The MTSU football team heads to Florida International University on Saturday, Oct. 13, for the final time as Sun Belt Conference rivals.
Both teams are coming off SBC losses, and each are looking to get back in the win column, especially in the race for a league title. The Blue Raiders' focus has turned to the Panthers as they try to pick the first conference road win of the season.
For the Blue Raiders, this week's match up will be the first conference test on the road this season.
So far, MTSU already has more away wins this season than all of 2011.
The Blue Raiders single road win last season came against Florida Atlantic last October. Both the players and coaches know the importance of winning conference games on the road.
“You’ve got to be mentally tough to go on the road, especially going down there,” MTSU head coach Rick Stockstill said during Tuesday’s weekly press conference. “It’s going to be hotter than what we are used to during the last month. We’ve got to be able to handle that. We not only have to be mentally tough, but physically tough in the environment we are going to.”
Stockstill added temperatures on the turf inside of Alfonso Field along with the heat and humidity in Miami should bring the temperature to the 100s at kickoff.
The opponent, Florida International, is currently in its final season as a member of the SBC before moving to Conference USA next season.
This season has not been a very favorable swan song for the program, which had played in bowl game in the past two seasons. Right now, the Panthers are on a four-game losing streak (1-5, 0-2), and it has not won since Sept. 8 overtime win against Akron.
“It’s a very big game for us,” MTSU junior quarterback Logan Kilgore said. “We are in a good spot right now. It’s a very important game to get to 2-1 in the SBC. It would be huge. It’s kind of crazy to say right now, but its kind of a do-or-die situation.”
However, the injury bug has hit FIU at the backfield positions, especially behind center.
Panther sophomore quarterback Jake Medlock has been out with an injury since Sept. 22. In the past two games, freshmen Loranzo Hammonds Jr. and E.J. Hilliard have been sharing the signal caller duties.
Also, Florida International senior running back Darian Mallary returned last week in the 34-20 loss to Arkansas State, after missing the previous week’s game because of an injury.
With all of those issues, FIU still believes it is in the race for its third consecutive bowl trip. Panther head coach Mario Cristobal said he knows each game now is “must-win.”
“Regardless if we are 1-5, or 5-1, we just want to get back on track,” Cristobal said during Monday’s SBC weekly teleconference.
The same could be said about the Blue Raiders after the 31-17 homecoming loss last Saturday against the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks.
In the defeat, MTSU had three key turnovers which turned into points for Louisiana-Monroe.
Also the Warhawks controlled the time of possession, outclassing the Blue Raiders 40 minutes to 20 minutes.
Finally, the MTSU defense could not get the off the field, especially in the first half, when Louisiana-Monroe was 9-of-11 on third down during that time period.
“ULM is a good football team, but we were our own worst enemy,” Stockstill said after the loss. “We made too many mistakes, especially in the first half. We had three holding penalties in the first half and we had a couple guys jump offsides. But as bad as we played, in the second half we still had a chance.”
MTSU senior running back Benny Cunningham continued to be a scoring machine when he punched it in from seven yards out to make the score, 24-10, late in the third quarter.
On the next Blue Raider possession, Cunningham took a short pass from Kilgore, but he was stripped while trying to gain more yards down field. The Warhawks recovered and scored a touchdown a few plays later to make the score, 31-10.
In the final quarter, Cunningham scored from a yard out to cut the Louisiana-Monroe lead to 31-17 with 14:31 left in the game.
However, on the Blue Raiders next possession, Kilgore was picked off in the end zone by Warhawk junior safety Isaiah Newsome with 8:25 remaining. The Louisiana-Monroe offense kept the ball the rest of the way and ran out the clock for the victory.
“I thought we were really close all the way up until the end," Stockstill said, "but we just could not capitalize on our opportunities."