As Rick Stockstill so eloquently put it, the Middle Tennessee Blue Raider football team was their own worst enemy Saturday afternoon.
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In front of a homecoming crowd of 21,067 Rowdy Raiders, the Blue Raiders fell 31-17 to the Louisiana Monroe Warhawks - who ran and passed their way past MT, to the tune of 500 yards of offense and 39:54 of possession time.
Whereas ULM (3-2, 1-0) had their way with the MT (3-2, 1-1) defense, the Blue Raiders shot themselves in the foot time after time on offense. Throughout the game, untimely penalties and turnovers thwarted any hopes of a Blue Raider comeback, and frustrated the coaching staff to no end in the process.
Quarterback Logan Kilgore completed 23-of-34 pass attempts for 238 yards and a late interception while his counterpart Kolton Browning completed 26-of-38 attempts for 285 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Browning also added 44 yards of rushing.
On the ground, RB Benny Cunningham was unable to build upon his exceptional performance from a week ago. Although Cunningham was able to find paydirt twice, he was limited in carries as the Blue Raiders were forced to go to the air after falling behind early on. For the game, Cunningham netted 62 yards on only 14 carries.
While the Blue Raiders did not help their cause with the turnovers and penalties, they also stalled out on many drives, converting only 3-of-9 third down attempts. The inability to keep the chains moving cost the Blue Raiders valuable field position and, even worse, kept the ULM offense in constant rhythm all game.
The missed opportunities became the focal point behind the reasoning for the Homecoming defeat.
The first half was essentially all Monroe. After a Rod Blunt interception, the Blue Raiders were able to capitalize in the form of a career-long 44-yard field goal by Carlos Lopez. After that, however, ULM turned up the pressure and never looked back.
The Warhawks answered the bell with 17 unanswered points to close out the first half, including several third down conversions that kept drives alive and kept the Raiders guessing.
MT did their best to counter the ULM attack, but mental mistakes stopped drives before they could really start. When the Blue Raiders started getting things moving, failed third down conversions put an end to any possible momentum swings.
"ULM is a good football team but we were our own worst enemy today," head coach Rick Stockstill said during the postgame press conference. "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."
Coming out of the break, the Blue Raiders needed an immediate stop on defense to turn the tide back into their favor. However, the exact opposite happened as ULM meticulously drove 75 yards down the field to punch in another touchdown and claimed their largest lead of the day at 24-3.
To the Blue Raiders credit, the team did not give up at this junction. MT responded with their own impressive drive capped off by an 8-yard scamper from Cunningham for a touchdown.
From there the MT defense found the bearings and were able to get the Warhawks off the field. Unfortunately for MT, a Cunningham fumble followed by another ULM score put the Blue Raiders back in the hole.
Cunningham redeemed himself to start the fourth quarter with another touchdown run to cut the Warhawk lead back to 14 and the Blue Raider defense responded with another stop to keep hope alive.
MT drove 62 yards down to the Warhawk seven-yard line but an ill-advised throw from Kilgore on a poorly ran route by WR Christian Collis spelled doom for MT as ULM defensive back Isaiah Newsome picked the pass off to thwart the potential comeback.
The Blue Raiders would never see the ball again on offense as ULM ran the clock down to zeros, leaving Murfreesboro with the 31-17 victory and starting their conference slate off with a win.
"I thought we were really close all the way up until the end, but we just couldn't capitalize on our opportunities," Stockstill said. "I really thought we were in it the whole game but those two turnovers late were really backbreakers."
The loss puts the Blue Raiders at .500% in conference play as they look to regroup and rebound on the road next week against FIU.
LB Rod Blunt on the struggles of stopping ULM on third downs:
"We just lacked in our execution. It took us a while to adjust to what they were giving us."
On QB Kolton Browning's play:
"He was quick on his feet and he scrambled around a good bit. I was in his ear talking a little mess but he's a good athlete. I wish their team the best the rest of the season."
LB Craig Allen on the struggles of slowing down the ULM offense:
"It was just execution. You have to be able to communicate to each other and know what spot you're supposed to be in. There was a lot of one-on-one so you have to be the bigger man and make the play. This time, they made more plays than we did and that's our fault."
On the mindset of the team following a tough loss:
"Our mindset is nothing is lost. Our heart is still here. We are still a great team. We just know we have to improve and do better on third downs both offensively and defensively. We're upset right now because we lost and we wanted to win but we also have to pick our heads up and practice hard like we've been doing. "
Benny Cunningham on leadership:
"I take the blame for what happened out there. I feel like I didn't do my job as a leader - not on the field but just off the field as a leader. Hopefully we just come out tomorrow and focus back in."
QB Logan Kilgore on the play of the offense:
"I feel like, offensively, we played bad enough to lose. Our offense - we turned the ball over three times and we got behind the sticks too many times."
"It's not like we slept-walked through and got beat, that's a damn good team. They've proved it each week. Our defense played well I just think that offensively if we focus back in we can't be stopped if we do the things we're coached to do. It starts in practice and we need to have a good week of practice here."
Linebacker Craig Allen delivered his most impressive performance of his career on Saturday.
Allen, who tallied double-digit tackles against Georgia Tech, collected an impressive 15 total tackles in the game against ULM.
Allen flew around the field with reckless abandon all game long, and has become a significant leader among a defense with a tremendous amount of youth.