BOZEMAN — Kennesaw State harbors no desire to be the masters of deception. Montana State knew exactly what the Owls would throw at the host Bobcats even when both teams woke up to more than a foot of fresh snow blanketing the Gallatin Valley on Saturday morning.
The Bobcats knew KSU would run the flex-bone spread triple option that helped Georgia Southern to four relentless Division I-AA national titles between 1985 and 2000. The problem for MSU, despite temperatures that lingered in the 20s and a visitor from Georgia in town, was that the Bobcats simply could not stop KSU quarterback Chandler Burks’ ability to convert in crucial situations.
Kennesaw flaunted that ability to convert during a 17-play, 89-yard drive on the first possession of the game to stake the visitors to a 7-0 lead. Burks converted three different third downs on the initial march. And the clutch penchant was on full display during the final drive of the game.
On a day that began with local residents waking up to 12 inches of fresh snow yet saw the sun break through behind the Bridger Mountains in the second half, Kennesaw State assumed possession on its own 2-yard line trailing 14-13 with 12 minutes to play.
Methodically and deliberately, the Owls’ triple option attack converted in crucial situations time after time. Ten minutes and three seconds after taking the ball 98 yards from the end-zone, the Owls’ 20th play of their final possession resulted in Justin Thompson’s 37-yard field goal to give a team from the other side of the country a 16-14 lead with two minutes to play.
Moments later, Taylor Henkle snared an underthrown Chris Murray pass to secure a vital non-conference win, 16-14, in front of about two-thirds of the 16,887 announced fans on a frozen Montana day at Bobcat Stadium.
“This is a big win for us,” Kennesaw State third-year head coach Brian Bohannon said. “You have a third-year program going across the country for all the reasons not to (win) but these guys found a way to make it happen.”
Kennesaw State’s eighth straight victory helps the Owls continue their march toward their first-ever FCS playoff berth in the program’s third year of existence.
“I told the guys we had to stay persistent and key into our fundamentals,” Kennesaw junior quarterback Chandler Burks said after rushing for 149 yards on 34 carries. “The weather was really fun and everyone embraced the atmosphere. This is something we are going to remember for the rest of our lives.”
The loss drops Montana State to 4-5 overall in an atypical step outside of Big Sky Conference play in November. According to Montana State sports information, the last time the Bobcats played a non-conference game in November, Cal Poly beat MSU 20-19 on November 8 of 1997.
“It’s about scoring and certainly if we hold a team to 16 points, you think you would have an opportunity but we knew what we were getting into,” Choate said. “You play these guys this late in the season, it’s not like you can go to fall camp and prepare for it in fall camp and play it this late in the year.
“With the three days of preparation — Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday practice — I thought our guys did a nice job of understanding what we were trying to do and going out and executing it to the best of their ability.”
Kennesaw State rushed for 346 yards on 74 bruising carries. MSU gave up just three runs of 16 yards or longer but the Owls averaged 4.7 yards per carry nonetheless. KSU converted 10 third downs and three fourth downs, notching 23 first downs, including 19 on the ground.
“It’s definitely very tough because you know what they are going to do but it’s a whole different animal going out and playing against it,” said MSU sophomore linebacker Josh Hill, who finished with eight tackles. “They are very good at it and it’s not something we’ve had a ton of experience with.”
KSU came from nearly 2,000 miles away, leaving temperatures that registered at or above 75 degrees all last week to the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Yet the Owls — in their third year as a football program — showed no fear against a perennial FCS power that has won 20 Big Sky Conference titles and three national championships.
The Owls took their next step toward their first-ever FCS playoff berth by starting and finishing strong. KSU’s lone touchdown drive came on the opening possession, spanning 17 plays, 89 yards and lasting for more than half of the first quarter.
“That first opening drive was a little rough,” said MSU junior nose tackle Tucker Yates after registering nine tackles. “That’s the style of their offense. They are going to run it every play. We just had to get off the field on third downs and that’s what ended up hurting us.”
The final drive of the game included four third down and three fourth down conversions, including a 15-yard gain on a pass from Burks to TJ Reed on a third and 10, a three-yard run on a fourth down by Burks and a 12-yard catch-and-run by Darnell Holland on a fourth and 6 following a KSU false start.
