More strange days, indeed: Kennesaw State puts up February football win

Kennesaw State running back Kyle Glover rolls into the end zone for a second-half touchdown against Shorter in their spring-season game Saturday. (PHOTO/Daniel Varnado)
Kennesaw State running back Kyle Glover rolls into the end zone for a second-half touchdown against Shorter in their spring-season game Saturday. (PHOTO/Daniel Varnado)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

As he spoke this week in advance of his late February football season opener – and down we go, still deeper into the COVID-19 alternate reality – Kennesaw State coach Brian Bohannon kept revisiting one thought time and time again.

It was part mantra, part plea, part football catechism.

“We gotta go play a game.”

Not want to. Not hope to. Got to.

Maybe they had to turn the calendar inside-out and stomp on every internal clock, but the fightin’ Owls got to play a game Saturday afternoon, their first one this decade. Some 448 days after last competing – a second-round FCS playoff loss Dec. 7, 2019 – they have a score to report: Kennesaw State 35, DII Shorter University 3. Over the long layoff the Owls did not forget the way to the end zone, although it did take more than a quarter for them to refamiliarize themselves with it, quarterback Tommy Bryant taking it in from four yards out for the first of his three touchdown rushes.

So, was it all worth the wait?

“We didn’t go out and execute the way we wanted to, but it was definitely worth the wait,” Bryant said.

“Just getting the first snap, that was the best part of the day. So much emotion and excitement built around that first snap, and just to be able to do it again was a blessing,” he added.

Everyone was scrambling in the dark last summer. While all the top-level schools eventually got around to building a quasi-traditional schedule, KSU was one of 92 FCS programs choosing to forego fall in favor of a reduced spring season. The hope was that we’d gain a much better handle on the virus by now.

OK, maybe not as much as anticipated. Maybe the marching band had to do its thing on video Saturday, its pre-recorded performance flashed on the big board. And the cheerleaders and mascot were confined to the stands behind one end zone, and the media worked from an open-air tent at the other end zone rather than in the box. Whatever the concessions, the Owls are scheduled to play a six-game regular season – two non-conference games, four in the Big South – with the prospect of as many as four playoff games.

ExplorePhotos: Football in February

The rejiggered schedule has not come without disorientation. That was bound to happen when you try to play college football on an XFL timetable.

“We’re in the spring and we’re in preseason. I don’t know whether to call it camp or practice or what it is,” Bohannon said early in the week. “For 25 years you’re battling the heat in August (to start a season), you’re going through the grind of camp. There are things you’ve done over time that just becomes part of what you do as a football coach and player.”

The Owls get an off week and then jump right into conference play against Charleston Southern. There is a new kind of urgency built into this compressed season. “We have four conference games, we got to win them all. If we don’t win them, we’re not going to the playoffs,” Bohannon said. With that, the angst over a far less than perfect outing Saturday was heightened.

This young but accomplished program – 49-15 in five-plus seasons under Bohannon, with a pair of Big South titles and three consecutive trips to the postseason – has experience with long grinds. Starting the program in 2014 with nothing scheduled until ’15, the Owls slogged through 75 practices before playing their first game, Bohannon said. They were approaching 60 before Shorter supplied some strangers to hit. But that doesn’t mean they are experts in the field of long-delayed gratification.

Saturday will provide Bohannon with much fodder for next several film sessions. There was the slow start – just one brief possession for the Owls in the first quarter while Shorter ran up a 12:15-2:45 advantage in time of possession. And the three turnovers and another fumble they recovered themselves that call for a remedy.

“I’ve talked to them about avoiding pandemic football, where things just look out of whack,” Bohannon said. “We’re really working on that and we weren’t able to achieve that today.”

“We got to focus up and handle our business because today would get us beat versus just about anybody,” Bryant said.

For some, the wait to play had even been longer. Running back/returner Isaac Foster – “An unbelievable playmaker,” said Bohannon – broke his leg in the seventh game of the ’19 season. At least he has had ample time to heal.

Anticipating Saturday’s game, Foster said he was “a little more nervous than I ever have been because it has been so long.” He didn’t show it, finishing with 65 yards on only five carries.

The team, he said, took the required doses of perspective and quickly came to grips with the fall postponement. Hopes and expectations around these Owls are running a fever. Why not, with eight returning starters on an offense that led FCS in rushing last year and seven returnees from the No. 3-ranked defense? They have the conference’s preseason offensive player of the year (Foster) as well as the 2019 Big South defensive player of the year (linebacker Bryson Armstrong).

“We sat down and talked about being able to play in the spring and being able to do what we want to do, compete for a conference championship and then ultimately the national championship. Once we got all that worked out, we weren’t too bummed about not playing this fall,” Foster said.

At least now, with the stage solely to themselves, the Owls will be more difficult to overlook during this out-of-season season.

“When you look at the positive side of things, FCS is the only football going on now,” Bohannon said. “Hopefully that will bring a lot more eyes and attention to Kennesaw State football. We’re awfully proud of our short history here, and that’s something we can benefit from in the spring. It’s the only football in town now.”

So, what we have always believed has now been confirmed: There is no really wrong time for college football in the South.

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