Kennesaw State dominates Virginia University-Lynchburg in FCS finale

Kennesaw State University football head coach Brian Bohannon speaks to the media about the upcoming football season on Monday, July 24, 2023. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Kennesaw State University football head coach Brian Bohannon speaks to the media about the upcoming football season on Monday, July 24, 2023. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Kennesaw State’s season of narrow losses and defensive woes took a dramatically different turn Saturday.

The energy started on the sidelines before kickoff, as players bounced and swayed while the band played “Swag Surfin.’” The fun seemingly never stopped for the Owls, who fist-bumped, chest-bumped, embraced and even spiked the ball in celebration during the evening as they defeated Virginia University-Lynchburg 63-3. Lynchburg is a member of the National Christian College Athletic Association, not the NCAA.

“For me, it was a little bit, ‘Laugh so you don’t cry,’ just (trying to keep) my energy up,” quarterback Jonathan Murphy said. “This was the last one. I wanted to leave everything out there for my boys. … The energy today was needed for all of us.”

Kennesaw State scored a season-high in points and closed the book on their time as an FCS program in the victory.

The Owls, who played as an independent in 2023, often struggled to close matchups en route to a 3-6 record. Saturday’s contest, however, was a triumph for Kennesaw State from start to finish.

The Dragons’ first set of downs kicked off the blowout, as defensive back Markeith Montgomery picked off a pass and weaved through the defense to put the Owls up 7-0 less than two minutes into the matchup. By the end of the first quarter, Kennesaw State was up 21-0. It was 42-3 at the half. Seven different Owls scored touchdowns, including two of the Owls’ departing “super seniors” — wide receiver Isaac Foster and Murphy.

The goal was to start physically and match up well, offensive lineman Terrell Paxton said.

“We saw early that they weren’t ready for what we were bringing to the table and took it from there,” he said.

Coach Brian Bohannon said Saturday’s game — particularly the first quarter dominance — felt like the “old days” at Kennesaw State. The program has gone 71-30 over the past nine years — all under his leadership. A dominant start like Saturday’s tends to build and ultimately helps the team, Bohannon said.

Running back Michael Benefield set the tone, rushing for 106 yards on 13 carries. The Dragons’ defense was ill-prepared for Benefield, who easily worked open lanes and weaved past the defense for big carries. He also set a new program record for consecutive games with 100-yard carries (four). This all came in the first half, as Benefield sat out the second.

Lynchburg’s offense never found its footing. Running back Jacob Walker was key to what limited momentum Lynchburg had, including running 16 yards for a first down in the first quarter and powering the Dragons’ lone scoring drive in the second quarter.

This was in large part because of the Owls’ strong defensive effort. Montgomery’s pick-six marked the beginning of a strong performance, including six sacks and a nine tackles for a loss.

“There was pressure on the quarterback most of the night,” Bohannon said. “I thought, ‘Gosh, we’re flying to the ball.’ There were some collisions out there today. … That should be Kennesaw State football.”

Although momentum somewhat slowed with substitutions in the second half, the Owls still managed to put up a trio of touchdowns to make the score 63-3. The win capped off what Bohannon called the hardest season of his career at KSU. Having nothing to play for and multiple redshirts were among the challenges, he said.

Now, a busy offseason begins for the Owls as they prepare to join FBS-level Conference USA in 2024. Bohannon said coaches will hit the road in the coming days looking to add to their roster, but he knows the team’s returning core is “hungry.”

The win was a nice way to end 2023, Bohannon said, but he’s ready to move forward.

“We want to go make history,” he said. “We want to do some things that have never been done here before: first FBS home game, first Conference USA home game, first Conference USA game period. We’re going to attack it. We’re going to be ready.”