Playoff Game Preview: Kennesaw State University Owls

The Jacks are back in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs after a dominant 51-6 victory over a plucky Duquesne Dukes squad.  SDSU will travel to Atlanta to take on the Kennesaw State University (KSU) Owls for a 1pm kickoff.

KSU is a great story as their first football game in program history was just in 2015.  That is also the season they opened their stadium, Fifth Third Bank Stadium, and have gone 22-3 in that venue since.  KSU is also unique because they run a triple option offense, something the Jackrabbits rarely encounter.  The last time the Jackrabbits faced a pure triple option team was 2016 when they were upset by Cal Poly, 31-38.  We'll talk more about that later.

The Owls are coached by Brian Bohannon who has been at the helm since the start.  He is part of the Paul Johnson (Georgia Tech) coaching tree so the triple option comes naturally to him. 

KSU is a triple option offense that averages 46 ppg.  They average 356.3 yards per game on the ground but just 100.7 through the air.  In their 13-10 win over Wofford, they had just 7 first downs (4 passing 3 rushing) and 163 rushing yards (including one 53 yard burst) and just 79 passing yards.  They are a disciplined group and only had 2 penalties last week.  KSU is very experienced with 9 of their 11 starters either listed as seniors or graduate students.  That is pretty impressive!

Another unique thing about KSU is that they go for it ALOT on 4th down.  They have converted on 22 of their 32 attempts this season and went for it 3 times last week against Wofford.  Because they run the ball so successfully they really own the clock and hold it for an average of 33 minutes per game.  They have fumbled the ball 20 times (10 have been lost) so that may be something to watch if the conditions get sloppy on Saturday. 

KSU is triggered by a bruising playmaker in #3 Chandler Burks.  As the QB, Burks has the most important job in the triple option offense. Make the decision to give, keep, or pitch on nearly every play.  I have watched their struggle against Wofford twice and he has a tremendous command of the offense.  On the season he has 871 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns.  He is also a capable passer having tossed 10 TD for 1,031 yards with a 57% completion percentage.  Certainly KSU prefers to run the ball and shorten the game but I don't think they will "give up" on 3rd and 8+.

At the running back and slot back position, the Owls used 7 different players (other than Burks) to carry the ball against Wofford.  The group is lead by #33 Darnell Holland (72 attempts, 857 yards, 9 TD) who showed game breaking speed and vision on his TD run against Wofford last week.  On the season he carries an 11.9 per attempt average.  Also carrying the ball for the Owls are #9 Shaquil Terry (71 attempts, 583 yards, 5 TD), #4 Jake McKenzie is the "big back" but missed last week but I'd expect him to go this week.  On the season he has rushed for 417 yards and 1 TD with a 4.3 average.  #48 Kyle Glover (66 attempts, 284 yards, 1 TD), #12 Isaac Foster (28 attempts, 220 yards, 1 TD), #6 TJ Reed (35 attempts, 244 yards, 2 TD), and #32 Bronson Rechsteiner (33 attempts, 143 yards) all received meaningful carries against Wofford.  Rechsteiner is a big back (230lbs) and was used in short yardage on Saturday.

The offensive line for the owls is VERY good.  They are smaller but that is expected for most triple option teams where value is placed on nimbleness and change of direction quickness.  From left to right they go #79 Devin Pughsley (6-1, 236) senior, #75 Nick Eldridge, (6-2, 288) sophomore, #67 CJ Collins (6-3, 255) senior, #77 Joseph Alexander Jr. (6-3, 290) senior, #70 Chiaza Nwadike (6-3, 290) senior.  Pughlsey a converted defensive tackle, is hard nosed and really moves well.  He is certainly heavier than his listed 236 but I'm not sure by how much. Collins is an All-Big South First team selection and has played all over the KSU offensive line.  This group has played together for much of the season and they really work as one in the rushing attack.  Because they are so run heavy, they have only allowed 5 sacks on the season.       

The receivers for KSU don't see a lot of action but make plays when it counts.  Obviously they are unselfish and are excellent blockers for their teammates.  #15 Justin Sumpter (20 rec, 292 yards, 4 TD) and #16 Xavier Harper (7 rec. 99 yards, 1 TD) are those guys.  They are both seniors and multi year starters.  They know their role and do it well. Out of the backfield, Terry (13 rec, 215 yards 1 TD), Holland (9 rec, 182 yards, 2 TD), and Reed (6 rec, 125 yards, 3 TD) are all reliable targets. 

