The MTSU coach shares his thoughts on his team’s 34-3 loss at Minnesota.
MURFREESBORO ― At times, it was ugly. Often, it was difficult to find positives. But that’s the cost of playing top-tier competition.
“It’s not like we were going out there and playing Cupcake U,” MTSU coach Rick Stockstill said.
On the contrary, the Blue Raiders (1-2) played three Power Five opponents ― a claim no other C-USA team can make this year ― and in the first three games of the season, no less. Stockstill was asked if the three-game stretch was ultimately beneficial for a team that, traditionally, faces an FCS program at the beginning of its season.
“That’s a tough question to answer,” Stockstill said. “We’ve got a lot of guys hurt. It’s going to be a different team out there this week. That’s the downfall of playing back-to-back-to-back schools like that. Injuries can happen at any time and I’m not saying that those injuries wouldn’t have happened against somebody else. But it’s not easy when you play against three Power Five teams.
“I told our team Saturday that’s it’s been a heck of a gauntlet they’ve had to go through. I told them I was really disappointed how we played in Minnesota, but I’m not the least bit discouraged.”
No longer leaning on offense
MTSU’s 2016 team leaned on its offense, with the Blue Raiders dropping a program-record 39.7 points per game. Things have changed.
The running game is in shambles, with MTSU’s 71.3 rushing yards per game ranking 126th out of 130 FBS teams. The offensive line is a shadow of its former self; quarterback Brent Stockstill was sacked six times in the first two games after being sacked just eight times in 10 games last year.
And still, both of those issues are not nearly as detrimental as the key injuries MTSU faces. The team’s two top playmakers, Stockstill and wide receiver Richie James, have suffered injuries and are questionable for MTSU’s game Saturday against visiting Bowling Green.
MTSU coach Rick Stockstill during a press conference on Sept. 18, 2017.
Altogether, the numbers are not pretty for MTSU’s offense. The Blue Raiders’ 13.0 points per game ranks seventh-worst nationally. Its 277.7 yards of offense per game rank eighth-worst. Its 15.7 first downs per game rank 11th-worst.
A lot of it, of course, has had to do with the competition. MTSU has faced overwhelming defenses in Vanderbilt (ranked first nationally in total defense), Minnesota (10th) and Syracuse (36th).
Defense leading the way
At least things have changed on the defensive side of the ball, too.
MTSU’s 2016 defense was a liability, allowing 35.8 points per game, which ranked 109th nationally. Enter Scott Shafer, MTSU’s first-year coordinator whose aggressive, attacking style of defense has already yielded results .
MTSU has allowed 339.3 yards per game, good for 49th nationally. Even its 28.3 points allowed per game (84th nationally) is encouraging considering who it has played and what it did last year.
“Night and day,” Rick Stockstill said, comparing this year’s defense to last year’s. “There’s a complete different mentality over there. They’re playing harder, they’re playing faster. We’re doing a lot of things, fundamentally, a lot better. So I’m really, really excited about our defense and what we’ve shown these first three games.”
Finally, a break
The Blue Raiders’ schedule finally softens with winless Bowling Green, which has been outscored 119-44 in loses to Michigan State, South Dakota and Northwestern.
“This is about us this week,” Rick Stockstill said. “We’ve got to really get better in a lot of places and worry about ourselves and improve this week. If we do that, then we’ll have a chance to play a competitive game against Bowling Green.”