With 8:22 to play in the second quarter, Kennesaw State found itself in an unfamiliar situation.
It was trailing.
To that point, Monmouth, for a lack of better word, had out-Kennesawed Kennesaw State. The Hawks had been the aggressor. Their offensive line appeared to be taking control and when faced with a fourth down, they went for it twice, and they made it both times.
Monmouth was at home, where it had won 10 straight games, the temperature was 43 degrees with a constant 20 mph wind, and the Hawks had a 14-7 lead in the Big South Conference championship game.
That’s when the Owls began to E.A.T.
Effort, attitude and toughness, better known to players and coaches as “E.A.T.,” is Kennesaw State’s motto, and it’s the foundation of everything the program does.
Midway through the second quarter, Chandler Burks led the Owls on an 11-play, 61-yard touchdown drive to score the tying touchdown. It began an onslaught of 45 unanswered points that showed what “E.A.T.” was all about and, at the end of it, Kennesaw State lifted the Big South championship trophy and earned the conference’s automatic bid into the FCS playoffs for the second straight season.
During the point blitz, Darnell Holland showed the effort. The senior carried the ball only nine times, but he finished the game with a program-record 195 yards -- breaking Chaston Bennett’s old mark of 179 -- and touchdown runs of 9, 46 and 59 yards. Holland also had another run of 39 yards to lead an Owls rushing attack that piled up 412 yards on a team that came in allowing only 109 per game.
Ten different runners combined to average 7 yards per carry and score seven touchdowns. Burks, in his usual fashion, added three more rushing touchdowns on the day to give him 26 on the season, tying the Big South’s all-time career touchdown record with 53.
The attitude came from running back Jake McKenzie, another senior who made the sacrifice of giving up on playing quarterback as a sophomore to make a position switch.
Three years ago, Kennesaw State coach Brian Bohannon said McKenzie was too good of a player to be stuck on the bench at third or fourth on the quarterback depth chart.
McKenzie showed why his coach was right with two big pass receptions Saturday, which may have been the keys to the victory.
With 30 seconds left in the first half and the score tied at 14, Kennesaw State faced second-and-5 from its 47. McKenzie got lost coming through the defense and Burks hit him in stride for a 24-yard gain to the Monmouth 29. The play set up Justin Thompson’s 40-yard field goal as time expired to give the Owls a 17-14 lead.
Kennesaw State led 24-14 midway through the third quarter when McKenzie was called on again. A fumbled pitch led to a 16-yard loss and put the Owls at third-and-24 from their own 29, and going into the wind.
Burks broke containment and, as he neared the line of scrimmage, found McKenzie open over the middle for 23 yards. The play set up a Burks’ 2-yard run on fourth-and-2 and, on the next play, Holland scored on his 46-yard run. It made the score 31-14 and put the Kennesaw State defense in position to close out the game.
It did, and it provided the toughness.
The defense came out in the second half and forced two straight three-and-outs in which Monmouth gained a combined minus-4 yards.
On the Hawks’ third drive of the third quarter, they faced fourth-and-2 from their own 37. Knowing the game was beginning to slip away, they went for it, and that’s when Owls linebacker Chase Bates met running back Juwon Farri in the hole and held him to a 1-yard gain.
Four plays later, Burks scored again to put the game out of reach.
Monmouth came into the game averaging 32.8 points and 451.6 yards of total offense per game. Kennesaw State held the Hawks to 14 and 192.
The Owls have not played the most difficult of schedule this year because the Big South is down, but Monmouth is a good football team. It made the playoffs last season, and was in the discussion for a playoff berth up until the time Kennesaw State came out for the second half.
The early adversity was good. The Owls had to focus. This is the way the games are going to be from here on out, because a win in next week’s game against Jacksonville State at SunTrust Park, would likely give Kennesaw State a top-four seed in the FCS playoffs.
If that happens, and the Owls get to play the playoffs at home, they may just have a chance to E.A.T. their way to Frisco, Texas, for a shot in the national championship.