The real season starts this week for the MTSU football team as it begins Sun Belt play Saturday against Florida Atlantic at Floyd Stadium.
The Blue Raiders coaches and players agree it is a big opportunity for them to start 1-0 in the SBC.
“It's very important, we want to get out to a good start in conference,” Junior quarterback Logan Kilgore said. “It would nice to start out 1-0 inside the SBC.”
Last week, the Blue Raiders were disappointed with a 27-21 loss against McNeese State. And MTSU head coach Rick Stockstill said so, several times, in interviews after the game and carried it over to this week preparation against the Owls. At the same time, the team is ready to move on and get ready for a FAU team that is under new leadership, former Nebraska defensive coordinator Carl Pelini.
“We are excited about starting conference play this week,” Stockstill said during Monday’s teleconference. “FAU is a vastly improved team. It will be another tough football game for us. We were very disappointed with our performance last week.”
As for its opponents, the Owls come in with a 1-0 record, but it was a narrow 7-3 victory against Wagner College on Aug. 31.
The FAU defense held the Seahawks to only a first half field goal, but the offense was struggling.
This season the Owls switched from a pro style to spread formation on that side of the ball. So Pelini made his first key coaching change during his debut game as the Owls head coach at halftime by switching quarterbacks.
He replaced sophomore Stephen Curtis with senior Graham Wilbert under center and it worked.
Wilbert went 10-for-13 passing for 93 yards, including the 39-yard game winning touchdown pass to fellow senior Byron Hankerson. According to Pelini’s comments during Monday’s SBC teleconference, Wilbert has earned the chance to start against the Blue Raiders on Saturday evening. This game is also the conference opener for the Owls, and like MTSU, they know the importance of the match up.
“I feel like there is a little more weight going into a conference game,” Pelini said. “This will be a great gauge for us. It’s a new challenge for our defense facing an up-tempo, spread offense.”
The first-year FAU head coach believes it has a scheme to stop it, but it will come down to the execution of it.
He has experience coaching against that type of spread offense, when the Cornhuskers were playing in the Big 12, a couple of seasons ago.
Of course, last season Nebraska faced smash mouth run-dominated offenses during its first year in the Big 10.
The FAU defense also changed defensive formations going from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme. The new scheme gives the defense a chance to play more man-to-man and also gives them more opportunities to rush the quarterback.
As for the Blue Raiders, their spread offense had to change some important parts during the Aug. 30 loss, especially at the running back position. The Blue Raiders’ top two players, senior Benny Cunningham and junior Drayton Calhoun at that position as both suffered shoulder injuries.
Freshman Jordan Parker came in and ran for a team-high 44 yards.
This week, the backfield lineup might be a little different.
Stockstill said on Monday, Cunningham is “day-to-day” for Saturday. He also added the preparation for the 6 p.m. kickoff will be as if Cunningham will be out for the game. Parker and Calhoun will get an increased load this week during practice.
Regardless of the loss, Stockstill believes the team has not lost its confidence, and it will be ready to go in two days.
“We realize the importance of conference games,” Stockstill said. “I still do not think this team is lacking for confidence. They can see where we made mistakes after watching the film last weekend.”
Do not be surprised if this game comes down to the wire like in two previous match ups between the teams at Floyd Stadium.
In 2003, when FAU was a Division I-AA team, the Owls threw a last second touchdown pass to stun the Blue Raiders 20-19.
Five seasons later MTSU came out on top, 14-13, thanks to a “Hail Mary” pass of its own during a nationally televised game. Currently, MTSU is on a seven-game losing streak dating back to last season. Its last win was on Oct. 22, 2011 against the same Owls, 38-14.
Will the losing streak finally end this week against FAU?
Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. at Floyd Stadium.