KENNESAW — Kennesaw State coach Brian Bohannon came into the press room and tried to exude excitement.
His ninth-ranked Owls had just defeated Monmouth 49-17 to win the Big South Conference championship. It was the team's third conference title in the last five years, but the first since 2018.
"How about them Owls?" He said. "Big South Champions 2021! Finish the sucker in the right manner! That's good stuff there man!"
However it was soon apparent he was not only physically, but emotionally spent. The longer the postgame press conference went on you could see what little energy he had left was quickly disappearing.
KSU is now 10-1 on the season. It completed an undefeated conference slate and its only loss is to Georgia Tech out of the ACC. Sunday, the Owls will find out who they will play in the FCS playoffs, whether it is a first-round game, or whether they will get one of the eight first-round byes.
However, none of that was what Bohannon was talking about.
"What's gone on with these kids here in the last year-and-a-half, it's been some of the toughest stuff I've ever been a part of in my coaching career," Bohannon said with a cracking voice and what seemed to be the edge of tears. "What they were able to do coming out of pandemic, social justice, election, spring season, pull it all together, reshape some of the roster and come out and do what they did this year? I tell you, it's phenomenal what these kids have done.
"We lost one of our teammates this year. LaDarius Clardy (who was murdered when he went home to Florida in the summer). Great young man, should be here with us right now. It's just a lot, and I say all that because what this team has been able to fight through, I can't put into words. This game, this season for our kids, and to be honest with you for me too, was a big one."
There were times this season in which it was hard to keep focus on some of the other teams in the conference because everyone's attention was turned toward this end of the season matchup. Twice in recent weeks the Owls had to come from behind late in the fourth quarter — against Gardner Webb and North Alabama — to remain in a position to play this game, and when they finally got the chance, they did not disappoint.
The defense set the table on the opening drive by forcing Monmouth (7-4, 6-1) to go three-and-out. On KSU's first drive, the offense let everyone know who was in control. On third-and-9, Irving Smith took a handoff and went right up the middle for a 40-yard gain. Quarterback Xavier Shepherd followed with a 22-yard pass to Adelou Adeleke to the Monmouth 9, and on the next play Shepherd scored the first of his four rushing touchdowns on the day.
"That was huge, being able to grab the momentum early," Shepherd said. "We tried to set them up. We knew (Smith's) play would hit. Everybody knew their assignments and we all did our job."
Late in the first quarter, KSU started a drive at their 39, and after an incomplete pass, Adeleke took a pitch around the left side, evaded one tackler and went untouched 61 yards for a touchdown and the lead was 14-0.
Leading 21-0, Monmouth scored its first touchdown on a 91-yard kickoff return by Lonnie Moore. Instead of the Hawks finding a way to get back in the game, KSU took the ball and did was KSU does, they ran the ball. Eleven straight times the Owls ran the ball. Starting from their 15, they had runs of 12, 4, 1, 6, 6, 3, 2 and 7 yards to get the ball move into Monmouth territory.
"I think there was no question. It was Kennesaw State football (on Saturday)," Bohannon said. "We struggled the last two years against them. We put together a really good plan of stuff we thought we could do. Our kids got a little momentum, and it's amazing how that feeds."
Iaan Cousin provided the next 43 in one burst, and then Shepherd scored on his second try from the 1 to make it 28-7. The drive was 11 plays, 85 yards and took 5:10. There was nothing the Hawks could do to stop it. KSU ran for 282 yards in the first half. It finished the game with 67 carries for 471 yards and six touchdowns. Shepherd ran for 118 yards. Cousin recorded the first 100-yard game of his career with 114 yards on only three carries. Adeleke finished with 64 yards, Smith 50 and Preston Daniels added 44. The Owls averaged seven yards per carry.
While the offense was dictating the flow of the game, the defense stopped Monmouth at every turn. In the previous two meetings, the Hawks had beaten the Owls soundly to win the conference title. In 2019 they won 45-21 followed by a 42-17 win earlier this spring. In those matchups, they ran up 1,009 yards of total offense. Not Saturday.
The KSU front seven limited the Monmouth running game to 30 total yards on 22 carries. Running back Juwon Farri, who shredded the Owls for 179 yards in April, was held to only 16.
Leading 28-10, the special teams got in on the act in the third quarter. Facing fourth-and-6 from its own 25, KSU pulled off a well timed, and better executed fake punt. Preston Daniels, one of the three upbacks in punt protection, took the direct snap and was untouched until he was finally brought down at the Monmouth 49 after a 26-yard gain. Eight plays later, including a 24-yard pass to Cousin on third-and-13 to extend the drive again, Shepherd scored his fourth touchdown of the game and the rout was on.
"It looks like a really good call when it works," Bohannon said about the fake punt. "And you look like an idiot if it doesn't.
"Coach (Greg) Harris, who is in charge of our punt team came to me first of the week and said, 'I think we can fake it.' I said, 'Well, let's go through it.' We worked on it all week, knew where and when we wanted to do it. When you go to faking stuff, it is what it is. You don't go and do it on the 50-yard line. We'd already called it once and we didn't get the look we wanted. We called it, got the look we wanted and the kids went and executed it."
Cousin added a 38-yard touchdown run and wide receiver Carter Pinholster made the first catch of his career — a 48-yard touchdown pass from Jonathan Murphy — to cap the scoring.
KSU rolled up 571 yards of total offense. Monmouth had 367, including 337 yards passing by quarterback Tony Muskett, but the Hawks offense only found the end zone once on a 52-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. It was one of the few clean pockets Muskett had all day, as the Owls sacked him five times and had him under constant pressure.
This was Kennesaw State's final Big South Conference game. The Owls will move to the ASUN next year. In seven seasons, KSU has gone from a fledgling start-up in 2015 to a 62-17 record. They will be making their fourth FCS playoff appearance and they will find out who and when they play during the FCS Playoff selection show Sunday at 12:30 p.m. on ESPNU.
The only question now is did KSU do enough to earn one of the eight seeds and a first-round bye?
"I don't know what else a football team can do except what these kids did," Bohannon said. "How can you not make them a seed. We're going to get together and watch it, and we're going to get ready for practice next week. We did everything we could. We lost to a Power 5. (Georgia Tech) is our only loss. Do they deserve it? Without a doubt."