When fans think about Kennesaw State, it's often the fact that the program is only four years old that comes to mind, or maybe the unique option offense the Owls run. But there's another big reason the Owls are hosting the FCS quarterfinals this weekend — they hold the No. 3 ranking in total defense, too.
It is truly a collective effort in the world of the Owls. They'll tell you straight up that they're not the biggest guys in the world, as 6-foot-0, 200-pound stud linebacker Anthony Gore stated clearly this week to HERO Sports. And there isn't one guy with 140 tackles, it's almost more like 100 guys with 40 tackles if you don't mind the exaggeration. And it's not like there's one guy with 15 sacks, it's more like there are 15 guys with at least one (that's less of an exaggeration).
While you're at it, give the offense an assist. Kennesaw State held onto the ball for 35 minutes to Wofford's 25 minutes last weekend in the second round. The reason the Owls don't have gaudy individual defensive numbers is they aren't on the field as much as many other defenses are. In fact, this year the Owls have held onto the ball for 6 hours, 37 minutes to their opponents' 5 hours, 23 minutes — a whole hour and 14 minutes longer than their opponents.
KSU has had the ball an entire game and change longer than its opponents this year.
Squeeze the oxygen out of the room, then shut them down — that has been KSU's philosophy in rattling off 11 straight wins leading into Saturday's quarterfinal showdown with South Dakota State.
"If we're both (offense and defense) clicking and on the same page, it's just like that," Gore told HERO Sports after practice Wednesday night. "You just know if that's working, we're going to get that W."
This program doesn't know what a losing culture is. It won its very first game in 2015 by 40 points against a revived East Tennessee State team that was restarting its program after many years. KSU looked like the team that had been around for a long time, while ETSU looked like a program just getting started — which you would expect. Before you knew it, KSU was 3-0 and finished 6-5 with a schedule mostly against FCS teams. The Owls were only thumped once, by then FCS power Coastal Carolina (now in the FBS).
The next three years the Owls went 8-3, 12-2 and now they're 11-1 in 2018. The team is 37-11 in its four years — and it has done it with good defense, a tough offense to prep for, and special teams.
BEST FCS SPECIAL TEAMS?: Yep, Kennesaw St. leads
Gore (leading tackler and TFL guy), Bryson Armstrong (last year's Jerry Rice FCS Freshman of the Year Award winner), Charlie Patrick (10.5 TFLs) and Chance Bates have manned the three linebacker spots this year, while Andrew Butcher, Travis Bell, McKenzie Billingslea and Desmond Johnson all set the table for the defense along the front. The secondary of Le'Vonte Larry, Jace White, Cincere Mason and Dorian Walker will be critical this weekend against South Dakota State.
"The D-line are the funny guys, but they're nasty for the game," Gore said. "Bryson is the cool character out of our linebackers. Our safeties and our corners aren't going to say too much, they're cool and just go about their business. Us linebackers? We're the Dawgs. The D-line and Travis and McKenzie and all those guys keep us laughing all the time but we're all-in-all pretty calm."
The defense will be critical this weekend with an SDSU attack coming to greater Atlanta, Ga. The Jackrabbits know how to score some points, and their No. 5 ranking in total offense proves it. They pass well, run the ball well and quarterback Taryn Christion has won a ton of ballgames while under center with SDSU. Christion is mobile and athletic and will pose a challenge. Another challenge might be the weather, which as of 48 hours out has held steady at a 100 percent chance of rain, with temperatures in the low to mid 40s.
"If we get some rain, the advantage goes to us, the defense — because the ball might slip out, which it did against Wofford," Gore said. "But we love it if we can get dirty. It's when we shine. You've got to respect (SDSU). Once you don't respect a team like that, you lose. We used to be that team that others looked down on and that just gives you energy. I see a talented and big team, and we usually face teams that are bigger than we are. I've been looking at their quarterback all week, Taryn Christion. He can run and he can pass and they aren't bothered by cold.
"It's going to be the best game of the week."