Each of the last two seasons, Monmouth (7-2) has lost to Kennesaw State in what amounted to a de facto Big South conference championship.

The Hawks were 0-4 against the Owls heading into last week’s matchup. But this time, Monmouth trounced No. 15 Kennesaw State, 45-21, earning the inside track to a conference title.

“It was a great feeling,” Monmouth junior running back Pete Guerriero said. “That’s what we needed. It feels good to finally get over that hump.”

Head coach Kevin Callahan is in 27th season with the program and has been at the helm the entire time the Hawks have had a football program. In 2017, Monmouth reached the FCS playoffs with an at-large bid, but Kennesaw State was still the obstacle keeping them from winning the conference.

He called the win “satisfying” for all of the players in the program, but he understands the work doesn’t end there to get where his team wants to go.

“To get that win was a big for us, for our guys,” Callahan said. “But they also know there’s a lot more to be done. We’ve got three games left. Each one is important.”

It starts Saturday, when No. 19 Monmouth welcomes North Alabama. Both Guerriero and Callahan were impressed with what they’ve seen from the Lions on video, coming off of last week’s win over Campbell. Guerriero pointed out the Lions have been in each game, including against No. 6 Montana.

“It might’ve looked how the score did, but they were up, (at the end) of the first half,” Guerriero said. “We’re in for a fight this week and I think that’s what everybody knows.”

The Hawks are led offensively by Guerriero and fifth-year starting quarterback Kenji Bahar. Guerriro has rushed for 1,099 yards and nine touchdowns this season, while Bahar has thrown for 2,374 yards, 17 touchdowns and six interceptions.

Callahan has been impressed with how Bahar has commanded the offense, particularly with his ability to take advantage of the defenses and getting the ball to the open receiver, rather than a particular one. The Hawks have four players with over 20 receptions this season, with junior Lonnie Moore IV leading the way with 47 catches, 662 yards and five touchdowns.

Bahar, who’s started as quarterback for the last three seasons, is on the Walter Payton Award watch list, awarded to the top offensive player in the FCS. UNA head coach Chris Willis said he believes Bahar will win Big South Player of the Year.

“It all starts with Kenji,” Callahan said. “He’s having a very good year, he’s a veteran quarterback. Our ability to run the ball decently at times has opened up opportunities in the pass game. Kenji is astute enough and has a high enough football IQ to take advantage of that.”

Defensively, the Hawks, who opened the season with a loss to Western Michigan and fell to Montana in the fourth week of the season, have improved in the games since, Callahan said. Monmouth held the Owls to 3 for 12 on third down conversions.

The leader in the middle is linebacker Da’Quan Grimes, who has 61 tackles on the year, 7 ½ for loss, two sacks and three forced fumbles. Callahan said Grimes has dealt with nagging injuries over the last two seasons and this is the first year he’s been 100 percent healthy.

As a unit, however, the Hawks’ defense had a few new starters come in at the beginning of the season and it took a few games to build communication and for them to get comfortable.

“(Now,) we’re starting to see that unity really galvanize and start to come along,” Callahan said.

With Kennesaw State now in the rear view, Guerriero said he quickly turned his focus to UNA, citing a “Who’s next?” mentality.

“I’m just looking forward to finishing out this season and then hopefully getting that Big South championship,” Guerriero said.

michael.hebert@timesdaily.com. or 256-740-5737. Twitter @md_hebert55

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