KENNESAW -- Kennesaw State needed a big performance Saturday, and it may have got what it needed with a dominant second half against Gardner-Webb.
The Owls outscored the Bulldogs 28-7 over the final two periods and pulled away for a 42-14 victory at Fifth Third Bank Stadium.
Kennesaw State (10-2, 5-1 Big South Conference) had opportunities to build a bigger lead in the first half, but two turnovers, penalties and missed plays left the Owls to settle for a 14-7 halftime lead.
Coach Brian Bohannon said there was no message that needed to be sent during the break. The players knew what they had to do.
“Quit beating yourself,” Bohannon said. “All we had to do was clean things up in the second half and just do our job.”
Bryant, who finished the game with a career-high 154 yards rushing and four touchdowns, extended the Kennesaw State lead to 21-7 with another 1-yard touchdown run halfway through the third quarter.
The special teams then got in on the action with the Owls’ fourth touchdown of the day as a blocked punt by Adesola Abisoye was recovered by former Hillgrove High School standout Jalen Jackson, who returned it 19 yards for a touchdown.
“The punt block was huge,” Bohannon said. “It wasn’t a called punt block. It was a return. It was guys that were just playing hard. That’s a huge play in the game. You block a punt and, nine times out of 10, you are going to win the game.
Bryant’s fourth touchdown came on another sneak halfway through the fourth quarter to make the score 35-7, and Bronson Rechsteiner, on senior day at Fifth Third Bank Stadium, closed the scoring when he went up the middle for 65 yards. He finished with 128 yards on the day.
“It was a blessing man,” Rechsteiner said. “It’s a blessing to be on this team. It was an emotional day, potentially playing my last game at Fifth Third Bank Stadium. I’m just super thankful and blessed.”
The Kennesaw State defense limited Gardner-Webb (3-9, 1-5) to only 232 total yards of offense, forced three turnovers and had five sacks.
Now the question will be if the Owls did enough to earn one of the 14 at-large bids into the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. Kennesaw State earned 10 wins, but its strength of schedule ranked near the bottom of the FCS.
Coaches and players will likely be tuned in for the FCS selection show, which begins at 12:30 p.m. Sunday on ESPNU.
“We’re a 10-2 football team,” Bohannon said. “We lost to an FBS team in overtime, and the team with the automatic bid from the Big South. We’ve been ranked in the top 15 in every poll all year. We have a good track record. We haven’t just made the playoffs, we’ve won. I don’t think we need to say much else.”
The game started well for the Owls, but then the play quickly began to look like the gloomy skies that hovered over the stadium at the outset.
On the first play from scrimmage, Cincere Mason intercepted Gardner-Webb quarterback Kalen Whitlow. The interception set up Kennesaw State with good field position, and on the second play of the ensuing drive, Bryant slipped into the end zone from 15 yards out for a 7-0 lead.
Kennesaw State then returned the favor when a dropped snap on a punt was recovered by Gardner-Webb the Owls' 25. The Bulldogs found the end zone in two plays on a 15-yard pass from Whitlow to Izaiah Gathings.
A long Rechsteiner run set up Bryant’s second touchdown -- this time on a 1-yard sneak -- to give the Owls a 14-7 lead.
Another Kennesaw State turnover on a fumbled option pitch set Gardner-Webb up with an opportunity to tie the score, but the defense held. The Bulldogs failed to score on a drive that started inside the Owls' 30 after Demetrius Pettway knocked away potential touchdown passes on third and fourth downs.
Kennesaw State had an opportunity to extend its 14-7 advantage to a two-possession lead before the half, but Bryant overthrew a wide-open Rechsteiner in the end zone, and the Owls missed a field-goal attempt from 27 yards.