After day of fun, MTSU ready for C-USA debut season

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Not getting a bowl game invitation last season still sits in the collective craw of Middle Tennessee State University football players, coaches and fans alike.

After all, the Blue Raiders won eight games, including an impressive victory at ACC Coastal Division winner Georgia Tech, and finished second in the two-bowl bid Sun Belt Conference. But they still didn’t get a bowl sniff, much to the chagrin of head coach Rick Stockstill.

So, what did Stockstill do Friday to break up the monotony of preseason practice? He took his team bowling at Lanes, Trains & Automobiles — a multi-entertainment facility with a bowling alley, bumper cars and a plethora of games for kids of all ages.

“I really didn’t know what to expect,” MTSU senior defensive end Dearco Nolan said about what went through his mind when the team was told earlier in the day about its off-campus outing. “But when we got there, I felt like a kid in a candy store.

“There were so many games that we got to play. I’m on defense, so kicking it with some of the guys on offense over on the bumper cars was fun.”

Oh, yeah, the bumper cars, where offensive coordinator Bustner Faulkner decided to get behind the wheel and get pummeled by quite a few players, including Nolan.

“Coach Faulkner came over and got on the bumper cars with us,” Nolan said. “So, it was a great experience. I felt like we got closer as a team. I got to hang out with some of my good, close friends.”

With the season opener against Western Carolina less than two weeks away on Thursday, Aug. 29 in Floyd Stadium, Stockstill thought it was a good time to give his team a break from two straight weeks of practice. So, following a team meeting earlier in the day and before a practice session Friday night, he took his team bowling.

“I think it’s a good opportunity for the guys to unwind a little bit,” the eighth-year Blue Raiders coach said. “It has been two weeks since we started, and they haven’t had a day off, really. I thought it was a good opportunity to get away from football for a couple of hours.

“It’s good to build some team camaraderie and also get away from campus and forget about football for a couple of hours.”

Certainly, the focus of MTSU football in 2013 is its debut season in Conference USA after departing the Sun Belt. The Blue Raiders open league play Sept. 21 at Florida Atlantic, a former Sun Belt member, and have their C-USA home opener Oct. 5 against East Carolina, a league title favorite this season.

But for a few hours Friday afternoon, all that football stuff was out of sight and mind for the Blue Raiders. And by the way, there are apparently some darn good bowlers on the team, including Nolan, who said his best score Friday was a 261 before he headed off to the bumper cars.

“There are some very talented and athletic people on our team,” senior linebacker Craig Allen, the team’s leading tackler last season, said with a sly grin after saying he bowled a 220. “It was a fun experience with good team bonding and having fun.

“You get to communicate with everybody. It kind of put a smile on our faces. Coach Stockstill was rewarding us for our hard work.”

All that is not lost on fifth-year senior quarterback Logan Kilgore, who helped guide MTSU to last season’s 8-4 record. With this being his last go-around in college football, he says he is taking it all in, including such non-football moments like Friday’s impromptu outing with teammates.

“I take all these little things in, like the bowling trip today, the relationships with these players,” Kilgore said. “This is stuff we will never be able to get back. These are great times. I’m just thankful to be part of it.”

After a Saturday scrimmage, the Blue Raiders – who return nine starters on offense and eight on defense — will start working Tuesday on the particular game plan for Western Carolina, a FCS (Football Championship Series) team that is a member of the Southern Conference.

And that can’t come soon enough for Kilgore and his teammates, especially the offense and defense starting units that have been going head-to-head since start of preseason practice. Instead, he is looking forward to working against the scout team defense that will be mimicking Western Carolina.

“It’s tough right now,” Kilgore said of the daily grind of practice. “Anytime you have 22 first-team guys going against each other, there is a high risk of injury. I’m excited to get the scouts out there and really start honing in on an actual game plan.”

All the way up to kick off of the season opener, Stockstill admits that he always worries if all the bases are covered.

“As a coach, you always worry about everything up to game time until you tee it off to make sure you have covered every situation, everything that could come up in a game,” he said. “And the first game is always the unknown, so as a coach you never relax. You always worry that there is something you can do or need to do.”

But for a while on Friday afternoon, it was about anything but football.

“Opportunity is getting closer, and I am just so proud to be a part of this team,” Nolan said. “We’re more so than a team, we are a family. I felt like we got more done today. You can’t make a team be a team. I feel like today we showed how close of a team we really are.”