Kennesaw, GA – Tennessee State glistened like the red metallic numbers on their helmets while defeating Kennesaw State 27-20 Saturday afternoon at Fifth Third Bank Stadium.
It was the second time the Tigers ruined a special day for programs in Georgia less than 15 years old. Big Blue spoiled Georgia State’s season opener in 2017 on the Panthers’ first game in Panthers Stadium (now called Center Parc).
Tennessee State kicker James Lowery split the uprights from 51 yards out to give the Tigers a 3-0 lead. The Tigers never relinquished that lead.
Jordan Gant gave the Tigers a 10-0 lead on a 2-yard touchdown run on their third series of the game. The red-shirt freshman had a season’s best performance and kept the aggressive Owls defensive front seven honest rushing for 105 yards on 18 carries. A statistic made more impressive by the absence of any tackles for loss.
The Owls responded with 10 points on their next two possessions. Jonathan Murphy picked himself up from the turf after being sacked by Eriq George and rallied the troops with three passes for 59 yards. Gabriel Benyard finally broke loose for his biggest run of the game a 19-yard romp to the Tigers’ 1-yard line. Murphy capped the drive scooting over the right side for his first touchdown of the game.
George had five tackles, a quarterback hurry, and 1.5 sacks for the Tigers. “That’s my boy,” exclaimed his father and Head Coach Eddie George. “As a coach, he is doing just fine doing his job.”
There is no doubt Benyard is Mister Everything for the Owls. The junior from Ocilla, GA rushed for 21 yards on 30 carries, caught two passes for 40 yards, recovered a fumble snapped over the head of Murphy, and returned a kick 84 yards to set up another Owls touchdown. Despite Benyard’s positive impact, the Owls’ play-maker didn’t get another play called for him until less than a minute was remaining in the game.
Lowery added another field goal in the first half’s final minute to break the tie. Draylen Ellis completed crucial passes to Dayron Johnson and Delanie Majors on two third and long downs to extend the drive. Owls cornerback Deontre Morris broke up a potential first-down pass to Johnson to force the field goal by Lowery. The red-shirt junior came through for the Tigers again splitting the uprights from 41 yards out.
Halftime included the crowning of the Owls’ Homecoming court and an amazing performance by TSU’s Aristocrat of Bands.
Both offenses sputtered with their first possessions of the second half. Big Blue found the gear first. With Ellis under center, the Tigers mounted a 12-play, 80-yard drive that included two big third-down conversions. Trenton Gillison caught a 13-yard pass from Ellis to convert third-and-thirteen. Ellis sprinted 8 yards to the Owls 18 to convert third-and-seven. Karate Brenson made the Owls pay for failing to stop the Tigers and get off the field. The redshirt sophomore receiver beat the Owls coverage with two consecutive receptions, a 14-yarder, and a 4-yard touchdown.
Tennessee State answered the Owls’ second touchdown of the game with another long scoring drive. Gant capped the 9-play, 63-yard drive with a 20-yard touchdown run behind superb blocking by the Tigers left side.
Kennesaw State let an opportunity to score a touchdown on a short field slip through their talons after pinning the Tigers inside the 5 on a 58-yard punt by Joshua Huiet. The Tigers were unable to move the ball and the resulting punt from the end zone traveled a meager 33 yards to the 35-yard line.
Three downs later Owls Head Coach Brian Bohannon sent Conor Cummins back onto the field for another field goal attempt. Cummins had his struggles early in the season and was even replaced by a freshman kicker for one game.
Bohannon didn’t offer any excuses for the inconsistency on the offensive side of the ball. “We just made a major change and there are some things that we are working our way through and some of that stuff shows up,” said Bohannon speaking on the Owls’ decision to change from the triple option to the pistol option.
The stuff showed up at the wrong time. Cummins nailed the field goal to close the lead to seven but by the time Tennessee State returned the ball to the Owls the distance and time were too much to overcome.
The Tigers improve to 3-2 on the season and return to Nashville for Homecoming. They will host the dangerous Norfolk State Spartans (2-3) of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. The Spartans have were coming off a 21-14 win over Towson before falling 26-28 to former conference foe North Carolina A&T at William “Dick” Price Stadium Saturday.
Kennesaw State (1-5) has two weeks off before they suit up again. When they do, it will be to face a two-year-old Lincoln University from Oakland, CA. In a strange scheduling coincidence, the Oaklanders will have just played the same Tennessee State team a week before traveling to Kennesaw.
All photos by Jason McDonald, JM Photography for CORE360 Sports