Kennesaw State’s defense dominates in spring game

Kennesaw State coach Brian Bohannon says his defensive line "should be as good as anybody anywhere." AJC file photo

Credit: Branden Camp/Special to the AJC

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Kennesaw State coach Brian Bohannon says his defensive line "should be as good as anybody anywhere." AJC file photo

Credit: Branden Camp/Special to the AJC

Kennesaw State’s 2021 season was a success by most measures, highlighted by a Big South championship and run to the second round of the FCS playoffs. But the lasting image of the season was the Owls’ final game, in which the defense surrendered two touchdowns in the last two minutes of regulation in a 32-31 loss to Tennessee State.

During Friday evening’s spring game at Fifth Third Bank Stadium, the Big South’s top scoring defense in 2021 returned to form. Under the game’s unique scoring system, the defense recorded a 67-39 victory and imposed its will on the Owls’ spread-option attack.

“When they want to, they can be very dominant at times,” coach Brian Bohannon said. “Defensively, I’m not surprised by what happened at all.”

The spring game pitted the offense against the defense, with Bohannon giving each unit six ways to score points. The biggest scoring plays: the offense received five points per touchdown, while the defense scored five points per turnover.

Kennesaw State’s defense tested out nearly each of those six defensive scoring methods in the first quarter. Freshman defensive back Sulaiman Bah recovered an errant pitch from freshman quarterback Nick Sawyer, while the defense ended three other drives with three-and-out stops, each worth a point.

Along with a couple of failed fourth-down conversions, the defense raced to a 22-3 advantage.

Kennesaw State’s offense struggled with unforced errors throughout, including several mishandled snaps and a missed field-goal attempt from freshman kicker Conor Cummins. But the pass rush and run defense did its part making life uncomfortable, stuffing the offense’s option plays on the perimeter and sending constant pressure at whoever was under center. Though sacks were not a defensive scoring play, the pass rush impressed with six and 13 tackles for a loss.

The offense had its strongest effort in the second quarter, when last year’s top quarterbacks, junior Jonathan Murphy and sophomore Xavier Shepherd, were in the game. Murphy recorded the game’s first two completions early in the second quarter, including a 39-yard touchdown along the right sideline to sophomore receiver Iaan Cousin. A couple of drives later, Shepherd ended the first half by connecting with receiver Xavier Hill on fourth-and-goal.

A 40-yard pass from sophomore quarterback DeAngelo Hardy to sophomore receiver Quailyn Leake with three seconds left in regulation gave the offense its longest gain, but sophomore linebacker William Jenkins intercepted Hardy’s next pass on the night’s final play.

“One of the (priorities) is getting back to what everybody knows Kennesaw for playing,” Jenkins said. “Playing hard, playing fast. We will do our job, we’re going to fly to the ball.”

This year will mark a season of transition for the Owls. After three championships in the Big South, Kennesaw State is joining the Atlantic Sun for the conference’s inaugural season and will face an 11-game schedule that includes an away contest against College Football Playoff entrant Cincinnati.

Bohannon is confident that the defense, and especially the defensive line, can match up well against anyone on the Owls’ schedule.

“Two-deep, when they decide they want to play, they should be as good as anybody anywhere,” Bohannon said of the defensive line. “I saw some guys do some good things on the pass rush, and that’s not anything new to spring ball.”