Kennesaw State grows up fast, wins Big South championship

2:20 p.m Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017 State Report
Kyle Hess/Kyle Hess/KSUOWLS.com
Kennesaw State coach Brian Bohannon and his Owls celebrate rout of Monmouth and the school's first conference championship. (Kyle Hess/Kennesaw State)

The Turnover Plank was practically worn to a toothpick Saturday. There have been Olympic relay batons passed between fewer hands than that poor piece of motivational lumber was during this single afternoon.     

The cheerleaders spent far more energy celebrating touchdowns than making statements during the national anthem.   

At a place where they underscore each first down by the home team with a loud hoot, Fifth Bank Stadium on Saturday sounded like an owl prison riot by the time Kennesaw State (26 first downs) had finished the biggest victory of its brief existence.

Could they?

In only their third season of competitive life, could the Owls beat New Jersey’s Monmouth University, win a tenth consecutive game and earn an automatic place in the 24-team FCS playoffs?

They answered by overwhelming Monmouth 52-21, in an exhibition of competence and confidence far beyond their years.  

Wood they?

Oh, yeah. They brought the wood, bringing out the Turnover Plank five times in celebration of a school-record number of takeaways.

Kennesaw State football, though, made clear Saturday that it is more than the goofiest idea ever to tumble from the ear hole of a college kid’s helmet. More than a piece of wood with a crude face scrawled upon it. An almost comic riff on Miami’s turnover chain. A piece of construction waste treated as a holy tablet.  

(Still, Kennesaw State quarterback Chandler Burks was moved to say, “That plank is creating a turnover frenzy.” Maybe mojo really can parceled out by the board foot.)

KSU also is more than a handful of radicalized cheerleaders, four of whom carried their hyper-publicized national anthem protest to this, the school’s biggest-ever game.

(Booing four of your own cheerleaders as they knelt during the anthem is the weirdest possible way to start an historic afternoon – and there was a smattering of counter-protest in the seats Saturday. But these days, even the symbols of school spirit are divisive.)      

No, more than all that, Kennesaw State football made clear it is a program to be taken very seriously. As seriously as just about anyone in the secondary level of the FCS can be.

Brian Bohannon, the coach hired in the spring of 2013, whose first coaching office was in a nearby bank and who labored for 30 months in the concept stage before actually playing a game, will be happy to tell you just how serious his players are. 

“These guys put in an awful lot of hard work and did it without necessarily knowing what was going to be at the end of the road,” he said. “They bought into something that was bigger than themselves. They bought into a vision.”

Like the Robin Williams character in the movie, “Jack,” Kennesaw State has aged many times the normal rate. In an environment where the calendar means nothing, where the clocks spin at stopwatch pace, the Owls  went from zero to a conference championship in a relative snap of the fingers.

“We had a plan, but it was never we have to do this by this point. We took the approach about getting better every day. Wanted to lay the foundation in the right way, we never tried to quick-fix anything,” Bohannon said earlier in the week.

“To say things have accelerated a little bit – I think everyone would agree with that. I didn’t know when it was going to happen. I knew we would be older and mature enough in Year 3 to handle things better.”

So quick has been the improvement that the fans have not been able to keep pace. “Maybe some of them are trying to catch up with the thing that has accelerated a little faster than they realize,” Bohannon said this week. Attendance, in fact, has decreased each season since the first. Some of this year’s fall-off has been credited to fallout from the cheerleader protest, which would be a little like avoiding an elevator because you don’t like the music. 

On Saturday, the announced attendance was 6,808, but in actuality, the Owls 8,000-seat house was maybe half full on the day they won their first championship.

Those on hand witnessed a thorough victory. The Owls’ spread-option offense, the one borrowed from Bohannon’s mentor Paul Johnson, put up 405 rushing yards. As if on cue, when informed this was the moment to completely break Monmouth, the KSU offense went on a third-quarter, 96-yard touchdown drive that featured exactly zero passing attempts.

If that didn’t dispirit Monmouth, the five takeaways certainly did. Such pilfering of the good kind has become a Kennesaw State trademark.

Fittingly, quarterback Chandler Burks, KSU’s first signee, led all rushers with 131 yards and four touchdowns. He threw for 114 yards and another score. Faxing in his letter of intent at 7:01 on national signing day, spring 2014, turned out to be a pretty good call.

“He represents our football team not flinching” Bohannon said of his quarterback. “His leadership, his intangibles are through the roof. He’s about as good as I’ve been around when it comes down to all that stuff – and he’s a pretty good football player, too. He represents what we’re all about and how we go about our business.”

OGs, they call the first football class at KSU. As in Original Gangsters. About 40 of them enjoyed scene Saturday.

Earlier in the week, Bohannon had them all stand at the end of a practice and be recognized by those who followed. 

“I asked if they remembered about why they came here,” Bohannon said. “They all had the same answers – we wanted to win championships. We want to build a championship football program. Well, here you got it, you got that opportunity. Now, it’s just going to be what we do with it.” Where a year ago in the same situation the young Owls faltered, this time they betrayed not a single doubt.

As another of the OGs, linebacker Anthony Gore, Jr., put it, “It just feels good to know we built this program, and it came from the ground up. It makes us even more thankful.” 

From here, KSU awaits a first-round playoff pairing and destination – that is announced Sunday, 11 a.m. 

Playing like this, mass producing both offense and takeaways, recommends the young Owls as one dangerous postseason team. 

“We got to regroup and get some guys healthy. We’re going to keep going. We’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing. Don’t know who it will be that we’re playing. To us it won’t matter. It’s the next one,” Bohannon said.

“No moment is too big for us,” Burks said, sounding all grown up.

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