By Chris Raimondi, Sports Editor
With seven seconds to go on fourth-and-goal from the 4-yard line, Nick Perrotta made a game-winning interception to preserve a 12-7 victory over Gardner-Webb in Kennesaw State’s first Big South Conference game.
The interception highlighted a banner day for the Owls’ defense which held the Runnin’ Bulldogs (2-4, 1-1) to 200 yards and one touchdown.
“It a big deal, there aren’t two ways about it,” KSU head coach Brian Bohannon said of winning the first conference game in program history. “We [were] playing some men out there. There were some juniors and seniors out there that were some big guys that played a little more football than our guys have. And for our guys to go compete like they did, you couldn’t ask for much more.”
KSU (5-1, 1-0) is the first conference newcomer to win its Big South opener since the conference’s inception in 2002.
Perrotta also intercepted a pass for a touchdown against East Tennessee State in the first game of the season.
“To be able to help the team win today, and I felt like I didn’t play as best I could throughout the rest of the game, but to be able to make a play at the end and help the team get a win was definitely an exciting moment,” Perrotta said.
The win marks the second time that a game came down to the final play and KSU won. The Shorter game Sept. 19 ended on a fumbled snap returned for a touchdown by Dez Billingslea. The Owls are undefeated at home (4-0).
KSU’s offense produced 353 total yards, 20 first downs and entered the red zone five times, but they were never able to find the end zone. Freshman kicker Justin Thompson produced all of the Owls’ points, going 4-for-5 on field-goal attempts with a long of 33 yards.
KSU quarterback Trey White was the game’s leading rusher with 176 yards with a long of 25. The Owls’ second-leading rusher was backup quarterback Jake McKenzie, who played at the two-back position, with 34 yards.
The game ultimately came down to defense and time of possession, both of which KSU had the upper hand in. GWU only produced three first-downs through three quarters and never crossed midfield until 11 minutes to go in the third quarter.
The Owls dominated time of possession with 38 minutes. A bulk of that time came from a drive which lasted 10:56, began with 9:34 left in the third quarter and brought the game into the final frame.
On that possession, KSU drove 83 yards on 19 plays and had its best shot at six points, but time mismanagement and penalties forced the Owls to kick their third field goal of the day.
After McKenzie failed to pick up the first down on a third-and-two from the 5-yard line, Bohannon elected to go for it on fourth down. However, KSU was forced to take two timeouts in succession to avoid being called for a delay of game. A false start penalty after the second timeout forced the Owls to kick on fourth-and-six which gave them a 9-0 lead.
“I mismanaged a little bit of the one timeout because we didn’t do a good job of recognizing the 25-second clock,” Bohannon said. “We ended up kicking a field goal, which I was going back-and-forth on anyways.”
The Runnin’ Bulldogs found a rhythm on offense later in the fourth quarter and produced a 9-play, 58-yard drive capped off by a Josh Bettistea 1-yard touchdown run. KSU held a slim 9-7 lead after the score with 5:27 to go.
On the following possession, the Owls found themselves inside GWU territory in six plays when wide receiver Justin Sumpter made a leaping catch over a defender’s helmet for a 39-yard gain. The reception ultimately set up a 31-yard FG from Thompson to make it a 12-7 game after KSU again failed to come away with a touchdown inside the red zone.
Gardner-Webb started the final drive on its own 40-yard line with 1:40 to go. Sophomore quarterback Tyrell Maxwell drove the Bulldogs down to the 6-yard line in seven plays to set his team up with a 1st-and goal from the 6-yard line with 19 seconds to go.
After an incomplete pass, a completion for a gain of two yards and another incompletion, the Owls’ defense needed to make one more play to save the game on fourth-and-goal from the 4-yard line with six seconds left. Perrotta dropped into coverage and made a play.
“Coach Newberry made the same called towards the end of the game there a couple of times in a row that put me in a spot to just read the quarterback, drop kind of in the coverage,” Perrotta said. “I guess I’ve been wearing the wrong jersey because like ETSU they kept throwing the ball to me.”
The Owls head to Lynchburg, Virginia Oct. 24 to play Liberty (3-4, 0-2) in their second Big South game. The Flames have lost two straight and have fallen out of the top-25 ranking in FCS (formerly No. 15).