MTSU reciever Kyle Griswould fights for yardage on Sept. 27, 2013, after hauling in a pass against Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. (Photo courtesy of Bradley Lambert/MTSU Athletics)
MTSU has already played its first Conference USA game, winning 42-35 in overtime at Florida Atlantic two weeks ago.
However, its first home league game will have a true Conference USA feel to it on Saturday when the Blue Raiders face East Carolina for homecoming. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. at Floyd Stadium.
“When you think of Conference USA, you think of East Carolina and Southern Miss,” MTSU coach Rick Stockstill said. “Those are the two teams that come to mind when you think of Conference USA because of the history and tradition of those two programs.
“It’s the first time we’ve played a Conference USA member we haven’t played before, so it’s a different feel.” MTSU senior quarterback Logan Kilgore agrees, noting the atmosphere should be electric at Floyd Stadium.
“It’s a conference game, but it really feels like a Conference USA game,” he said. “This is one of those teams that you have always observed from afar and seen what their ability is and the crowds at their place.
“It has always been a team that is in a different conference, but now it is a different feel playing these guys. The city should be excited, a really good opponent is coming into Murfreesboro. We are really excited about our chance to measure up and see how we match up with the favorite team in the conference.”
Measuring up could be difficult as the Blue Raiders (3-2, 1-0) will be pitted against a an ECU (3-1, 1-0) team that is coming off a 55-31 thumping of North Carolina on the road. The two teams have two common opponents. Along with beating UNC, ECU defeated FAU 31-13 at home. MTSU lost 40-20 at UNC, and won 42-35 at FAU.
The Pirates have won six straight Conference USA games (22 of their last 30) and have won three of their last four C-USA road games. “I’m looking forward to the opportunity to go out there and compete against East Carolina,” Stockstill said. “They’re a really good football team, led by their quarterback. He had a good year last year, and he’s off to a good start this year.
“I think they’re running the ball more effectively the past couple weeks than the beginning of this year or the end of last year. They’ve got some explosive wide receivers and their offensive line is good.
Defensively, they’re really good, especially against the run. They’re a really good football team, coming off a big win, so this is a great challenge and a great opportunity for us on Saturday afternoon.”
Despite last week’s so-called upset win in Raleigh, N.C., ECU coach Ruffin McNiel said it’s important for the Pirates to put it to rest.
“We have to move and get ready for this next one,” Ruffin said. “(Rick) Stockstill is a really good football coach and Tyrone (Nix) is a great defensive coordinator, and they have skill players on all three sides of the ball. It’s a group I’m very familiar with.”
Speaking of defense, the Blue Raiders have been a mixed bag in many regards. They lead the nation in forcing turnovers (16), but have struggled of late getting off the field on third-down situations.
“We have to be more consistent on a regular basis as far as making plays and it starts up front,” said linebacker Stephen Roberts. “We have to execute and become tougher overall on defense, wanting to get off the field.
“Some of it is dealing with tackling. We have to do a better job with that. I know our guys are tough enough. We are going to hunt towards the ball, tackling is our biggest concern.”
ECU’s offense starts with quarterback Shane Carden, an all-conference performer who averages 293 passing yards a game. More important, he has thrown just four interceptions and is completing a sizzling 72.6 percent of his passes.
“He’s a really good football player,” Stockstill said. “He can make all the throws, and he’s running the ball more than he did last year, which adds another dimension to their offense.
“They’ve got some explosive players. They’re getting a lot of opportunities because their defense is so good. Their quarterback and running back are playing well. It’s a good, explosive, up-tempo offense.”
Stockstill stopped short as far as the game being a shootout, but acknowledged the Blue Raiders need to be more consistent on both sides of the ball.
“We’ve got to play better than what we did against BYU,” he said. “If you had told me 17 points would be enough to beat Memphis, I would have thought we would have had to score more than that. Hopefully our defense will show up and play hard, which they’ve been doing.
Hopefully, we don’t give up 40 or 50 points. But if we do, we have to score one more point than they do.
“It’s the best skill we’ve seen so far this year. BYU had a great quarterback and some good receivers and running backs, too. We’ve seen some great players. Like I said, this will be a great challenge for our football team.
Stockstill said MTSU’s success at forcing turnovers is a great tribute to the defense, but added third-down efficiency must improve.
“We’re doing a very good job of creating turnovers. We’re No. 1 in the country and there are a lot of good football teams out there,” he said. “There are 126 of us and we’re No. 1. Our defensive players have done a great job of attacking the ball, and Coach Nix and his staff have done a great job of emphasizing that. “We’ve got to be more consistent and we’ve got to be better on third down. We’ve given up some big plays on third down, which is something we can’t afford to continue to do. We have to get off the field more consistently defensively.”
Knocking off the East Division favorite on Saturday would obviously be a huge boost to the Blue Raiders, although Stockstill said a champion certainly won’t be crowned regardless of the outcome.
“If you win, you’re 2-0 and still have six games to go,” he said. “You’re not going to win the conference on Saturday, and you’re not going to lose it. Last year, we won our first conference game, lost our second and played for the conference championship on the last day.
“It’s a critical game, but the conference champion won’t be crowned on Saturday afternoon.”
MTSU goes back on the road next Saturday when it travels to North Texas.