Hunt gained at least 11 yards on three consecutive rushes to move the ball inside App State's 10.
The third-down stop featured a timely contribution from Law, who battled injuries throughout his senior year and led the team with 11 tackles Saturday.
"This program has meant everything to me," Law said. "I've had a chance to grow up and become a man and learn so many life lessons, learn how to clock in every day and work hard, learn how to play with my brothers and play as a team.
"I learned a lot of stuff before I got here, but I learned a ton more once I got here."
Law arrived at Appalachian State in 2012, and he'll leave as part of a senior class that guided the Mountaineers through a successful FBS transition.
There have been notable team accomplishments to go with individual records, namely Cox's totals as a four-year starter at running back.
He exited the Cramton Bowl stadium field late Saturday night with milestones that meant more because of the victory.
"It's just the best way to go out with this team," Cox said. "We had an incredible team. To send these seniors out with another bowl win and making history, leaving our own legacy, it leaves me speechless."
Appalachian State 31, Toledo 28
Appalachian St. 7 7 14 3 — 31
Toledo 7 7 14 0 — 28
APP–Hopkins 16 pass from Lamb (Rubino kick), 8:31
TOL–M.Roberts 15 pass from Woodside (Vest kick), 6:59
APP–Cox 13 run (Rubino kick), 6:03
TOL–Hunt 26 run (Vest kick), 2:45
APP–Lamb 13 run (Rubino kick), 8:04
TOL–Thompson 4 pass from Woodside (Vest kick), 2:30
APP–Evans 94 kickoff return (Rubino kick), 2:16
TOL–Hunt 1 run (Vest kick), :43
APP–FG Rubino 39, 5:14
First downs 25 14
Rushes-yards 49-297 28-127
Passing 119 247
Comp-Att-Int 14-33-0 18-26-0
Return Yards 124 77
Punts-Avg. 6-32.33 7-43.0
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 0-0
Penalties-Yards 2-21 7-62
Time of Possession 35:44 24:16
RUSHING — Appalachian St., Cox 22-143, Lamb 9-126, J.Moore 16-35, (Team) 1-(minus 3), Lewis 1-(minus 4). Toledo, Hunt 22-120, Jones-Moore 3-8, Woodside 3-(minus 1).
PASSING — Appalachian St., Lamb 14-32-0-119, B.Critcher 0-1-0-0. Toledo, Woodside 18-26-0-247.
RECEIVING — Appalachian St., Lewis 2-24, Hopkins 2-19, Burns 2-19, Meadors 2-18, Cox 2-10, D.Jones 2-9, Letman 1-11, Capel 1-9. Toledo, C.Jones 6-72, Thompson 5-99, Hunt 2-26, J.Johnson 2-22, M.Roberts 2-19, Swanson 1-9.
MISSED FIELD GOALS — Toledo, Vest 30.