CHARLESTON, S.C. – Charleston Southern is headed back to the FCS Playoffs. The Bucs clinched their second consecutive Big South Conference title and playoff berth with a convincing 28-7 win over Kennesaw State on Saturday at Buccaneer Field. The triumph earns CSU the league's automatic bid into the 24-team playoff field.
CSU's 35th victory in a remarkable four-year run under head coach Jamey Chadwell came on the strength of its two biggest strengths: a stingy defense and a powerful running game. The Bucs intercepted four passes and held Kennesaw State's potent triple option attack to less than four yards per carry. Darius Hammond, meanwhile, gave CSU all the offense it needed with a season-high 153 yards and two touchdowns.
CSU (7-3, 4-1 Big South) jumped out to a 14-0 first quarter lead and was never truly threatened by a Kennesaw State (8-3, 3-2 Big South) squad that entered on a four-game winning streak. The Bucs will learn their playoff opponent when the field is announced Sunday at 11 a.m. on ESPNU. CSU will hold a selection show watch party on-campus at Lightsey Chapel.
A year after running through their FCS slate undefeated, the Bucs entered the year as Big South favorite and ended it as champion, overcoming a good share of adversity along the way. Chadwell was happy to see CSU bounce back in resounding fashion from a disappointing home loss to Gardner-Webb to start November. The Bucs thumped Liberty in Lynchburg last Saturday and set the tone early to give 19 seniors a win in perhaps their final home game.
"I'm extremely proud," said Chadwell after earning a Gatorade bath, along with coordinators Gabe Giardina and Chad Staggs. "This was a tough season, to say the least. There was a lot of adversity that this group had to go through and coming off two weeks ago where we got upset by Gardner-Webb, I didn't know if we were gonna be able to see it through. I just didn't know. To be able to come back the last two weeks and win by a combined almost 50 points is pretty special."
Back-to-back conference titles also mean quite a bit as CSU continues to establish itself as a perennial national contender.
"To be back to back in the playoffs, one, it validates our program in the Big South," Chadwell said. "It validates it and validates us nationally that we weren't a one-hit wonder. That's something that I didn't let on but I wanted to make sure we cemented our program to be considered like that nationally."
Touchdown runs by Hammond and Holloway sparked CSU in the opening quarter. Hammond scored from ten yards out to a cap an impressive 14-play, 71-yard drive keyed by Shane Bucenell's fourth down connection to freshman Geoffrey Wall. Holloway scampered in from 18 yards out on an option pitch following a Shadarius Hopkins interception, his second in as many weeks.
Kennesaw answered with its best drive of the game to cut CSU's lead in half, chewing up nearly nine minutes of clock while covering 75 yards in 17 plays. Quarterback Trey White scored on a one-yard plunge shortly after converting a fourth down.
Late in the first half, CSU required just two plays to forge a 21-7 halftime advantage. Hammond broke a 43-yard run up the middle, and then Bucenell hit freshman Kameron Brown for a 37-yard touchdown down the left sideline. Brown snared a one-handed over-the-shoulder grab at the ten-yard line before sprinting into the end zone.
CSU's defense bent but did not break in the third quarter to maintain a two-touchdown advantage. The Owls threatened to score, advancing to the CSU 7-yard line with just over five minutes left. Troy McGowens, who intercepted two passes, broke up a fourth down pass in the end zone to snuff out the 74-yard march.
Bucenell gave the Bucs offense a boost to put the game away early in the fourth, ripping off an 18-yard gain on a 3rd-and-15 play to push the ball into Owls' territory. Hammond followed with a 19-yard burst and then crossed the goal line from 14 yards out for the second time of the day to send CSU's lead to 28-7 with 12:55 remaining.
McGowens came up with interceptions on each of Kennesaw State's next two possessions to help highlight a second straight strong defensive showing. KSU's ground game, ranked third nationally entering play, mustered just 172 yards on 46 attempts. Defensive tackle Noah Oliver paced CSU with a career-high 11 tackles, while fellow defensive lineman Johnny Robinson added nine stops. Junior linebacker Zane Cruz notched a pair of sacks.
"We knew going into it, they were a physical team similar to The Citadel," McGowens said. "We had a great scheme. Coach Staggs, he's like the option guru so we were well prepared and I just think we executed very well throughout the entire game. This team's been through a lot so this means a lot and I think we're destined for more."
CSU earned a national seed and advanced to the quarterfinals of the playoffs a year ago. The Bucs do not expect a by this year, meaning they would play their opening round game next Saturday, Nov. 26. Chadwell is eager to see what lies ahead of his club.
"I think that tough part's over because this was expected," Chadwell said. "What you do going forward is sort of gravy. We're probably still gonna be underdogs because of coming from this conference as a one-bid league and having the loss. Nationally, I don't know if we'll be a high seed or not so we've gotta buckle up and see who we play. When you get in the dance man, great things can happen. We saw that last year and we like our team going forward."