When Kennesaw State running back Gabriel Benyard took a 32-yard pass to the end zone in the second quarter Saturday night, the crowd erupted in “Owls” cheers and gold rally towels waved around Fifth Third Bank Stadium.
After the subsequent extra point gave the Owls a 7-0 lead, some players danced and swayed their arms on the sideline as “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” played.
Furman seemed to take the message to heart. The Paladins scored three consecutive touchdowns, building a lead they would never relinquish in a 31-28 victory.
“We’re a little bit feast or famine,” coach Brian Bohannon said. “We’re either hitting a big play or it’s like, ‘What are we doing?’”
Kennesaw State is now 1-2, having lost its past two games by a touchdown and a field goal, respectively. The Owls lost Saturday in front of a home crowd of 6,993 that embraced the University’s “Gold Rush” theme, dotting the stadium in their brightest Kennesaw State gear.
Both offenses initially struggled to ignite. The game opened with three straight three-and-outs, and several of Kennesaw State quarterback Jonathan Murphy’s attempted deep passes didn’t meet their target in the first quarter – including a near-interception meant for Isaac Foster. But, at the start of the second quarter, he managed to connect when it mattered.
First came a pass to wide receiver Blake Bohannon, as Murphy took his time reading the field before nailing the 21-yard pass. Then came the 32-yard touchdown pass to Benyard, fueling cheers of “Owls” and waving gold rally towels in the crowd.
Bohannon and Benyard were favorite targets for Murphy, as they recorded 66 and 94 receiving yards, respectively. Murphy said throwing to them has become a “security blanket” for him.
“When I’m stressed out or the pocket’s collapsing or even when we’ve got a clean pocket, they’re doing their jobs getting open,” Murphy said.
But Furman’s furious comeback soon followed. Paladins quarterback Tyler Huff successfully converted on several third downs, nailing deep passes and speeding past the Owls’ defense. He scored all three of the Paladins’ touchdowns during the 21-0 stretch.
Defensive back Deontre Morris said the Owls’ defense needed to put more pressure on Huff, citing Furman’s quick screens and slowing the game down.
“He just finds a way to make some plays when he needs to,” Bohannon said. “He’s not flashy, but he’ll go run around and scramble and make five yards when you need five yards.”
Kennesaw State countered toward the end of the quarter. Murphy leaned into the deep ball, sending a 61-yard pass to Benyard in the third quarter that led to waving pompoms and cheers from the crowd. Benyard soon notched a 13-yard reception to make it a one-score game, then broke off for a 49-yard touchdown run toward a cheering student section to tie the score with more than three minutes left.
It seemingly felt like the tide changed for Kennesaw State fans. Students dressed in banana costumes jumped as the band played and the stadium’s cannon blew.
But Furman marched down the field, as Huff nailed a 21-yard pass and the Paladins’ offense worked through the Owls’ defense. A 19-yard field goal with 21 seconds left sealed Furman’s victory.
Bohannon said he felt like his team was better prepared than last week, and many of their mistakes were controllable. A primary focus for Bohannon: consistency. The Owls rely heavily on explosive plays, he said, and changing that won’t happen overnight. Working on that likely will fix some of the momentum shifts in the game, he said.
Kennesaw State will look to its matchup with Tennessee Tech at 6 p.m. Saturday. The Owls, in a transition season between the FCS and FBS, are just working out how to win, Bohannon said.
“The big thing is the fight,” Bohannon said. “We’ve got to get ready to play and build on that.”