As much as Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders fans were eager to get the taste of the 2011 season out of their mouths, they may be just as ready to fast forward through 2012.
In front of a mediocre crowd of 18,690, the Blue Raiders, for the majority of the game, looked out of sync, out of touch, and just plain out of it in route to a 27-21 loss at the hands of McNeese State.
Things looked promising when CB Kenneth Gilstrap took the opening kickoff 57 yards into McNeese St territory, but when the drive stalled in the red zone and the Blue Raiders settled for a field goal, the writing for the rest of the game was on the wall.
The Blue Raiders third possession resembled their first. After driving the length of the field to the 10-yard line, the Blue Raider drive halted, forcing another field goal and leaving more points off of the scoreboard.
MT head coach Rick Stockstill talked about the teams lack of red zone success after the game.
"You just hate to get down there and not come away with touchdowns," Stockstill said in the postgame presser. "We talk about finishing plays, series and drives and we just didn't do it…We've just got to find a way to score touchdowns and not kick those field goals."
While the Blue Raiders struggled to find their groove offensively, the Cowboys exploited some familiar weaknesses in the Blue Raider defense - tackling and stopping the run.
The Cowboys rattled off 24 unanswered points on the heels of their rushing attack - which, through a committee of rushers, totaled 298 net yards in the contest on 51 carries - good enough for a 5.8 yards per carry average.
The Blue Raiders found success, especially in the second half, in preventing McNeese from converting third down opportunities, but getting them in those situations was the problem.
"What we did well was we played third down defense pretty stout and if we can get those guys in more third down situations, especially long, then we feel like we can dictate a lot more," co-defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix said. "The only way you can win on third down is to win on first and second and that's where we failed tonight."
While the defense was struggling to get the Cowboy's off the field, the Blue Raider offense was not fairing much better.
After running backs Benny Cunningham and Drayton Calhoun exited the game with shoulder injuries, QB Logan Kilgore was forced to go to the air, but dropped passes and untimely turnovers kept the Blue Raiders from getting anything serious going.
The offense sputtered along until finally reaching paydirt with 6:58 left in the game when Kilgore connected on a six-yard pass to Amos.
That touchdown would spark a run for the Blue Raiders, and after a McNeese State field goal, the Blue Raiders reached the end zone again on a beautiful 15-yard connection from Kilgore to Kyle Griswould. That score cut the lead to just six with 5:01 left on the clock.
On the night, Kilgore was 27 of 41 through the air for 240 yards and those two touchdown passes. Kilgore hooked up with nine different receivers through the course of the game.
"Those are guys that bring it every single day - all of our receivers - coach Watts has done a great job with them," Kilgore said. "The offensive line did a great job, too. I think I got hit twice the whole game so my hat's off to the offensive line. They did a great job and the receivers made plays. I've just got to do a better job of getting it to them."
A last minute stand by the Blue Raider defense kept MT's hopes alive, but a beautifully placed punt from the Cowboys pinned MT on their own two-yard-line.
With just six seconds on the clock, the Blue Raiders needed a miracle. A last ditched effort looked promising for a moment, but MT fumbled a lateral that ended the game and sent Blue Raider fans home with that familiar sting.
The Stat Sheet:
The Blue Raiders gained a total of 343 yards on the game while giving up 450 to the Cowboys. On the ground, MT gained a total of 103 yards to an astounding 298 from the Cowboys, but did outgain McNeese through the air - 240 to 152.
McNeese State dominated time of possession with a 36:05 to 23:55 edge and also won the turnover battle, 3-0.
The Blue Raiders converted 6 of 14 third down conversions while McNeese was held to 3 of 11. MT also went 2 for 2 on fourth down attempts and had a 100-percent conversion rate in the red-zone while McNeese held an 80-percent conversion rate.
Logan Kilgore - Completed 27 of 41 pass attempts for 240 yards and two touchdowns with one interception.
Benny Cunningham - Nine carries for 34 yards with a long run of seven yards.
Drayton Calhoun - Eight carries for 27 yards with a long run of six yards.
Jordan Parker - Nine carries for 39 yards with a long run of 12 yards.
Anthony Amos - Career high eight receptions for 70 yards and one TD.
Kyle Griswould - Five receptions for 63 yards and one TD.
Tavarres Jefferson - Four receptions for 24 yards.
Christian Collis - Three receptions for 41 yards.
Jajuan Harley - 11 total tackles, including five solo stops.
Christian Henry - 11 total tackles including three solo stops.
Kevin Byard - 11 total tackles including three solo stops.
Omar McClendon - Five total tackles including two tackles-for-loss.
Shubert Bastien - Four total tackles including one sack.
Quotes From the Game:
Rick Stockstill's opening comment - "Obviously very, very disappointed. I give McNeese credit but it's a game where we didn't stop the run and we didn't tackle well enough on defense."
On his message to the team after the game - "I told our team afterwards that I believe in them. There's a lot of character on that team and those guys competed and fought. We didn't play very good defensively in stopping the run and then offensively we were too inconsistent."
On where to go from here - "Our goal is still in tact - I told them that. We want to win the conference that's our goal and we have to get a heck of a lot better here in the next nine days."
On Kilgore's performance - "I thought he did a nice job running the offense. He was accurate and made good decisions. A couple of bad throws but for the most part I thought he threw the ball pretty good."
On the receiving corps performance - "I thought they made some good plays. Christian (Collis) did a nice job for his first college game. Anthony (Amos) made some catches, Kyle (Griswould) had one drop but he made some really great catches also. I thought they all blocked good and they competed. For the most part I thought those guys did a good job."
On having the extra practice days to prepare for FAU - "It can't do anything but help. I don't see how it can hurt us. We'll watch film tomorrow and get going and start focusing on FAU and correcting our mistakes next Saturday."
QB Logan Kilgore on whether the stalled drives early in the game took the wind out of the sails of the offense - "Yea it does. When you get the ball all the way down there you have to score, that's the bottom line. A field goal has to be the last resort and really there's no excuse."
On finally getting the season underway - "I was excited to play somebody else and obviously I don't like the outcome but we've got a Sun Belt team coming up and that's a game where we can't afford to lay an egg so this is a big week for us."
WR Christian Collis on the development of the young players - "I feel like this helps the youth get used to adversity. It was the first game for a lot of us and it shows that adversity is going to happen and no matter whether you are up or down, it's gonna happen every game so I feel like this is one step to getting us better as a team."
DE Omar McClendon on the mood in the locker room - "Everybody's hurting. Everybody's just kind of broken up about everything. It was complete silence. We took this to heart. No one was really talking."
On the team overcoming adversity - "It's the first of many. It's just another road bump in our path. We just have to stay strong and keep our heads up."
RB Benny Cunningham on the morale of the team - "We're disappointed but this is also motivating. I know everyone still has faith and we believe in each other."