“It’s been a long time coming,” coach Brian Bohannon said. “Obviously we wanted to win the game, but the work these kids have put in, this staff has put in…for them to come out and have a positive night that we can build on, hugging each one after the game. That’s what it’s about.”
It might have been worse. The Owls’ second penalty of the night wiped out its first touchdown: a 95-yard kickoff return by P.J. Stone. Trey White bounced back and scored the Owls’ first touchdown, a 6-yard run on the ensuing drive.
Running their own version of the option Bohannon learned as an assistant under Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson, the Owls rushed for 416 yards. White led the Owls with 16 carries for 95 yards before leaving midway through the fourth quarter. Chaston Bennett added 87 yards on seven carries and Justin Sumpter caught two passes for a touchdown and 96 yards, accounting for all the Owls’ passing yards.
Kennesaw State’s running backs and receivers broke tackle after tackle in the second half, posting scoring plays of 69 and 63 yards that might have been stopped for short gains.
“Once we got going and didn’t beat ourselves we were able to do some things,” Bohannon said.
The Owls’ defense, sometimes shaky early, settled down to shut down the Bucs when it needed to. East Tennessee, also playing its first game after disbanding its program after the 2003 season, didn’t post more than 85 yards in any quarter and averaged just 2.6 yards per carry.
“We played really well after some of that early stuff,” Bohannon said.
Trailing 13-7 late in the first half, the Owls would run off 49 unanswered points. Jae Bowen recovered a fumble and ran it in two yards for a score and 14-13 lead.
Anticipating a screen pass that had already burned them several times in the half, defensive coordinator Brian Newberry called the perfect play later in the quarter. Defensive lineman Nick Perrotta ran a twist, moving inside to outside and returned an interception into the end zone, a dream fulfilled in the first game because it was the first touchdown he’s scored on any level. It gave the Owls a 21-13 lead.
“Unfortunately I had to give the ball back because it was ETSU’s ball,” Perrotta said.
Leading 21-13 at the half, White hit Sumpter for a 69-yard touchdown pass on the first possession of the third quarter. It wasn’t fancy. As the blockers moved to the right the defense moved with them. White hit Sumpter running corner route to the left with one player to beat. Sumpter shook off the tackle and ran away for his first scoring reception to give the Owls a 28-13 lead. It looked like a Georgia Tech play. White smiled and called it a Kennesaw State play.
“We’d seen the safeties were playing the run and coach (Grant) Chesnut called a great play,” Sumpter said.
The Owls pushed their lead to 35-13 on a 1-yard touchdown run by Bowen. The highlight was a block thrown by White — that’s right, the quarterback — to spring Bennett for a 38-yard run to the 6-yard line. Bennett seemed hemmed in on the right for a loss, but broke a tackle and began to run back to his left. As an ETSU defender closed in for what would have been a huge loss, White sprinted in, lowered his shoulder and wiped him out to give Bennett a clear field.
“That was my first de-cleat as a quarterback,” White said.
Not done, Kennesaw State’s Darnell Holland ran 63 yards for a touchdown to give the Owls a 42-13 lead with 3:36 left in the third quarter. It was a perfect pitch-and-run as White patiently waited for the defender to come at him before casually tossing the ball to the trailing Holland.
Trey Chivers added a 2-yard run to give the Owls a 49-13 lead with 11:48 remaining in the game.
With the echoes of the school’s fight song still bouncing around the locker room, a beaming Bohannon noted that he received the first game ball of his coaching career from university president Dan Papp.
Yet another memory on a night filled with them.
“I can’t say enough great things about everybody involved with this program,” Bohannon said. “It’s not just me. It’s a group effort.”