BOILING SPRINGS – Tyrell Maxwell was stopped on a fourth-down scramble with 31 seconds left and Gardner-Webb's comeback attempt fell short in a 47-39 loss to Kennesaw State in a wild Big South Conference battle.
The Runnin' Bulldogs (3-5, 1-1 Big South) trailed 40-21 at halftime – the most points allowed by GWU ever in the first half of a league game – after Kennesaw State (5-2, 1-1 Big South) scored touchdowns on each of its six drives in the first half.
The Owls scored again to start the second half – its seventh consecutive drive with a touchdown – to go up 47-21 early win the second quarter. Gardner-Webb recovered and was able to throw a series of counter punches to set up the tight finish.
"We made some adjustments at halftime defensively and played some guys at different spots and offensively made some adjustments to our perimeter game that helped," said head coach Carroll McCray. "I think we're fighters, but bottom line is we have to start faster. I feel like our guys are aware that if we do the things we're asked to do and all play together we can win games against anybody in this league. Now we have to do that for 60 minutes and prove we can do it on a Saturday."
The Runnin' Bulldogs took the first lead of the game with a steady drive, going 75 yards on seven plays. Maxwell hit a wide open Jacob Henderson on a 38-yard swing pass to cap the march, giving Henderson his first career touchdown catch with 10:40 left in the first quarter.
Kennesaw State converted a key fourth down to keep its initial drive alive, also going 75 yards in seven plays. Chaston Bennett darted 25 yards for the score, but the extra point was missed to leave GWU up 7-6 with 7:31 on the first quarter clock.
A Gardner-Webb punt gave the Owls another shot at the end zone and they capitalized, going 54 yards on three plays. A 45-yard pass from Chandler Burks to Bennett set up things at the Gardner-Webb eight, and Darnell Holland trotted in on the next play for a 12-7 lead. The extra point was blocked by Aaron Cook.
Maxwell was picked off on a tipped ball near midfield as Gardner-Webb tried to respond, and Kennesaw State got a 28-yard touchdown run from Bennett – and a two-point conversion – to go up 20-7 with 50 seconds left in the quarter.
Sam Outlaw put the visitors up 26-7 with an eight-yard run up the middle on Kennesaw's next offensive possession, before Gardner-Webb finally answered back.
Khalil Lewis burst up the middle for a 33-yard touchdown with 7:45 to play before halftime, and the PAT cut the Owls' lead to 26-14. Kennesaw State got a short touchdown run from Trey White with 2:52 before halftime for a 33-14 lead – but an offensive fireworks display was in store before intermission.
Maxwell found Adonus Lee open downfield for a 64-yard touchdown hookup on Gardner-Webb's next drive, with Lee stepping out of a potential tackle and racing to the end zone with 2:06 on the clock to trim the lead to 33-21.
The Owls had enough time to put together a sixth touchdown drive, however, going 75 yards in 10 plays to beat the halftime clock. Burks scrambled out of trouble on fourth-and-5 from the Gardner-Webb 19, and his toss into the end zone was pulled out of the air by Jordan Walker with zeroes on the clock for a touchdown and a 40-21 advantage.
Kennesaw State received the third quarter kickoff and wasted little time to score its seventh touchdown of the game – with Burks finding Bennett wide open after a busted coverage. Bennett high stepped down the sideline for a 61-yard touchdown and the Owls led 47-21 with 13:04 left in the third.
Gardner-Webb was not finished for the afternoon, however, and began its comeback with a 37-yard field goal from Paul Schumacher after a promising drive stalled in Owls' territory.
The GWU defense forced its first punt of the day and Maxwell took charge under center. The Cordova, S.C., junior ran three times for 37 yards – and completed a pair of short passes – to set Gardner-Webb up at the Kennesaw State 22.
Lewis burst through the middle for a 20-yard gain from there – and finished the drive with a two-yard touchdown run with 1:39 on the third quarter clock.
Trailing 47-31 as the fourth quarter started, Gardner-Webb's Justin Miller and Davis Neilands combined to sack Burks to put Kennesaw State behind the chains after another drive into GWU territory. Two plays later Burks' fourth down pass was incomplete and Gardner-Webb took over on downs at its own 30.
Maxwell found another receiver open downfield, hitting Willie Jackson IV on a 70-yard bomb to make the score 47-37 with 12:12 left in the game. He then found Kyle Horton on a two-point conversion pass, and Horton shed a pair of tacklers to find the pylon and cut the lead to one score.
Gardner-Webb forced another punt and pushed up near midfield before stalling. Maxwell's fourth down pass was knocked away by defensive lineman Braylon Young – who dropped into coverage – at the 50-yard line.
The GWU defense got another stop, forcing a punt with 3:10 remaining, and Maxwell went to work again.
Gardner-Webb picked up three first downs to get into Kennesaw State territory, but a sack on second down at the 49-yard line put the drive in serious jeopardy. Maxwell scrambled out of trouble for an eight-yard gain to get that yardage back for a fourth-down try, but a false start set up a 4th-and-15.
Kennesaw State went cover zero on the ensuing play to force Maxwell out of the pocket. He scrambled for eight yards before Tenarious Portress and Raekwon Chatman pushed him out of bounds to seal the game.
The two teams combined for 991 offensive yards Saturday, including 582 on the ground.
Gardner-Webb finished with a balanced 481 yards offensively – 279 on the ground and 202 through the air – and 21 first downs.
Maxwell ran 23 times for 122 yards and completed 8-of-16 passes for 202 yards and a career-high three touchdowns. It marked the second time in as many Big South games this season that he has topped 100 yards rushing and 200 yards passing.
Lewis carried 18 times for a career-high 138 yards and a pair of touchdowns, averaging 7.7 yards per carry. He now has 12 rushing touchdowns on the season, one shy of Shed Harris' 1996 school record.
Kennesaw State churned its way to 303 yards on the ground and 510 total yards Saturday – with 357 of those yards coming before halftime.
The Owls were led by Bennett, who totaled 223 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns on just 12 touches. He rushed for 76 yards and two scores, caught three passes for 110 yards and a score and returned two kickoffs for 37 yards.
Bures was efficient, completing 11-of-19 passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns without a turnover. He also ran 14 times for 72 yards to average 5.1 yards per carry.
Linebackers Anthony Gore (12 tackles) and Izzy Sam (11 tackles) led the way defensively.
Things only get tougher for Gardner-Webb, with a road trip to league powerhouse Liberty looming next Saturday (October 29). Kickoff is scheduled for 3:30 pm in Lynchburg, Va. – a place GWU hasn't won since 2006.