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Kennesaw State ready for revenge against Samford
By: By BRETT HUSTON  - STATS Senior Editor=
Published: 11/24/2017  at  11:20:02 AM
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(STATS) - After dominating Samford for 30 minutes way back in August, Kennesaw State wasn't the same team following a three-hour weather delay.

The Owls are hoping a three-month gap - and the 10 straight wins they've racked up since - have taught them to finish the deal.

The venue will be different and the weather should be much more favorable Saturday as 18th-ranked Kennesaw State looks for revenge in its playoff debut against No. 14 Samford.

The Owls (10-1) outgained the Bulldogs 330-95 and held the ball for nearly 20 minutes in the first half on Aug. 31 in Homewood, Alabama, but all they took to the locker room was a 10-7 lead.

By the time they emerged from the tunnel after a more than three-hour delay due to a tornado warning from the remnants of Hurricane Harvey, any momentum had disappeared. Samford (8-3) took control with a pair of Devlin Hodges touchdown passes in the third quarter and won 28-23 despite being outgained 545-311.

Kennesaw State didn't lose again, rolling through its five Big South opponents by a combined 177-52 score that included a 52-21 pasting of fellow playoff team Monmouth last Saturday. Now, to look ahead to the first playoff appearance in the program's three-year football history, the Owls can look back to their 2017 debut.

"It gives us a chance to redeem ourselves," wide receiver Justin Sumpter said.

Samford has at least partially redeemed itself for its slide down the stretch last season, when it dropped three of its last four regular-season games before falling 38-24 at Youngstown State in the first round of the playoffs. A 23-21 home loss to struggling Chattanooga on Oct. 28 seemed to be cause for concern after three straight wins, but the Bulldogs went 3-0 in November - closing it out with a 26-20 victory over fellow SoCon postseason qualifier Furman.

Samford held the Paladins' option attack to just 3.7 yards per carry and limited The Citadel's triple option to 3.5 earlier in the season. Now it's back to the film room to figure out a way to slow the Owls more than they did (4.8 ypc) in the first meeting.

"It's a familiar opponent, but both teams are a little different now," Bulldogs coach Chris Hatcher said. "It's been a long time since we've played each other, so I imagine they've found their rhythm and we've found ours."

What makes the Bulldogs a potentially tougher out in the playoffs this time around - the winner faces No. 3 seed Jacksonville State - is the defense. Hodges was fantastic last season in being named the Big South's offensive player of the year and he's been very good again, but Samford's defense has allowed just 13.6 points per game over its 6-1 closing stretch.

The Bulldogs yielded an average of 30.1 points in their previous 14 games.

"We're clicking at the right time on both sides of the ball," Hodges said. "I still don't think we've reached our peak."

Hodges' counterpart is Chandler Burks, the first signee in Kennesaw State history, and while Burks does most of his work on the ground - his 15 rushing TDs were tops in the FCS among quarterbacks - he can sling it a bit as well. Twenty-four of his 56 completions went to Sumpter, who has averaged 19.0 yards per catch and hauled in 15 touchdown passes in his three seasons.

No FCS quarterback has thrown more passes than Hodges' 992 in the past two seasons, and he has a pair of standout targets in 2017. Junior Kelvin McKnight ranks no lower than eighth in the subdivision in receptions (78), yards (1,107) and touchdowns (12), while sophomore Chris Shelling (61-721-6) has emerged as a nice No. 2.

It was McKnight (5-106-2) and Andrew Harris (4-100-1) who gave the Owls the most trouble in the season opener, but Kennesaw State's pass defense has been stellar since letting Hodges throw four touchdown passes. Sort things from Sept. 1 and the Owls have the most interceptions in the FCS (20) and the 10th-best opposing passer rating (105.9).

If it sounds like a fairly even matchup on paper, Vegas sees it the same way. The game was listed as a pick'em upon opening at the sports books on Monday, though Hodges thinks Samford has the edge in an environment that should be in the mid-60s at Kennesaw's Fifth Third Bank Stadium.

"It's tough to beat the same team twice in a season," Hodges said. "But I definitely like our team to be able to beat them twice."

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