“They got in a front we hadn’t seen all game — they did a great job of mixing up fronts — and it came down to Darnell making a play,” Burks said. “That’s what we ask him to do and he was able to get it done.”
“The style they play on offense, it’s going to be low scoring, it’s going to be grind it out,” Choate said. “They did a tremendous job putting that last drive together. They converted a lot of third downs and fourth downs on that drive. That speaks to their maturity. A lot of respect for the way they play the game today.”
Kennesaw State converted 10-of-21 third downs and three of four on fourth down behind Burks’ clutch ability, fullback Jake McKenzie’s hard-nosed running and interior offensive linemen CJ Cillins, Matt Frank and Nick Eldridge’s physical drive blocking.
“We had to,” Bohannon said when asked about the crucial conversions. “I told the guys we had to score on that last drive. Heck, I wanted to go ahead and go for it right there on the last fourth down and put the game behind us but I was living on the edge enough as it was.”
Burks completed just four passes, but one was a KSU-long 22-yard gain on the first third down of the game during the impressive opening drive. Another was the lofting toss to Holland on the late-game 4th & 6. All told, Burks converted seven third or fourth downs with his feet and three more with his arm. He finished with 204 of KSU’s 401 yards of total offense.
“He’s the guy when they got into third and fourth downs, he was going to keep the ball in his hands most of the time and it’s either him or the fullback,” Choate said of Burks. “I thought we did a pretty good job of stringing things out and not giving them a lot on the perimeter but he would duck the ball up and get five yards. It’s just a maddening style of play.”
Fullback Jake McKenzie finished with 20 carries for 116 yards, including a game-long jolt of 30 yards that set up Thompson’s 40-yard field goal. The 3-pointer cut MSU’s lead to 14-13 in the third quarter. Multiple spectators on the field said the kick went wide left of the field goal posts.
“We knew in short-yardage, they would go to the quarterback or the fullback, especially on the goal line with the quarterback keeping the ball,” Hill said. “Sometimes, we fit it well and other times we didn’t.”
Montana State answered KSU’s dominant opening drive with a 12-play, 77-yard drive lasting 5:09 capped by Murray’s seven-yard touchdown run. The first quarter lasted a few plays longer than one possession each Saturday, eclipsing just 30 minutes of real time.
The Bobcats mustered 196 total yards thereafter. Murray struggled again, completing 5-of-18 passes for 110 yards. The sophomore carried the ball 14 times for 92 yards and the touchdown to cap the first possession, pacing a rushing attack that managed 163 yards on 33 carries (4.9 yards per carry). But the offense managed just 41 plays as KSU possessed the ball for nearly 40 minutes.
“They do what they do,” Choate said. “They stick to it and they believe in it. It took us a minute to figure out the speed of the game and how some of those blocks are going to develop, how we were going to fit some of the things they do. But you could see they check at the line every time. We were trying to stem and give them different looks and take away what their first option is but the quarterback in this system, Chandler Burks did a tremendous job of getting them into the right play whether we were pinching or trying to force the ball outside.”
“They always had a counter punch and this is the beauty of this style of offense, especially when it’s operated at the level it was today.”
MSU’s other scoring drive came on the first possession of the second half. Murray ripped off a 17-yard run on the first play after halftime, then wound his way to 17 more yards on a drop-back scramble in which he broke three tackles down to the KSU 30.
After an intentional grounding penalty caused by KSU’s constant pressure, Murray lofted a throw down the MSU sideline to senior Mitch Herbert, who snatched the ball from Dorian Walker and cruised to a 37-yard touchdown. The score was Herbert’s 20th in his career, one away from tying Kelly Davis’ school record. The score gave MSU its first lead, 14-10.
Kennesaw State plays defending Big South champion Charleston Southern (5-4) at home next week. KSU faces fellow first-place team Monmouth in Kennesaw to end the season.
Montana State will look to improve on its 4-2 conference record next week with a trip to Northern Arizona. NAU, without All-American quarterback Case Cookus, fell 17-15 at Montana on Saturday.
“I don’t think this game means anything in any schematic aspect,” MSU junior running back Logan Jones said. “They are a very good football team but this has nothing to do with where we are trying to go and where we are trying to lead this program.
“You have to get this taste out of your mouth, come back and watch film, get ready for NAU like it’s a normal week,’ Jones said. “We have to be the best we can in everything we do.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.