Kennesaw State (12-2) finished with 352 rushing yards.
Photo: Special to the AJC
Photo: Special to the AJC

Kennesaw State’s rally falls short in FCS playoffs

Trailing by as many as 17 points in the first half, Kennesaw State’s chance to tie Sam Houston State in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs fell short on fourth-and-5 at the 11-yard line with less than two minutes remaining. The Bearkats escaped with a 34-27 victory in Huntsville, Texas, Saturday night.

The loss ended Kennesaw State’s 12-game win streak and its third season of football.

Kennesaw State’s defense, was giving up an average of just 14.1 points per game, forced a three-and-out on Sam Houston State’s first drive, only to surrender 24 unanswered points across the next four possessions in the first half to build a lead that Kennesaw State tried to cut down, but could never get closer than a seven-point deficit with 7:21 left. Sam Houston, which led the FBS in yards per game (558.2), finished with 482 yards.

Kennesaw State’s offense, which was averaging 328.5 rushing yards per game, couldn’t get the B-back going up the middle, and the Bearkats’ speed to the edge continually stopped runs to the edge through most of the first three quarters. The Owls did best their season average, finishing with 352 rushing yards. 

The loss was secured when Kennesaw State tried a reverse to wide receiver Ezra Naylor that was blown up for a loss of four yards on fourth-and-5 at Sam Houston State’s 11-yard line with 1:32 left.

The the Owls were in the position to tie the game was impressive considering their struggles for most of the first half.

Trailing 27-13 despite struggling for most of the first half, Kennesaw State made it a one-score game on a 4-yard touchdown run by quarterback Chandler Burks early in the fourth quarter. The score was set up by a 50-yard run by Shaquil Terry to Sam Houston State’s 4-yard line.

But Sam Houston State needed just seven plays and less than three minutes to take a 34-20 lead with 11:58 remaining on a 9-yard touchdown pass from Jeremiah Briscoe.

Kennesaw State was on the verge of again cutting Sam Houston State’s lead to a touchdown on a 47-yard pass to Trey Chivers to the 3-yard line, but a holding penalty wiped out the long play. 

However, the Owls recovered with Burks finding Justin Sumpter for 23 yards on fourth-and-9 at the 37-yard line. On the next play, Burks threw a swing pass to T.J. Reed, who ran 23 yards for a touchdown to cut Kennesaw State’s deficit to 34-27 with 7:21 left.

Sam Houston State appeared to once again increase its lead to two touchdowns after a 79-yard touchdown pass. But the Bearkats were penalized for offensive pass interference, eliminating the score.

Kennesaw State made the Bearkats pay three plays later when Dustin Clabough intercepted Briscoe on the 41-yard line. It was the first turnover for the Owls, which were second in FCS with 23 interceptions this season.

The interception set up the final failed drive.

After taking a 7-0 lead on an 13-yard run by Darnell Holland, Kennesaw State seemed to be carrying the momentum from week’s upset of Jacksonville State.

But Briscoe, a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, answered with a 61-yard touchdown pass to tie the game.

The Owls continued to make things difficult for themselves on offense and defense early.

A long touchdown run on the Kennesaw State’s next possession was wiped out by a holding penalty. The drive ended with a missed field goal.

Sam Houston State answered with a 16-yard touchdown pass that was really a screen and a series of missed tackles by Kennesaw State that gave the Bearkats a 14-7 lead. The Owls simply couldn’t continue tackling as well as they did in last week’s 17-7 win over the Gamecocks.

On Kennesaw State’s next drive, coach Brian Bohannon elected to go for it on fourth-and-4 at the 46-yard line. The Owls were converting more than 70 percent of fourth downs this season, but Burks was stopped for a loss.

Sam Houston State took advantage of the short field to successfully kick a 22-yard field goal and take a 17-7 lead with 11:38 remaining.

Though Kennesaw State’s offense isn’t as efficient as playing from behind as a passing offense may be, 10 points was still a manageable margin.

But the Owls made yet another error on their next drive – a holding penalty wiped out a first down on a long second-down run by Burks – and they were forced to punt.

The Bearkats drove and scored a touchdown on a Corey Avery dive on fourth-and-inches to take a 24-7 lead with 5:48 remaining in the first half.

After creating some hope with a field goal to end the first half, Kennesaw State opened the second half with Burks throwing his third interception this season.

After forcing Sam Houston State to punt on its first possession of the second half, Kennesaw State methodically drove down the field. The Owls drained more than seven minutes off the clock by converting twice on fourth down in an attempt to turn the contest into a one-score game.

But during a timeout while discussing fourth-and-3 on the 12-yard line, Bohannon was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct, a 15-yard infraction that forced the Owls to kick a 44-yard field goal, which they missed. But Sam Houston State was flagged for holding on the attempt and Kennesaw State got another opportunity, which they successfully converted to cut Sam Houston’s lead to 24-13.