Photo courtesy of Middle Tennessee athletics

After months of uncertainty surrounding the 2020 college football season, we have almost arrived at the opening weekend of FBS football.

After Austin Peay and Central Arkansas opened the season last Saturday in Montgomery, Ala., the college football world now turns its attention to West Point, NY. The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders open up their season this Saturday at 12:30 p.m. CT against the Independent Army Black Knights at Michie Stadium in West Point.

After weeks of preparation under unusual circumstances, the Blue Raiders have finally arrived at game week. 

Fall Camp: “Everything was Different”

“We had a great August,” 15th-year head coach Rick Stockstill told the media in a Zoom conference on Monday. “It’s been a different camp — a camp none of us have ever experienced before. Everything was different: How we dressed in the locker room, how we ate, everything was different.”

Stockstill emphasized his team was “hungry” to play and get on the field.

“It’s been a long, tedious process to get to this point,” he said. “We’re chomping at the bit; we’re excited to get to play.” 

“We’re Ready”

Star redshirt junior quarterback Ashher O’Hara laughed as he responded with “no” when asked if it had hit him the Blue Raiders are actually playing this Saturday. He maintained a smile while discussing it.

“It won’t really hit me until I get there,” O’Hara said. “I’m just so excited to get to play. We’re lucky to be in one of the conferences that stood strong in this. It hasn’t hit me yet, but we’re definitely ready for it.” 

A Moment to Reflect

After the sports world shut down again in response to the Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha, Wisc., Stockstill said that the Conference USA held a meeting on this topic, with 10-12 players appearing from each team.

“There is no way to justify something like that,” Stockstill said. “It’s a shame. My heart breaks for him and his family.”

The 62-year-old head coach then reflected on how this hit him growing up in the 1960’s.

“It’s sad we’re talking about a lot of things 20, 30, 100 years later,” Stockstill continued. “I went to middle and high school in the 60’s and 70’s, and I’m seeing a lot of things that I saw then now and that has to change.”

Stockstill then made clear he had his team’s back no matter what.

“I’m with them. I’ve got their back,” he said. “I’ll do whatever I can to help them.”

Stockstill said the team has had good discussions about the topic.

“You have to love everybody and you have to educate,” he said. “We need to educate our players how to educate their kids when they have kids.”

Stockstill said the United States would be a better place if people had the same care for one another that his locker room does.

“If everybody would be a locker room in this country, our country would be a whole lot better,” Stockstill said. “We don’t see race, religion, etc. We see people. There’s no reason this country can’t be a locker room.” 

Scheduling Antics

Believe it or not, after the COVID-19 pandemic has seized the world, the Blue Raiders are now less than a week from kicking off against Army. That’s not to say that didn’t happen without any headaches either. Middle Tennessee was originally scheduled to begin its season at Duke this Saturday before the pandemic wiped that out.

The Blue Raiders then began prepping for Troy. Army was then available to schedule and Middle Tennessee secured a game against the Black Knights.

“It’s something you just got to be expecting,” O’Hara commented. “This isn’t a normal season. I’m not expecting everything to go as planned. It’s been a different road than normal, because you typically know for a long time who you’re playing to begin the season.” 

Socially Distant Sideline

Stockstill said that he will designate “mask coaches” to police the sidelines. These will be extended to the 15-yard-line this season rather than the 25 in order to maintain social distancing. Although no fans will be admitted into Michie Stadium on Saturday, Stockstill said that there will be 4,000 Cadets inside that are spread out. 

Prepping for Army

As far as the game is concerned, Stockstill praised how the Black Knights run the triple-option.

“We just don’t see it,” the head coach commented.

Stockstill said the Blue Raiders haven’t faced a triple-option team since a 2013 loss to Navy in the Armed Forces Bowl. The head coach also had praise for the Black Knights on the defensive side of the ball.

“Everyone talks about Army’s offense, but no one talks about their defense,” Stockstill said. “They play extremely hard and they play fast.”

O’Hara, who became just the second quarterback in school history to reach 1,000 rushing yards in a single season in 2019, says he hopes he only will run when he has to.

“I’m going to try to keep my eyes downfield more this year,” O’Hara said. 

The Blue Raiders will return star senior safety and Jim Thorpe Award watch list member Reed Blankenship. He missed the second half of last season due to an ankle injury.

“I’m so excited,” Blankenship said. “Football is my pride and joy and not hitting anybody since October, it’s been really tough.”

“Having Reed back will be amazing,” said linebacker DQ Thomas, who returns for a senior season. “Not even just for football, but as a brotherhood.”  

Tee It Up!

Only days separate us from the start of Middle Tennessee’s 2020 season. Stockstill said he always hoped a season would take place.

“I never lost hope we would play,” Stockstill said about his thoughts on the fate of the Blue Raiders’ season throughout the summer.

Now, it’s time to lace them up. Saturday’s 12:30 p.m. CT contest against the Black Knights will air on CBS Sports Network.