Kennesaw State ready for its first close-up

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(STATS) - As first impressions go, Kennesaw State's has been enticing enough to turn more than a few heads.

Brian Bohannon doesn't have any interest in his program getting a few fleeting glances, though. He wants those looks to linger, and he knows the Owls' first-ever Big South Conference game Saturday against Gardner-Webb is a prime spot to make sure they do.

The suburban Atlanta town of Kennesaw is somewhat infamous for having a law requiring that its citizens own guns, while Kennesaw State itself is probably best known for being the home of a course taught by Newt Gingrich in 1993 that wound up at the center of a congressional ethics scandal.

Now, a roster full of freshmen and transfers that largely wasn't even alive when Gingrich was teaching "Renewing American Civilization" on the Cobb County campus is trying to make sure Kennesaw State's inaugural season of football is more than just the on-field embodiment of a participation trophy.

The competition hasn't been stiff - two NAIA schools, a Division II program and another fledgling FCS outfit make up the Owls' four victories - but the results so far have been splendid.

Kennesaw State is second in the nation in rushing yards on a per-game basis (337.4), third when broken down by carry (6.1) and tied for the FCS lead with 20 touchdowns on the ground. Bohannon's team is putting up 43.0 points per game and surrendering 16.2, both among the top 10. And even if those four wins were considered gimmes - which, considering the circumstances, is quite debatable - the Owls' most impressive performance may have come in their lone loss, when they went toe-to-toe with unbeaten Dayton before falling 31-27 on Sept. 26.

Now it's time for the Big South to see if its newest member can eventually help carry the torch for a league that's about to lose its most prominent member - No. 3 Coastal Carolina - to the FBS.

"You only get one chance to make a first impression," Bohannon said. "Everyone around the Big South is kind of looking at us, going 'well, have the played anybody? Are they really any good? Is this the start of something? What is it?' We've got a chance to go make an impression."

They've already made one on Gardner-Webb's Carroll McCray.

"They're tops in the league in almost everything we do, especially in the run game," the third-year coach said. "It looks to me like they're really ahead of schedule."

McCray's program comes in off one of its biggest victories in years, a 34-20 stunner over a Liberty team that was ranked 15th in the STATS FCS Top 25, but it won't be entering an environment full of fans just happy to have a distraction from studying for their biochem midterms. Each game at Fifth Third Bank Stadium has sold out, and there hasn't been a ticket available to the 8,300-seat facility for this one in more than a month.

For Bohannon, who played at Georgia in the early 1990s and coached at Georgia Tech for five years before arriving in Kennesaw to start the program in 2013, establishing a hostile atmosphere for opponents is critical.

"I can't tell you how big a deal it is and how much our kids feed off the energy in the stadium," Bohannon said. "Having every seat in that stadium packed is going to make a huge impact on our football team."

"We've got to come to the gate with a chip on our shoulder every week. Right now, we're the little start-up with something to prove every time we go on the field. I'm good with that."

Apple or Google they're not, but even the questionable competition shouldn't preclude the Owls from feeling good about one critical element heading into Big South play. They're converting an FCS-high 56.9 percent of their third-down chances, cashing in 12 of their 15 opportunities in last Saturday's 56-17 rout of Point University.

Quarterback Trey White, the team's leading rusher with 419 yards, finally made a big impact through the air by completing 9 of 14 passes for 239 yards - an eye-popping 17.1 yards per attempt - and three touchdowns.

"Our attitude towards each game is to build, and that relates to the passing game as well," said White, who transferred from The Citadel. "We've got some great players and I've just got to keep putting the ball in their hands."

Kennesaw State's receivers are averaging 25.2 yards per catch, a number that's certainly impacted by the level of competition and the element of surprise - who's worried about the aerial attack with that ground game? - but one that still could wind up being historically good. The last team to average more than 25 yards a catch at any level of Division I college football was Ohio University in 1997.

"We know that it's something that we have got to be able to do," Bohannon said. "With our team, the way it is right now, it's an asset, we have got to be able to use it, but we have to be smart how we do it."

Considering Gardner-Webb has held its four FCS opponents to 2.9 yards per carry with preseason Big South Defensive Player of the Year O.J. Mau plugging the middle of the defensive line, White might find himself looking for Justin Sumpter and Jae Bowen downfield even more in this one.

It's difficult to imagine anyone who thought Kennesaw State would be a three-point favorite in its first conference game, but even if it can top the Runnin' Bulldogs, things will get tougher. There's a date at Liberty next Saturday. A visit from Charleston Southern, suddenly No. 23 in the Coaches Poll, on Nov. 7. A trip to Coastal Carolina a week after that to see if the Owls can provide the cruelest of going-away presents - and perhaps knock the Chanticleers from the ranks of the unbeaten.

Building a program from scratch was the hard part, but assembling an FCS power is going to be the slow, complicated burn that takes more time than the relative whirlwind the last two years have been in Kennesaw.

"If you looked back at before the season, I'm sure a lot of teams had 'W's' circled around when they played us," Bohannon said. "We want to be the team that when they point, they go 'Oh no, we've got to play them in their place.'

"But we have to go out and earn that respect."

The eyes of the Big South will be watching. It's up to the Owls to keep them there.