I am extremely hesitant to bring up the topic of Middle Tennessee’s conduct from yesterday’s game, mostly because there is a subculture of Navy fans that craves reasons to be offended. I am not interested in fueling that embarrassing fire. However, I feel compelled to talk about it because it wasn’t just a sideshow; it had a very real impact on the outcome of the game, and I’m not completely sure that it wasn’t at least a little bit intentional.
The players and coaches see things that we’ll never get on TV, so it’s hard to capture everything on video. It’s also tough to get a sense of what’s really being said at times. Still, here’s an attempt to capture some of the lowlights that could be seen on TV. Some things you see here wouldn’t be that big of a deal in a vacuum (guys running their mouths, for example), but combined with everything else that went on they help paint a certain picture. It started on the very first drive of the game. The clips you’ll see range from mild to completely beyond the pale. They include:
1. A lot of talking, standing over tackled players, etc.
2. Linebacker Rod Blunt continuing to try to rip the ball out of Noah Copeland’s hands long after the whistle, and appear to take a shot at Copeland’s groin.
3. Blunt pulling Keenan Reynolds backwards after Reynolds scored Navy’s opening-drive TD.
4. Throat slash gestures.
5. Blunt delivering a forearm to the head of Darius Staten, who was on the ground.
6. Blunt pushing Blaze Ryder into the pile long after the play ended (and Marcus Thomas’ retaliation).
7. Blunt gouging Keenan Reynolds’ eyes.
8. Safety Xavier Walker taunting the Navy sideline after the Mids converted on 4th down.
9. Blunt laying on top of Darius Staten after the play and having… words.
10. Late hit on D.J. Sargenti’s interception.
11. Knocking the ball away after the end of the play.
12. On the same play, Reynolds gets hit late while Blunt delivers a forearm to DeBrandon Sanders’ head.
Not all of these were created equal, obviously, and I’m sure there are people who will see something different when they look at those clips. Still, as a whole I’ve never seen anything like it. It looked like the campy depiction of a “bad guy” football team on an after school special. I thought it was affecting the Mids’ play in the first half, and I was concerned that it would carry over to the third quarter. To Coach Niumatalolo’s credit, he knew exactly what was going on and was very calm in his halftime interview. He probably conveyed that sense of calm and restraint in the locker room. Being calm isn’t exactly what he’s known for, so it’s a testament to Coach Niumatalolo’s situational awareness. The Mids settled down in the second half.
MTSU players said the “chippiness” went both ways. After watching each play several times, I have a very hard time believing it. I saw nothing from Navy that even looked unusual, let alone approaching the level of what MTSU was doing. I’ve seen some comments describing Wave Ryder’s penalty as dirty because it was helmet-to-helmet, but it was shoulder-to-shoulder. I’ve seen other comments claiming that Sargenti hit MTSU quarterback Logan Kilgore out of bounds, but he didn’t:
The TV camera doesn’t capture everything, so I suppose it’s possible that all the things MTSU players did were being caught on camera while everything Navy players did was missed. The odds of that are about the same as the odds of me winning a Pulitzer for this blog, though. I challenge anyone accusing Navy players of misconduct to show some evidence. Otherwise, keep your empty talk to yourself.
After the game, Coach Stockstill dismissed the characterization of anyone’s play as “dirty,” saying that he just saw it as physical.
But I’m not going to back down one bit. We came out there and we had something to prove. I thought our defense was very, very physical and tough, and I loved how they played.
Comments like that make me think that some of this was part of the game plan. There was some talk on the radio that MTSU players felt slighted by the bowl, but I’m not sure what Keenan Reynolds’ eyeballs had to do with that. To their credit, both Stockstill and Blunt have since issued apologies. While they’re both probably the product of damage control, there’s no reason for fans to get indignant. We weren’t the ones getting forearms to the head. If the players and coaches aren’t going to carry on about it, neither should we. Just be proud that the Mids kept their cool and took care of business.