Kennesaw State's Xavier Harper (middle) holds up the Big South Champions t-shirt after the Owls' victory, Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017. (Special by Cory Hancock)
Photo: Cory Hancock/Cory Hancock
Photo: Cory Hancock/Cory Hancock

Kennesaw State had to overcome sluggish start on way to playoffs

Four games into the 2017 season, Kennesaw State didn’t look like a playoff team. 

The Owls began with a disappointing close loss to Samford on the road, followed by three unconvincing wins against inferior opponents. Coach Brian Bohannon tried to keep the tone optimistic with his team coming out ahead in the end, but his dissatisfaction with the overall play was obvious. 

That all changed at some point midway into the season. Suddenly KSU began to put all three facets of the game together and play much better football. It brought it together at the right time -- going into conference play as the Owls swept through the Big South and clinched a playoff spot for the first time in school history. They will play at Jacksonville State on Saturday in the second round. 

“I would say after that North Greenville game, we really saw that we can’t come out and play mediocre,” Owls star wide receiver Justin Sumpter said. “We have to make sure that we’re locked in for every game no matter the circumstances and just come together as a team and rally around each other.”

The North Greenville game seemed to be the low point for KSU. The Owls came out with a 38-34 win at home Sept. 30, but nobody in the program would’ve told you that they were overly happy with the performance. 

“The first three or four games of the season were just … you know, we weren’t playing to our abilities, we were letting people hang around,” Bohannon said. “I was a little frustrated to be honest with you. I think the North Greenville game we found a way but it wasn’t pretty.”

With another game ahead at home the next Saturday against Texas Southern before the schedule really began to ramp up, the Owls had one more shot to get in a rhythm. And they did just that with a 48-3 blowout win. 

“I remember the Texas Southern game … we were better than Texas Southern, but that was the first time all year that I saw the effort and intensity for our football team at one time,” Bohannon said. “There were 11 gold hats flying at the ball. There was some urgency in what we were doing. So, really from then, not saying we’ve played good all the time, but that was probably the game that we started to play like I thought we were capable of.”

Since that loss to Samford, Kennesaw State has won 11 consecutive games, including a win against that same Samford team in the first round of the FCS playoffs last week at Fifth Third Bank Stadium. Bohannon felt like that opening loss hurt the overall mood of the team early on, which took some time to bounce back from. 

“That first loss took a little wind out of our sails,” Bohannon said. “We had to regroup from it. Truthfully, the first few weeks of the season we played to our level of competition. Once we decided to be who we needed to be, I think things changed, and it kind of dominoes from there with what happened after that.”

Quarterback Chandler Burks served as the team’s leader through Kennesaw State’s early rough patch. He pointed to the coaching staff staying on the team as well as the players recalling past success as reasons for the turnaround.

“I think it was guys just not being comfortable,” Burks said. “I think it’s the coaching staff continually telling us that we can’t get comfortable in our spots and our positions because no one is safe. We hadn’t played good ball up to that date, and I think guys started looking back and that paid dividends for us.” 

Burks also quickly pointed out Bohannon’s ability to shortly enjoy and reward winning games even if the overall product wasn’t up to standards. By Monday, he’s ready to move forward.

“Coach Bohannon is hard on you, but when we win, he’s all about it,” Burks said. “He’s high energy because he understands that winning a ball game on Saturdays is not easy. No matter if it’s good, bad or ugly, he’s going to celebrate it. We’ll learn from it on Monday, but we’re going to celebrate it in the moment.” 

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