A new era of MTSU football begins Thursday, when the Blue Raiders face Western Carolina University at Johnny “Red” Floyd Stadium in the 2013 season opener and their first game in Conference USA.
Both the MTSU players and coaches agree they ready for the season to start.
“It’s like waiting for Christmas,” MTSU senior cornerback Kenneth Gilstrap said. “You have been waiting all year and you have been trying to be good all year. Now, it is time to put up or shut up. We will be ready (Thursday).”
The Blue Raiders will have to be ready since the team has not won a season opener since 2006, when current head coach Rick Stockstill made his debut and the Blue Raiders won 7-6 over Florida International.
Since joining the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1999, the Blue Raiders have won the season opener only three times, in 1999, 2001 at Vanderbilt, and 2004 at Akron. In fairness, some of those opening losses have been to BCS schools: Clemson, Minnesota, Purdue, Alabama (twice), Mississippi State and Illinois.
At the same time, MTSU had tough conference losses to Troy and Florida Atlantic and in 2003 fell to then FCS school FAU in the final seconds. This year’s team will be looking to end the losing streak Thursday.
“The first game usually helps you find your identity and what you need to work on,” Gilstrap said. “I feel we are more mature than we were at this point last year and we have found our identity already.”
Thursday the Blue Raiders will welcome Western Carolina to Floyd Stadium for the first time since Oct. 1980, and the series is tied at two games apiece. MTSU won the last meeting 23-10 on Oct. 3, 1981 at Western Carolina. Believe it or not, the Blue Raiders have never defeated the Catamounts at Floyd Stadium. This year’s team wants to change history starting this evening.
“They have an excellent running back and two very good quarterbacks,” Stockstill said. “Down the middle, they are pretty good. On defense, they’re not overly big, but they are athletic. I think they are a really good football team, even though their record did not show it last year. Coach (Mark) Speir is a good coach and I know they will be better than they were last year.”
Last season, Western Carolina’s first under Speir, it finished 1-10 in a competitive Southern Conference, which falls under the Football Championship Subdivision level. The Catamounts return 13 starters, six on offense and seven on defense on a team which has gone a combined 2-20 in the past two years. It has not defeated a NCAA Division I team since 2010.
Western Carolina will be lead by sophomore running back Darius Ramsey, who was named the SoCon All-Freshman team in 2012. As for the quarterback position, it has been a competition for the job between junior Eddie Sullivan and sophomore Troy Mitchell. Both players made at least five starts under center last season.
In the meantime, the Blue Raiders are not looking past them since they opened last season with a loss to FCS school, McNeese State. MTSU returning senior quarterback, Logan Kilgore believes that loss to begin the last campaign hurt them at the end of the year.
“We were ready for McNeese State last year,” Kilgore said. “I do not think we overlooked them. I think that they came ready to play and there were no surprises. At 8-4 last year, I think we should have been in the postseason, but at 9-3 we do not leave any doubt.”
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. Thursday at Floyd Stadium and it will not be televised.