Turnover battle will be key

“No question about that,” Turner Gill said when stating that the turnover battle will be key this week. “They are +8, we are -2 in the turnover margin. (Turnover margin), that’s always going to be a factor, but it’s very, very crucial in this game because of what type of offense they have. They are going to run the clock down, they are averaging 32 minutes a game of possession. So, you will have less possessions (on offense) in this ball game than in other games we have played. We have to clean that up on the offensive side, taking care of the ball. Defensively, we’ve got to create turnovers. We’ve got to take the ball away, literally take the ball away.”

The Owls lead the Big South in turnover margin, having gained 15 turnovers and lost 7 so far this season. Meanwhile, the Flames are 4th in the conference with 6 turnovers gained and 8 turnovers lost. KSU also leads the Big South in time of possession. Due to Kennesaw’s ball control offense, opposing offenses have fewer possessions each game against their defense. For example, Liberty is averaging 14.8 drives per game this season while the Owls’ opponents are averaging just 12.6 drives per game. With fewer opportunities likely, the Flames’ offense must take advantage of the drives they do have, and that means limiting turnovers.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Flames have only forced 6 turnovers through the first 5 games of the year compared to 13 forced turnovers at this point last  year. Liberty focused on improving in this area during the bye week by doing some drills specifically focused on creating turnovers.

KSU’s offense has big play ability

Despite being a triple option team, the Owls’ offense has the potential to pick up big chunks of yardage on a single play. In the 2016 game against Liberty, KSU had 6 rushing plays that went for 10 yards or more, including runs of 53 and 63 yards. Quarterback Chandler Burks and company also had 4 pass plays that went for 20 yards or more. 10 of Kennesaw State’s 70 plays against the Flames last year were explosive plays, as Coach Gill describes them. That ratio is well below Gill’s stated goal of holding opponents to one explosive play out of every 25 offensive plays. This season, the Owls are averaging 5.8 yards per rush and over 300 yards rushing per game, both numbers lead the conference.

“We need to prevent explosive plays and we got to have explosive plays from the offensive point of view,” Gill said. “It’s pretty simple, win the turnover margin and win explosive plays, and I think that will give us a great chance to be successful (Saturday).”

Rion Davis is the team’s leading tackler through 5 games

After playing in a reserve role as a redshirt-freshman in 2016, Rion Davis has quietly established himself as one of the team leaders on defense. Through 5 games he leads the team with 32 tackles, and has been one of the most consistent performers on defense since the start of the season.

“Just the preparation,” defensive coordinator Robert Wimberly said of Davis, “he’s really dedicated himself, even in the off-season, to watching film. He came to me at the end of the season, and said, ‘Coach, I want to take that next step and be a leader.’ I gave him a list of things earlier this year that he had to do, and he’s been doing that. He prepares himself, probably the best out of my room, when it comes to knowing alignments, assignments, techniques for all 3 positions. He lives in the film room. I’ve been real impressed with how each week he’s become more and more vocal, trusting his abilities, and I’m just excited to see…he’s just a sophomore, I really think, if he continues to take these steps of getting better, we’re going to be very excited about him in the near future.”

Conference play

As we’ve mentioned repeatedly since Liberty announced their move to the FBS, the Flames are ineligible for the Big South conference football championship this season, but their games will count in the conference standings. So, as Big South conference play begins for the final time this weekend, the Flames are facing an odd situation. Of course, finishing at the top of the league standings, despite being ineligible, would be a nice feather in the cap to finish out FCS play.

“We talk about just getting better each and every day,” Gill said of the team’s focus during Big South play. “We know we’re not able to play for a conference championship, but it’s about us getting better every single day, competing to the best of our ability. That’s the conversation, that’s the dialogue we’ve all talked about. We’re all competitors, as coaches, as players, we want to go out and play our best. We love to play the game, we love to coach the game, we love to teach the game. You want to go out there and play your best. You’ve got an opportunity to go out there and put something on your resume. Your resume is each and every game, each and every week. We’re deciding who’s going to play more, who’s going to play less. Also, for the future, playing more, who’s going to play less.”

Injury update

As reported two weeks ago, defensive lineman Ralfs Rusins is out for the year. He had surgery on his knee earlier this week. Offensive lineman Ethan Crawford was listed as questionable earlier in the week, but he is expected to play.

My prediction:

Liberty 35, Kennesaw State 27