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August 23, 2008One didn't have to watch much of Middle Tennessee's Saturday practice to get a feeling for the sense of urgency that is in the program leading up to Thursday's season opener against Troy.
The energy level on the field was at fever pitch as the coaching staff put the Blue Raiders through a long and intense workout under steamy hot conditions as the Floyd Stadium turf reached well above 100 degrees.
And if there was ever a moment where someone wasn't showing a satisfactory amount of energy, head coach Rick Stockstill was immediately on the scene to encourage more passion and enthusiasm.
It's all a part of Stockstill's message throughout preseason drills, which is that his team has to work every day and every snap like there is no tomorrow.
"We talked about it at the beginning of camp about having a chip on your shoulder and playing with a chip on a shoulder, not where you're playing dirty but we're out with something to prove," Stockstill said Saturday. "Every snap we go out there we want to have something to prove, whether it's offense, defense, or a kicking snap. We want to play with a chip on our shoulder and just play with a ton of passion and enthusiasm."
The Blue Raiders certainly do have something to prove Thursday against Troy.
The Trojans have defeated Middle Tennessee in consecutive seasons and sent the Blue Raiders to a season ending 45-7 loss last year at Troy.
The winner of Thursday's game will be off and running in the thick of the Sun Belt Conference championship hunt, while the loser will have a very difficult hole to climb out of in the league standings.
Since fall camp opened, Stockstill's desire for energy and passion has not changed. The rigors of practice he thinks will lead to fielding a team Thursday with good mettle.
"We want to be a mentally tough team and a physically tough team and I think we've done that," Stockstill said. "I think our young men have responded to it and are playing that way."
Key to victory lies with specialists
What does Stockstill think will be the biggest key to Thursday's game?
It's not his offensive line, which has been shuffled and reshuffled a few times this preseason.
Nor is it his linebacking unit, which is without injured leader Lonnie Clemons and is lacking depth.
It's not his quarterbacks either.
He thinks much of the outcome will be determined by a group of players that only get on the field for a few snaps each game.
"I think it's simple. In the first game, I truly believe it all just comes down to the kicking game," Stockstill said. "Unless the other team is just so much better, it always comes down to the kicking game."
Stockstill presented last year's season opener as evidence of his belief.
"Last year in my mind, we lost the FAU game because of the kicking game," he said. "We fumbled a kickoff that they got seven points out of. The first punt they punt, the ball bounces off of one of our guys and they get a touchdown out of it. There's 14 points there. We blocked a punt to get seven points but we ended up losing by two touchdowns in that game. I think we also missed a field goal in that game so the kicking game was the difference."
Middle Tennessee has every reason to feel more confident in its kicking game entering the 2008 season than it did a year ago.
Freshman place kicker Alan Gendreau has enjoyed a consistent fall camp and closed Saturday's practice by nailing a mid-range kick with the entire team watching.
Punter David DeFatta has proven to be one of the most consistent punters in the Sun Belt and the Blue Raiders also have a major kick returning threat in junior Desmond Gee.
All the ability on paper won't add up to a win though unless it's executed on the field.
With the Trojans bringing a Sun Belt title contending team to Murfreesboro, Stockstill sees it as an absolute must to come out on top in special teams.
"To me it will come down to the kicking game with two teams that are closely matched talent wise," he said.