Disappointing end to senior night

Griffin Traylor, Sports Editor

 North Alabama seniors entered Braly Stadium for the last time on Nov. 13 to face off against fifth-ranked Kennesaw State. The now 2-8 overall Lions have had a tough year, and the final home game was no exception. The Kennesaw Owls posed a record of 8-1 before the game, placing them in the number two spot on FCS rankings. Kennesaw was led by head coach Brian Bohannon, who previously became the fastest coach to reach 50 wins, doing so in only 65 games. 

During pre-game warmups, an Owls player threw a punch, and after UNA players retaliated, a rare pre-game penalty was thrown, resulting in a 15-yard penalty in favor of Kennesaw State. The names of the players involved were not released.

“The official saw him punch our guy. We shouldn’t have punched back, but still,” Head Coach Chris Willis said. 

UNA came out with the ball first and was held to a quick three-and-out. On KSU’s first possession, they too were held to the same result. Both defenses were very active in the first quarter before UNA wide receiver, Cortez Hall, broke away for a career-high 69-yard touchdown. The quarter closed with UNA up 7-0. Hall credits the touchdown to wide receiver Dexter Boykin for his down field blocking. 

UNA used Hall’s touchdown momentum in the second quarter. Their starting drive lasted 11 plays, going 63-yards for another passing touchdown by Blake Dever,this time to Corson Swan from two yards out. The Owls began to get their groove, going 75-yards in 13 plays for their first touchdown of the game, cutting the score to 7-14. The next UNA possession resulted in a turnover, after a questionable decision by referees. Dever scrambled out of the pocket and threw the ball out of bounds once Owl players caught up to him. Referees, however, did not blow the whistle on the play. Dever was then taken down hard by a group of KSU defenders, and the play was recorded as a sack, despite the throw away. 

“It was a bad call by the officials,” Willis said. “The rule in college football, if you get outside of the tackle box, you can throw it in the concession stands; you can throw it over the scoreboard; you can throw it wherever you want, and that’s what he did. He threw it away, and they never did blow the whistle. [The referee] told me he didn’t blow the whistle, so I couldn’t get a good understanding of why. It should have been a throw away, and we should have had the ball back at the line of scrimmage, or it should have been a late hit, and it wasn’t. I didn’t agree with that call.”

Dever’s right arm was injured after the hit, which was recorded as a nine-yard sack. Quarterback Rett Files took the field for one play that resulted in a KSU interception, returned for 32-yards. This set up a 38-yard drive from KSU for their second touchdown of the game. The UNA secondary broke down on the play and left the Owls wide receiver, Caleb O’Neal, wide open for a 27-yard touchdown catch with just 54 seconds remaining in the half. 

Although UNA was converting drives in the first half, there were several dropped passes. Willis said this was unusual for his team, but that they didn’t dwell on it during the half. 

KSU came out of the break with an unusual strategy: option runs with quarterback Xavier Shepherd. Kennesaw ran the ball 57-yards to the UNA 6-yard line with nearly identical play calling on all 12 plays. On first and goal, UNA’s Wallace Cowins Jr. forced and recovered a fumble at the two-yard line, finally shutting down the option play. UNA struggled to gain traction on offense and was forced to punt after only five plays. 

KSU got the ball back and struggled to get the same play going from the previous drive. They were shut down again in the redzone by the Lions, but an offside on the KSU field goal gave them first and goal. KSU capitalized on the call and converted a three-yard touchdown, pushing the score to 21-14 in favor of the Owls. 

UNA held the ball through the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, and the drive ended after 87-yards with another Dever passing touchdown. This throw to Takairee Kenebrew marked a new career high– three touchdowns in a game for the senior, Dever. 

“With senior day, we wanted to give him an opportunity,” Willis said. “He’s been hurt and had a bad ankle. I thought he stepped up to it and did well, considering he’s been out for so long.”

The UNA defense stood strong and shut down the KSU offense in three plays. With just under 10 minutes remaining, UNA took over on their own 35-yard line. The first play of the drive was a handoff and pitchback to wide receiver Dexter Boykin, who had a wide-open Kenebrew down field. Boykin’s pass was well underthrowing, allowing defenders time to catch up and swat the ball away. 

UNA then utilized running back Jaxton Carson to take six minutes off the clock. Carson ran the ball well through the game, ending with 82-yards in 20 carries. Carson got 41 of those yards in the fourth quarter. 

“He probably had a little extra incentive. That was his old team,” Willis said. “He came out wanting to show them up; he played hard.”

Carson helped set up a UNA field goal with only three minutes remaining. KSU got the ball back and quickly completed a 25-yard pass into UNA territory. KSU got in field goal range and went back to their running game. Owl’s running back, Adeolu Adeleke, then broke away for a 20-yard gain to the UNA five-yard line. With a minute remaining, KSU went back to their option run, and the UNA defense failed to hold the line. KSU scored a touchdown with 56 seconds remaining. 

UNA offense came back onto the field, down four, with just under a minute. The Lions gained eight yards before an interception by KSU’s Erwin Byrd iced the game. KSU proceeded to kneel out the clock and take the victory 28-24. 

This will be the final home game for UNA this season, and unfortunately, for some seniors, the last game of their careers. 

“It was really important to me, but not for me,” Kenebrew said. “I was trying to do it for all the seniors that we have on the team. I know all of their folks came out to see them. I was trying to pull this away for them. [For] a lot of those guys, you don’t know what’s coming for the future. I was just trying to make the last home game the best one they’ve played. It could have ended a lot better, but I’m just happy to be alongside my brothers.” 

Despite the loss, Kenebrew did help senior quarterback Dever accomplish a career-high three touchdowns. Receiver Cortez Hall said regardless of the opponent, he never thinks of being an underdog team. 

“We walk into every game believing we can win it,” Hall said. “This is a team that never quits. We could be playing the New England Patriots, [and] we are not going to quit.” 

Hall gave credit to the seniors on the team for the foundation they have set through the transition to Division 1 for the program. Coach Willis said the way seniors of the team lead by example helps build that foundation for success. 

“They see their work ethic, and a lot of these guys are just good people,” Willis said. “They show up; they’re always on time; they’re in the building where they are supposed to be; they’re doing the things the right way and they see that.” 

The lions are now 2-8 this season after the loss to Kennesaw State. The North Alabama football team has one final game left in their season against 5-5 Hampton University. That game will take place in Hampton, Va on Nov. 20 at 12 p.m.