CHARLESTON, S.C. – Charleston Southern entered the year looking for the next one. The Bucs end the regular season with exactly that in their sights. No. 13 CSU hosts No. 22 Kennesaw State Saturday with a Big South Conference title and FCS playoff berth at stake. Kickoff is set for 11:45 a.m. and the game will be broadcast on ESPN3. Fans can also listen on csuports.com, with pregame coverage starting at 11:30.
CSU (6-3, 3-1 Big South) rebounded from a tough loss to Gardner-Webb in resounding fashion last week, downing Liberty, 48-26. The victory denied the Flames the outright league title and puts the Bucs in a win-and-in situation. Kennesaw State (8-2, 3-1 Big South) is bidding for a share of the conference championship in just its second year as a program. An Owls' win would give Liberty the Big South's automatic bid into the 24-team playoff field.
Saturday also marks the final regular season contest for 19 CSU seniors that will leave as the winningest four-year class in school history. The group will be honored in a pregame ceremony slated to begin about 20 minutes prior to kickoff.
An inspired brand of football propelled CSU to perhaps its best performance of the campaign against Liberty. The Bucs outgained the Flames, 288-75, to build a 31-6 halftime lead, and never looked back, silencing a crowd of nearly 22,000 fans.
CSU head coach Jamey Chadwell believes his squad will need to give a similar effort to beat Kennesaw. The Owls enter on a four-game winning streak in which they are averaging over 49 points per game. KSU broke into the Top-25 for the first time ever this week and is hoping to get into the conversation for an at-large playoff berth.
"They're a second-year program but they obviously don't have players like that," Chadwell said. "They've really done a nice job of building that program and you commend 'em for that. It's gonna be a 60-minute battle because they're really good and the last four games, they're just hammering people. They come in with a lot of confidence so we need to show up and play with the same type of energy we did last week."
Ellis and Blue Swarm looking to continue success vs. triple option
Anthony Ellis provided plenty of energy in CSU's third straight win over Liberty. Ellis earned Big South Defensive Player of the Week honors after notching a sack and 3.5 tackles for loss. He currently paces the circuit in both categories, more than living up to his billing as Big South Preseason Defensive Player of the Year.
Ellis and company shut down Kennesaw's triple option attack last November, limiting the Owls to 112 yards rushing on barely more than three yards per carry. KSU entered the game No. 3 nationally in rushing offense. CSU also had The Citadel's number twice, dominating in the second half of its regular season win before dominating wire-to-wire in the playoff matchup.
Kennesaw's array of speed will challenge CSU to continue that run of success. The Owls are the only team in the country among the FCS's Top 5 in total offense (5th), scoring offense (5th), rushing offense (3rd) and passing efficiency (1st). KSU has played three non-Division I opponents but there is no doubt coach Brian Bohannon's team has taken a considerable step forward in year two.
"They've got a lot of speed and can break big runs if you're not sound," Chadwell said. "Then you play them a certain way and they get you in one-on-one matchups and they've been hitting a lot of people with play action. Our defense will have a good plan and be prepared for what they present."
KSU quarterback Chandler Burks leads the team with 751 rushing yards and has also proven capable through the air, tossing 13 touchdowns. Running back Chaston Bennett is a home run threat that is averaging 18.5 yards per touch over his last six games.
Bucs looking to continue offensive production while limiting turnovers
CSU has produced over 500 yards offense four times this season and ranks among national leaders in rushing (6th), scoring (16th) and total offense (22nd). The Bucs have achieved all that despite committing 18 turnovers, contributing to a -5 turnover margin.
"We did some really good things (against Liberty) but we have to play better because we did turn it over (three times)," Chadwell said. "If we turn it over against these guys, with as dangerous as they are offensively and some of the skill they have, it'll make it tough."
CSU quarterback Shane Bucenell is coming off his second Big South Freshman of the Week honor. Bucenell shook off an early interception to throw three touchdown passes, including a 45-yarder to classmate Kameron Brown. Brown currently leads the league in yards per catch (20.8). Mike Holloway continues to pace the country in yards per carry (9.2) after posting his fifth 100-yard effort of the year.
Defensively, Kennesaw plays a 4-2-5 base scheme but varies looks often. Owls' defensive linemen Desmond Johnson (2nd – 6) and Tonarius Portress (2nd – 12) are among the Big South's leaders in sacks and tackles for loss. Linebackers Anthony Gore and Sam Izzy are KSU's leading tacklers.
"They're very similar to us in that they give you a bunch of different fronts and they like to bring pressure and put you in situations where you're behind the sticks. They do a good job of recognizing schemes and they're much improved from last year."
Notes to know
MAKING MARK AGAINST RIVALS
CSU is 10-2 against its three chief rivals under Jamey Chadwell. The Bucs are 4-0 against The Citadel (including a win in last year's FCS Playoffs) and 3-1 against both Coastal Carolina and Liberty. CSU's combined record against those programs prior to Chadwell's arrival was 6-30.
ELITE RUSHING ATTACK
CSU ranks sixth nationally in rushing offense, averaging 276.6 yards per game. The Bucs have a featured a Top- 20 rushing offense each of the past three years. This year, CSU has also showed greater quick strike ability. CSU led the country in time of possession in 2013 and 2014, and finished 19th last year. The Bucs sit 34th in that stat as of now.
BLUE SWARM LIVING UP TO ITS NAME
CSU had a season-high (against D-I competition) five sacks in the win over Liberty. Ellis, Solomon Brown, RaSean Ray, Bobby Ruff and Mike Taylor each got to the quarterback. For the year, CSU paces the Big South and ranks 9th nationally with 3.00 sacks per game.
FIXTURE IN THE POLLS
CSU was ranked in the top ten of both major national polls for the sixth straight week and eighth time overall this year prior to the Gardner-Webb game. The Bucs have been ranked in the top 25 for 20 straight weeks dating back to last season. CSU was ranked in the preseason and installed as the Big South Conference favorite for the first time ever this summer. Kennesaw will be the fifth ranked opponent CSU has played this year, joining NDSU (1), FSU (3 - FBS), Coastal Carolina (14) and Liberty (24) (rankings at time of game).