Blue Raiders Logan Kilgore (10), Craig Allen (35), Josh Walker (77) and Jimmy Staten (90) greet Navy’s captains for the coin toss during the Dec. 30, 2013, Armed Services Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas. MTSU lost 24-6. (Photo courtesy of MTSU Athletics)
The burning question going into Monday’s Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl was whether or not MTSU could handle the relentless option attack of Navy.
Turns out we should have been pondering whether the Blue Raider offense would hold up its end of the deal.
Unfortunately for MTSU, its offense couldn’t execute and finish, which resulted in a 24-6 loss to the Midshipmen.
“A tremendous amount of respect and appreciation for this team, not only just the seniors. It's hard; it's difficult to win games,” said MTSU coach Rick Stockstill. “ This team went back‑to‑back eight‑win seasons for the first time since 91‑'92. So it hadn't been done a whole bunch around here. To do it, I'm proud of this football team. (Senior QB) Logan (Kilgore), the other seniors are part of a great legacy and a foundation that they've helped.”
MTSU’s defense struggled very early, yet got a couple key stops and a turnover that kept the Blue Raiders within 10-6 at halftime.
Stockstill said prior to the matchup that MTSU had to take advantage of its offensive opportunities because Navy is a ball-controlled offense that had the fewest three-and-outs in the country this season. The Midshipmen also averaged just under 10 possessions a game, meaning their opponents’ opportunities aren’t many.
Twice MTSU had to settle for field goals, and it failed on a fourth-down play at the Navy 7-yard line to open the second half.
Against a team like Navy, you’ve got to cash in on your opportunities. It’s almost like the Midshipmen offense is its best defense at times.
Unnecessary penalties by MTSU were also the flavor of the day. A Roderic Blunt unsportsmanlike conduct penalty early in the fourth quarter proved costly. It extended a Navy drive, and it was his second of the game, which resulted in an ejection. Football is an emotional game, but you can’t let your emotions get the best of you.
Blunt, a senior linebacker, was a point of criticism by the ESPN announcers, and a lot of MTSU fans on Facebook and Twitter were critical of the senior linebacker.
That being noted, Stockstill backed his player in the wake of Monday’s ejection against the Midshipmen.
“Well, no, it's not his character,” Stockstill said when asked about Blunt. “I don't know how they (ESPN) portrayed him. We've got two personal fouls on defense the entire year and two of them were today. So for someone to say he's a dirty player doesn't know him, doesn't know this program, doesn't know this defense.
“There were a couple personal fouls out there today on both sides, but, no. They can portray him however they want. I've known him for five years. I know his dad. I coached his dad at Clemson. I know what kind of family he has. I know what kind of character he has, and he's not.”
The Blue Raiders certainly had their opportunities, but winning bowl games requires great execution in all phases of the game.
Granted, MTSU did get two fumble recoveries against a team that had just four fumbles all year.
However, the Blue Raiders gave up long kickoff returns, and their offense simply didn’t show up in Fort Worth, Texas.
After laboring to score the entire game, a fourth-quarter Kilgore interception more or less sealed the Blue Raiders’ fate as Navy took advantage with a 41-yard touchdown for a 24-6 lead.
So, the Blue Raiders finish the season with an 8-5 worksheet in their first season in Conference USA. MTSU went 6-2 in C-USA play this season and went to its third bowl game in five years.
You never like losing your last game of the year, but MTSU has a lot to build on in the offseason and going into the 2014 season.
There will be questions as to who will start at quarterback. The offensive line and the running back position should be strengths.
Defensively, MTSU must replace some beef up front and personnel at the linebacker position.
Kilgore said he was proud to be part of a program that won 16 games the past two seasons.
“Looking back I couldn't be more proud to be the quarterback the past four years at this university. We've been through a lot,” he said. “ The reason why I think this senior class is so special is because we came in, we were at the top going to the bowl games, we had a tough season, and nobody pointed fingers. We've come back these last two seasons, back‑to‑back eight‑win seasons, and I just think that we're making this a habit.
“I think that it's huge for the university, huge for everybody. All the support we had coming down here, getting back to the bowl game was our goal. I don't think that will change. I think that the team coming back next year will be excited. They're a great group of guys. There is a lot of talent out there, and I'm proud to wear my MT.”
The MTSU senior class leaves a nice legacy, having won 16 games the past two seasons.
But as for Monday’s bowl game against Navy, it was more or less a case of what might have been.