Kennesaw State stays alive in FCS playoffs

Kennesaw State’s championship plan is coming together nicely.

Behind a smart game from quarterback Chandler Burks and an amazing effort on defense by Bryson Armstrong, the Owls upset No. 3-seed Jacksonville State 17-7 on Saturday in the second round of the FCS playoffs, accelerating coach Brian Bohannon’s goal of building an annual championship contender.

The Gamecocks, a lower-level power with 18 appearances in the playoffs, including six on the FCS level, featured one of the better running backs and rushing defenses in FCS this season, but the Owls, in just their third season of football, bettered them strength on strength.

The Owls rushed for 213 yards, including 76 by Burks to go with 126 yards passing, and held the Gamecocks’ Roc Thomas to 74 yards on 17 carries.

“Wasn’t always pretty at times, but we found a way and that’s just who we are,” Bohannon said.

It was the Owls’ third consecutive win over a ranked opponent in as many weeks. They will go for No. 4 next week when they face No. 6 seed Sam Houston State in the quarterfinals.

Here are five observations about the game:

Strength vs. strength. Kennesaw State entered Saturday with the best rushing attack in FCS, averaging 338.2 yards per game. During the season, the Owls had used its spread-based option to out-rush opponents by almost 3,000 yards (4,058-1,164) and 29 touchdowns (37-8).

Jacksonville State entered Saturday with the No. 2 rush defense in FCS, allowing an average of just 63.1 yards per game. The Gamecocks had tied a school record by holding eight of their 12 opponents to 100 rushing yards or less.

The Owls found the going tough early, posting just 71 yards on 20 carries in the first half with a long run of 16 yards by Shaquil Terry that later resulted in a field goal. Bohannon said Jacksonville State’s defense came out in a look the coaches hadn’t before seen, and it took them time to adjust.

But Kennesaw State rushed for 142 yards in the second half and controlled the clock for almost 22 minutes, forcing the Gamecocks into things they didn’t want to do.

“It’s a little demoralizing when it’s 3 yards, 4 yards, it’s not like it was a big play,” Bohannon said. “We didn’t have much of a choice today. Big plays weren’t going to happen against this crowd.”

The three big drives on offense. Kennesaw State got its running game going on the first drive of the second half. Helped by a 43-yard kickoff return by Darnell Holland, the Owls drove 48 yards on eight plays to take a 10-7 lead on a 9-yard touchdown by Holland on fourth-and-1. Kennesaw State rushed for 24 yards on the drive.

Two possessions later, Kennesaw State started on its 28-yard line with 5:44 remaining in the third quarter.

The Owls flattened the Gamecocks on the drive, bleeding the clock into the fourth quarter and taking a 17-7 lead on a 2-yard touchdown run by Burks three seconds into the fourth quarter. Kennesaw State racked up 61 rushing yards on the drive, with its longest play a 13-yard rush by Terry that was pulled back because of a holding penalty.

The third important drive didn’t result in points, but Kennesaw State did bleed almost five minutes off the clock in the fourth quarter on a drive that started on its 8-yard line with 12:41 remaining. The drive included a 26-yard pass from Burks to Justin Sumpter on second-and-13 on the 5-yard line. 

“Once the offense settled down a little bit, things started opening up a bit for us,” said Burks, who has now passed for at least 1,000 yards and rushed for at least 1,000 this season. He’s the first quarterback in Big South History to accomplish that. He said that was “cool.”

Jacksonville State eventually forced a punt, but didn’t get the ball back until there was 7:50 remaining and still trailing by 10.

“They made us press,” Jacksonville State coach John Grass said. “Especially the last two times we had the ball, the last three times.”

The big stop on defense. The Gamecocks were unable to do much on their ensuing drive.

Facing second-and-10 on the Owls’ 40-yard line, quarterback Bryant Horn was under pressure and overthrew an open receiver running into the clear in front of Kennesaw State’s sideline.

Left tackle Justin Lea was flagged for a false start on third down, putting even more pressure on a Jacksonville State offense that seemed out of ideas without Thomas.

That pressure grew more intense when Horn was sacked by Peyton Moore for a 6-yard loss to set up fourth-and-21 on the 49-yard line with slightly more than 5 minutes remaining. Forced to go for it because of the 10-point deficit, and Kennesaw State’s ability to eat up the clock, Horn’s pass fell incomplete near the end zone on fourth down.

Stopping Thomas. To have any chance at victory, Kennesaw State needed to contain Thomas, a running back who was named the Ohio Valley Conference offensive player of the year. Running behind an offensive line that included five all-conference players, Thomas, an Auburn transfer, ranked 11th in FCS with 12 rushing touchdowns and was second in the OVC in rushing yards (991) and all-purpose yards (111.45). 

Kennesaw State did a decent job bottling up Thomas, but he still showed his skill by fighting for extra yards on every play, and it seemed he was just a desperate ankle or shoestring tackle away from breaking a long run on many carries.

“When you have 11 black hats around the ball, you’ll have a pretty good chance to get him on the ground,” Bohannon said.

Thomas finally broke through with a 22-yard touchdown run to give the Gamecocks a 7-0 lead with 4:20 remaining. On the preceding play, fourth-and-1 at the 25-yard line, Thomas lined up as quarterback and plunged into the left side. It appeared that the Owls stopped him short, but Thomas fought through the pile to pick up three yards, the first down, and set up the touchdown run.

But the senior did next to nothing in the second half because he didn’t get to play after taking a shot to the kidneys sometime in the first half. He totaled just six yards in the second half on four carries.

Armstrong was one of the reasons why, finishing with a team-leading 11 tackles, including eight solo.

What’s next. The Owls’ two senior starters, defensive end Tonarius Portress and linebacker Izzy Sam, will get at least one more game. 

Sam Houston State defeated South Dakota on Saturday, and Kennesaw State will play the Bearkats in Huntsville, Texas, on Friday or Saturday.

“We are still playing,” Bohannon said. “This time of the year, that’s your goal. You find a way to survive and advance.

“We will reload and see if we can survive and advance next week.”

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