No. 3 Jacksonville State won’t look past surging Kennesaw State

Jacksonville State defeated UT Martin in a 33-7 blowout victory at Burgess-Snow Field to claim their third consecutive OVC championship and the league's automatic berth in the FCS playoffs. Darius Jackson (40).

(STATS) – If Jacksonville State is looking for any extra motivation this week, it can think back to this time last year.

For Kennesaw State, extending an already special season might be the only fuel needed to clear its second-round hurdle in the FCS playoffs.

The No. 3 seed Gamecocks – a playoff staple and national runner-up two years ago – host an Owls program Saturday that in its third season of existence has won a conference title and is riding an 11-game winning streak.

“I think the experience helps going in,” Jacksonville State coach John Grass said. “You’ve got to play your very, very best to have a chance to win. You start looking down the road at matchups and it will cost you for sure.”

While that wasn’t necessarily the case last season, the Gamecocks are still feeling the sting of a 40-24 second-round home playoff loss to Youngstown State. The underdog Penguins went on to their own national runner-up finish while the Gamecocks had to endure the long wait to begin their quest of potentially settling some unfinished business.

“I remember how last year felt and I don’t want that again,” first-team all-Ohio Valley Conference linebacker Jonathan Hagler said. “I do not like losing.”

Following a 10-1 regular season that included a fourth consecutive OVC title, Jacksonville State will make its fifth straight playoff appearance and eighth overall.

Kennesaw State, meanwhile, is coming off a 28-17 victory over Samford in its first-ever playoff game. The Owls also avenged their lone defeat, which came in their season opener.

“When you get in the playoffs, it’s survive and advance, that’s really it,” Kennesaw coach Brian Bohannon told the school’s official website. “All you are doing is finding a way and advance to the next round.”

The Owls did so last week by continuing their dominance on the ground, running for 329 yards via a triple-option offense that ranks first in the FCS with 338.2 rushing yards per game. With 984 yards and 16 touchdowns, junior quarterback Chandler Burks leads a group of four Kennesaw players with at least 600 yards on the ground. Shaquil Terry ran for 120 yards on just eight carries against Samford.

Jacksonville State, however, is second in the subdivision against the run, allowing 63.1 yards per contest, and has yielded seven runs of 20 or more yards this season – just one in the last five contests. Defensive end Darius Jackson, the two-time OVC defensive player of the year, has recorded 19 tackles for loss and seven sacks to pace a Gamecocks defense that ranks second nationally by giving up 203.5 total yards per game.

That unit has also seen the triple-option run at the highest level in a 37-10 loss to Georgia Tech on Sept. 9. The Yellow Jackets ran for 210 yards in that meeting, but well below their 307.4 season average.

“(Kennesaw State is) a little bit more multiple than Georgia Tech was,” Grass said of an Owls’ option attack implemented by Bohannon, who was an offensive assistant at Georgia Tech from 2008-12.

Paced by junior quarterback Bryant Horn (1,288 passing yards, 709 rushing yards) and OVC offensive player of the year Roc Thomas (991 rushing yards, 12 TDs), Jacksonville State is averaging 30.8 points. The Owls, though, rank sixth overall defensively, giving up 14.7 points per game, and are led by freshman linebacker Bryson Armstrong (98 total tackles, 10 sacks).

Kennesaw also has a FCS-best plus-23 turnover margin while JSU is minus-1.

This is the first meeting between the schools, though their initial matchup was to come in next season’s opener in the first football game at SunTrust Park, home of the Atlanta Braves.

Instead, a playoff get-together with plenty on the line will have to do.

“The biggest thing with the playoffs is being able to handle it being late in the season,” Jacksonville State running back Tramel Terry said.

“It will come down to who wants it more.”