The KSU defense is stout but I think untested. Their only loss of the year was to a bad FBS squad in Georgia State and their next closest game was a 60-52 victory over Jacksonville State University in 5 over times.  They are very good against run (107 ypg) and its kind of unknown how they are against the pass (152 ypg).  JSU is their one big test against a pass heavy offense but they didn't do great in that match-up (417 yards, 4 TD).  They play between a 3-4 and 4-3 depending on the situation but have gotten to the quarterback 19 times including 2 last Saturday.   

The defense is lead by #41 Anthony Gore, Big South Player of the Year. Gore isn't huge (6-0, 201), but is fast, explosive, and has good instincts.  On the season he has racked up 73 tackles, 15 for loss, 6 sacks, 1 PBU, and 2 forced fumbles.  He is joined by fellow linebackers #44 Charlie Patrick (6-0, 215), and #42 Bryson Armstrong (5-11, 212) while #59 Desmond Johnson Jr (6-2, 233) functions as the hybrid "rush end."  Armstrong and Patrick are the second and third leading tacklers for the Owls with 70 and 55 tackles and both have stuffed the stat sheet with sacks, fumble recovers, PBUs, and quarterback hits.  Johnson Jr. has 30 stops and 8 TFL and 2 sacks. #26 Demetrius Pettway is the notable backup for the linebacker group.  The freshman has 23 tackles and 2 interceptions in his debut season.

The defensive line has pretty good size and has a star in the making in #96 Travis Bell (6-1, 280).  He is just a freshman but possesses great strength and power.  On the year he has 22 stops and a sack but his ability to collapse a pocket up the middle will be something to watch.  He is flanked by #58 Andrew Butcher (6-3, 262) and #98 McKenzie Billingslea (6-4, 280).  Billingslea has 29 tackles, 4.5 TFL and a sack while Butcher has 30 stops, 7 TFL, and 1.5 sacks with 4 more quarterback hits. #74 Desmond Scott (16 tackles, 2.5 for loss) and #99 Peyton Moore (11 tackles, 2 sacks) are the primary backups along the defensive line.  This group does a lot of pre-snap sliding so it will be important for the offensive line to hold their water and not have a false start.

The secondary is lead by senior safety #25 Jace White.  White is 4th on the team in tackles with 44 and has an interception and sack to his credit.  Next to him is #20 Cincere Mason, a true freshman, who has 21 tackles and 3 INT.  The corners for KSU appear athletic and capable. #1 Dorian Walker is a willing tackler (34 stops) and is the co-leader with 3 INT.  Opposite him is #23 Levonte Larry who has 50 stops and 4 PBU on the season.                     
Special Teams
Kennesaw State was ranked as the top Special Teams unit as ranked by Hero Sports before the playoffs began (SDSU was ranked 4th for reference).  They have a very good punter in #89 Nicholas Jones who has 28 punts with a 41.61 avg.  He only has 1 touchback, while forcing 14 fare catches and has landed 7 inside the 20.

Kickoffs are handled primarily by freshman #88 Nathan Robertson. He has 17 touchbacks on 88 attempts but KSU's coverage unit is very good and fast so I anticipate most of the kickoffs are left short of the endzone intentionally.  The place kicking duties are done by #86 Justin Thompson.  He is an experienced senior and this year has made 8 of 10 attempts.  His long is 44 yards and he is 3 of 4 from 40+.         

The return game is filled with game-breakers.  Holland and Foster have both returned kickoffs for touchdowns in 2018 and both have a return average of greater than 38 yards.  Foster is also the primary punt returner.  He has a 9 yard return average on 18 attempts with a long of 33 yards.  It will be important that Jackrabbit special teams coverage units continue their outstanding season.  KSU cannot flip the field or score a touchdown on special teams.

This is tough.  The Jacks see the triple option so rarely that it is hard to know how they will fare.  I do know that this is the fastest defense the Jacks have ever had.  I know that the defensive line is MUCH better than the 2016 version.  I know that Brandon Snyder is outstanding against the run.  I know that the linebackers are a very athletic group that are capable of completely smothering the run game.  I trust Ryan Earith, Austin Smenda, and Elijah Wilson to make the correct decision from their defensive end position.  I think the #ChainGang plugs up the middle.  Chandler Burk is the wild card that the Jacks will have to limit and I think that role goes to Snyder. 

The weather forecast looks similar to Missouri State, about 40 degrees and rain.  If it is a drizzle like MSU, that is fine but the forecast currently says that there may be periods of heavy rain.  This may limit the Jackrabbit passing game but the Jackrabbit run game has been humming the last 6 games of the season.  I like the #605Hogs to slowly wear down the KSU defensive line and linebackers. 

I'm predicting a Jackrabbit victory with a score of 38-27.  I think both teams will get their yards but in sloppy conditions give me a straight forward rushing attack without all the smoke and mirrors.   

Go Jacks!


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