CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Jason Hunter returned a fumble for a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter and Appalachian State won its first I-AA national championship by beating Northern Iowa 21-16 on Friday night.
The Mountaineers (12-3) trailed most of the game and struggled offensively with starting quarterback Richie Williams, the Southern Conference offensive player of the year, playing through an injury.
Both teams were in the title game for the first time, and Northern Iowa (11-4) appeared to be en route to the trophy until the fourth quarter.
Northern Iowa, a Gateway Conference team that lost 38-3 to Illinois State on Oct. 22,, was ahead 16-14 when Appalachian State's Marques Murrell sacked Eric Sanders and forced a fumble at the 15. Hunter picked it up and ran in for a touchdown — his third defensive score of the season — to give the Mountaineers the lead with 9:14 remaining.
Neither team could score afterward, and the Mountaineers sealed it with a first down with 1:36 remaining. Their fans clad in black and gold mobbed the field as time ran out.
Appalachian State kept the game close despite having two turnovers in the first half, but the Mountaineers' defense held Northern Iowa to a field goal after a fumble and two other field goals on early drives.
Trey Elder started in place of Williams as expected and played all of the first half except the final play when Williams came in to throw a long pass that was broken up in front of the goal line.
Williams strained a tendon in his left ankle early in last week's semifinal win over Furman. He ran for 1,009 yards this season but he limped around the field Friday night and finished 10-of-26 for 129 yards.
Appalachian State's Zach Johnson had six catches for 101 yards.
The Mountaineers were held to 46 yards rushing. Northern Iowa's David Horne had 102 yards rushing on 22 carries.
Sanders, a sophomore who joined the Panthers as a walk-on, went 17-of-31 for 181 yards.
Northern Iowa was ahead 16-7 at halftime, but Appalachian State cut it to two points in the third quarter when Williams directed a TD drive that was capped by Kevin Richardson's 1-yard run.
The Panthers scored 10 points in the second quarter following turnovers.
Northern Iowa's Tanner Varner intercepted a pass by Elder at the Appalachian State 41, and Horne scored a touchdown from 2 yards out five plays later.
Brian Wingert made his third field goal of the game, a 31-yarder, for Northern Iowa after Appalachian State's Trey Hennessee fumbled.
The Mountaineers briefly had the lead, 7-6, after Richardson's 5-yard run in the beginning of the second quarter.
Wingert put the Panthers on the scoreboard first with a career-best 50-yarder and a 26-yarder in the opening quarter.
The game drew the largest crowd since it has been held in Chattanooga starting in 1997. Attendance was 20,236, about 430 fans short of a sell-out.