MTSU Blue Raiders head coach Rick Stockstill and Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo hold the official football of the Armed Forces Bowl during a Dec. 17, 2013, press conference at MTSU in Murfreesboro. (Photo submitted)
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- Since 2006, one of the main goals of the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas, is to honor those military who have served this country.
This year’s event on Monday, Dec. 30, will pit MTSU in its first-ever meeting against the U.S. Naval Academy.
Kickoff is set for 10:45 a.m. at Amon G. Carter Stadium, and the game will be shown on ESPN.
Both teams will celebrate the appearance by wearing helmets with military-themed logos.
It is the first bowl game for the Blue Raiders since the 2011 Godaddy.com Bowl in Alabama, while Navy will be making its 10th bowl game in 11 seasons.
“We are extremely honored to be here and play in the Armed Forces Bowl, not only just to play in this bowl game, but because it is a bowl game that represents what it stands for,” MTSU head coach Rick Stockstill said. “We are extremely honored and excited to play in it. And then you throw in a chance to compete and play against a great, well-coached Navy team with all the tradition – it just adds to the excitement.”
MTSU sophomore running back Jeremiah Bryson, former Smyrna High School star, added: “We are very excited, and we are out here practicing getting ready for this bowl game.”
Both teams come into the matchup with long winning streaks and equal 8-4 records.
The Blue Raiders finished out the 2013 regular season on a five-game winning streak, while Navy is on a four-game streak of its own.
“We had an exciting last-second win against Marshall, 51-49, and that kind of got us a little momentum going, a little bit of confidence, and we ended up winning our last five games,” Stockstill said. “At one time, we had lost four of our top five running backs and three of our starting offensive linemen, so we were able to overcome that adversity through the course of the year. “
Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo added: “I think any coach will tell you there is a lot of ebb and flow to a season. There is ups and downs to every season, every game. At the end of the season, we were playing as good of football as we did all year. Our kids started to play well and start formulate more chemistry. As coaches say, all of us have injuries, everybody deals with the injuries the best you can.”
The Blue Raiders had several players named to the All-Conference USA team during the postseason awards, including sophomore linebacker T.T. Barber who was tabbed for the first team.
Senior offensive guard Josh Walker was named to the second team, and five more Blue Raiders were named honorable mentions, sophomore safety Kevin Byard, senior punter Josh Davis, sophomore offensive tackle Darius Johnson, senior linebacker Stephen Roberts and senior defensive tackle Jimmy Staten.
Niumatalolo said he knows the Midshipmen will be facing a tough MTSU team next week.
“They are a physical ball club, and they do a good job running the football,” Niumatalolo said. “I have been impressed with just the physical, well-coached fundamentally sound football team.”
As for Navy, it has several players from the Volunteer State, including one on each side of the ball who has played a key role in the team’s success this season.
Sophomore quarterback and Antioch native Keenan Reynolds just broke the NCAA record for most single season rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 29 after scoring three times in a 34-7 win over Army.
“When Keenan (Reynolds) took over as our starting quarterback, we were 1-3, and so he made us a lot smarter,” Niumatalolo said. “He is just a wonderful young man. He is the smartest quarterback that I have been around. He isn’t all about the numbers, he gets you in the right play and he gets the ball to the right people.”
On defensive side of the ball, the Midshipmen are led by junior free safety Parrish Gaines, who is also a former Smyrna standout.
He has three interceptions on the season, which ties him for first on the team, and he is fourth on the team in total tackles with 60. Niumatalolo said he likes what Gaines brings to the team.
“He is on track to be a four-year starter, and we do not have too many four-year starters at defensive back, much less any position on our team,” he said. “He has been a great leader for our team, and he is a wonderful young man. He has got some size and length, and we moved him from corner to safety. He has made that transition seamlessly.”
Gaines said he is thrilled about the opportunity to play against a program that is 10 minutes from his house.
“It’s a great opportunity to play a team that did not recruit me,” Gaines said. “It will definitely be fun, and MTSU is 10 minutes from my house. I know a couple of guys on the team. It will be a good challenge.”
One of those players is former teammate Bryson. He is coming off a career-high rushing day in the Nov. 30 win over the University of Texas at El Paso. He ran for 120 yards and two touchdowns.
Both players said they are looking forward to facing each other in the bowl game.
“That is awesome,” Gaines said. “It was meant for us to play each other, eventually. Bryson has been one of my best friends since sixth grade. We played together in middle school, all through high school and junior pro. So, it will definitely be fun.”
Bryson added: “It is going to be very exciting. We are going to talk to each other before the game, and hopefully hang out. However, on the field we know it is going to be all business.”
Although the Blue Raiders will have a tough time stopping the triple option offense run by Navy, in their last game against a team that runs the same offense, they won 49-28 over Georgia Tech in September.
“Facing that offense does present problems because you do not see it on an everyday basis,” Stockstill said. “When you play an option, you have to be fundamentally sound, you have to be very disciplined in your reads and your keys, and play it exactly like your coached to do.”