KENNESAW — Kennesaw State coach Brian Bohannon said he wanted his team to leave the Big South Conference the right way.
On Saturday, the No. 9 Owls will have a chance to do just that when they face Monmouth for the conference championship at Fifth Third Bank Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m.
For Kennesaw State (9-1, 6-0), which joined the Big South as a first-year program in 2015, the Big South proved to be the perfect location for what became the best startup program in Football Championship Subdivision history.
Next fall, however, the Owls’ football program will join the remainder of the university’s athletic programs in the ASUN Conference, which had its first year of football this fall.
“For us it’s been really good, starting the program up, setting in a quality conference in the Big South with a lot of really good, well-coached football teams,” Bohannon said.
“Coming into this year, we wanted to leave it the right way. We want to finish this thing the right way. We came in as the underdog and nobody really knew about us, and we’ve had some success.”
That success included Big South championships in 2017 and 2018. To win one for the third time in five years, Kennesaw State will have to beat the team that assumed its throne, and one that did so with authority.
Monmouth (7-3, 6-0) beat the Owls 45-21 in 2019 and again this past spring, 42-17. A victory Saturday would make the Hawks the first team to have beaten Kennesaw State three times.
“We’re playing a really good football team that has just about everybody back,” Bohannon said. “You look at it and it seems like these guys have been here five or six years.”
That includes quarterback Tony Muskett, who has thrown for 2,314 yards and 24 touchdowns to only four interceptions this season, and running back Juwon Farri, who leads the team in rushing with 689 yards and eight touchdowns, despite missing the last three games.
Farri is expected to be back Saturday, but if he is not, Monmouth will turn to Jaden Shirden, who has 481 rushing yards on the year, including a career-high 156 yards last week against Robert Morris.
In last spring’s game between the Owls and Hawks, Muskett threw for 290 yards and four touchdowns. Farri ran for 179 yards and a score, and receivers Lonnie Moore and Terrance Greene, who are both back, each had more than 100 receiving yards.
“They are explosive on offense,” Bohannon said. “The quarterback does a lot of things at the line of scrimmage. They have a big offensive line, really good running back. Actually, they have two or three playing right now. Explosive wideouts — they move the ball around.
“(Muskett) is a really, really good player. He makes them go.”
Defensively is where Bohannon said he has seen the most improvement for Monmouth. The Hawks have a big defensive line, and the unit as a whole is allowing only 105.5 rushing yards and 17.7 points per game. Monmouth will also get a boost on that side of the ball with the return of all-conference safety Anthony Budd.
The Owls come in fourth in the FCS in rushing, averaging 255.9 yards per game, and quarterback Xavier Shepherd is tied for second in the FCS with 15 rushing touchdowns. He is also the team’s leading rusher with 718 yards.
Five other running backs have at least 250 rushing yards — Kyle Glover (500), Iaan Cousin (312), Adeolu Adeleke (266), Nykeem Farrow (262) and Preston Daniels (257).
Defensively, Kennesaw State is also stout against the run, allowing 106.1 rushing yards per game and only 203.7 against the pass.
Saturday’s game will mark the first time where two teams that are 6-0 in conference play will face one another for the title. The winner will get the automatic bid to the FCS playoffs, which will begin next week.
Monmouth likely needs a win to make the postseason, while Kennesaw State, which is ranked in the top 10 in both major FCS polls (No. 5 in the coaches’ poll), will likely make the postseason regardless of the outcome.
A victory for the Owls may also be enough for them to earn one of eight byes into the second round, though that decision will fall to the FCS playoff committee.
“It’s something you can’t worry about,” Bohannon said. “It’s not something you can control. I will say this — you would be looking at a 10-1 football team that won the conference championship. You can figure the rest out for yourself.”