Before the season began, Coach Rick Stockstill made a promise to the Blue Raider faithful. He promised that, even in a loss, they would come out of each game thinking the team played hard, thinking that they played the game the right way, with great passion and toughness. That has not been more evident this season than it was on Sept. 26 at Illinois.
Early on, it looked like MT was about to be on the wrong side of a one-sided game. On their first possession, Illinois scored a touchdown in just 2:05 after a blown coverage assignment left Malik Turner wide open in the endzone. Momentum seemed to be in full swing for Illinois in the second quarter after they blocked and recovered a Blue Raiders punt in the MT endzone to move ahead 14-3. Just minutes later, however, MT downed a punt inside Illiniois’ five-yard line which quickly resulted in a safety, and swung momentum heavily into the Blue Raiders’ favor. Richie James caught a 63 yard touchdown pass from Brent Stockstill on the ensuing possession to make the score 14-12.
After Illinois scored the lone touchdown of the third quarter, MT again found themselves in need of a pair of touchdowns to move ahead. They found them in the way of two unanswered touchdown connections between Ed Batties and Brent Stockstill, putting MT ahead 25-24. However, the Blue Raiders failed to convert on what would prove to be a crucial two-point conversion. Though the MT defense seemingly held Illinois out of kicker Taylor Zalewski’s range (Zalewski missed a 32-yard attempt earlier in the game), he put a 51-yard attempt easily between the uprights.
Needing just a field goal to win, Brent Stockstill afforded MT kicker Cody Clark a 43-yard attempt with eight seconds remaining. The attempt went far to the left, and broke the hearts of the Blue Raider faithful. However, no one was more heartbroken than Clark. As often is the fate of the kicker, Clark sat alone on the sideline as the rest of the team congratulated the Fighting Illini on a hard fought win.
Coming so close to getting a win against a Power 5 Conference team, yet losing it in such a fashion was heartbreaking for the fan, and clearly for Clark, but for Coach Stockstill, every loss is the same.
“They’re all gut wrenching losses. They make you sick to your stomach,” Coach Stockstill said. “It doesn’t matter how close it was, it doesn’t matter who it was against. A loss is a loss. I don’t look at losing to Illinois when we had a chance to win it at the buzzer any different than I look at losing to Alabama when we didn’t have a chance to win in the fourth quarter. They all stink, they’re all miserable, they’re all a pain within themselves.”
Although the loss was a tough one to swallow for the whole team, one player stood out amongst all the others to receive recognition from the Tennessee Sports Writers Association. Linebacker T.T. Barber was voted Defensive Player of the Week after recording 14 tackles (nine solo) with a sack, a pass deflection, and a quarterback hurry. Though this is a great honor for Barber, it’s certain he’d trade it for a victory over Illinois.
MTSU will look for redemption this Saturday as they welcome midstate foe, Vanderbilt, to Floyd Stadium for this season’s Homecoming game. Vanderbilt makes the short trip to Murfreesboro with a 1-3 record.
Though Vanderbilt is winless versus FBS opponents, they have been improving. Last week, they limited an Ole Miss squad, which had been averaging 64 points per game, to just 27 points. QB Johnny McCrary has also vastly improved over the season, and poses a threat to MT which they have yet to have faced: a true dual-threat quarterback.
McCrary is second on the team in rushing yards, and leads them in yards per attempt. McCrary has also proven to be a threat throwing the ball, averaging 268 passing yards per game.
McCrary will be accompanied in the backfield by running back Ralph Webb. Webb is much like Illinois running back Josh Ferguson in that he offers a lot of versatility out of the backfield. Though Webb is only averaging 3.4 yards per carry, he has been very effective receiving out of the backfield, averaging almost eight yards per reception on 15 catches.
As a special event for Homecoming, the MT athletic department will host a statue unveiling for Blue Raider football coaching legend James “Boots” Donnelly. Boots led the Blue Raiders from 1979 to 1998 to a 140-87-1 record. In that time, Donnelly lead the Blue Raiders to four conference titles and seven I-AA playoff appearances. Donnelly was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2013. The unveiling will take place at 3:30 p.m. on the front lawn of the Kennon Sports Hall of Fame (as weather permits).
The game will kickoff at 6 p.m. Be sure to wear your MTSU blue, as this game is also a “Blue Out.”
Kevin Byard remains in a three-way tie in active career interceptions with 16. KB was unable to make progress on his endeavor to become MT’s all-time interception leader, but he was certainly very active. Byard displayed his usual motor against Illinois, playing sideline to sideline while letting his presence be felt on seemingly every play.
Kevin will look for opportunities to increase his numbers against Vandy’s Johnny McCrary. McCrary has had a tendency to force some throws early in the season, but, as Byard notes, he has shown improvement in his decision making as of late. McCrary’s mobility may force Byard to play up in the box more than usual, but you can rest assure that Byard’s presence will be felt no matter his assignment.