Most football seasons feature a defining moment when a team swings the mental pendulum toward success or disappointment.
Some defining moments can be subtle. Others stand out like a neon light against a midnight sky.
For players at Middle Tennessee (8-4), which meets Navy (8-4) in Monday’s Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl at Amon G. Carter Stadium (10:45 a.m., ESPN), the light came on after a 34-7 loss to North Texas.
The defeat capped a three-game losing streak and gave the Blue Raiders a 3-4 record heading into the final five games.
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Quarterback Logan Kilgore responded with a players-only meeting during a bye week. The bye allowed injuries to heal for key starters in the offensive line. And the team rebounded by knocking off Marshall, a conference rival en route to a 10-win season, with a last-second touchdown pass in a 51-49 triumph that marked the first victory in a five-game winning streak that carried the Blue Raiders to Fort Worth.
“That Marshall game kind of jolted the team a little bit,” said Kilgore, whose 9-yard touchdown pass to Tavarres Jefferson as time expired secured the upset. “Sitting there at 3-4, that’s kind of a defining moment. If you drop down to 3-5 with four to go, it would be tough. We know how close we were to being on the other side of things.”
Instead, Middle Tennessee has not dropped a game since its last trip to Texas, Oct. 12 in Denton. The Blue Raiders, buoyed by renewed confidence, envision leaving Texas with a trophy this time.
“A game that we blow somebody out, it never feels as good as scoring that last touchdown where you’re trying to make it happen,” said defensive tackle Jimmy Staten, reflecting on the Marshall triumph. “So that was real good for us. That set the tone to our winning streak. We’ve always been confident. But where we are now, we’re very confident.”
In addition to more stability in the offensive trenches, another late-season development has been the emergence of freshman running back Shane Tucker, who is listed as the starter for Monday’s game.
Tucker, who had yet to play in 2013, volunteered to use his redshirt when injuries mounted at running back in the second half of the team’s 24-21 victory over UAB on Nov. 2. In four games, Tucker has made three starts, ground out 226 yards (5.7 per carry) and scored five touchdowns. Middle Tennessee is undefeated with him in the lineup.
“We went through a tough stretch, but our players continued to believe in one another,” coach Rick Stockstill said. “We don’t panic. We’re very poised. But the Marshall game was kind of a shot in the arm. That gave us a little bit of confidence that’s carried over to the last half of the season.”
Against Marshall, Kilgore connected with Johnson for six receptions during the 13-play, 79-yard march that secured the season-turning victory. The final play began on third-and-goal, with 3 seconds remaining. The touchdown, followed by four additional victories, has this team believing it will claim its first bowl victory since defeating Southern Mississippi 42-32 in the 2009 New Orleans Bowl.
“Now that we are here and going through the experience, I think we’re definitely as confident as we’ve been all year,” Kilgore said. “I’m not saying that [the players-only meeting before the Marshall game] changed anything. But I called it because I felt like I knew the potential of this team. And anybody that knows football well knows that games can change like that.”
So can seasons. In 2013, Middle Tennessee is living proof.
Navy enters Monday’s game with a 1-4 record in bowls under coach Ken Niumatalolo, including postseason losses in its past two appearances.
After knocking off Missouri 35-13 in the 2009 Texas Bowl, the Midshipmen have fallen by lopsided margins to San Diego State (35-14, 2010 Poinsettia Bowl) and Arizona State (62-28, 2012 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl).
Asked about the postseason struggles, Niumatalolo said: “I have a horrible bowl record. So I’m still trying to figure it out.”
Players would like to reverse that trend in the academy’s first visit to the Armed Forces Bowl.
“It’s not really a burden,” Navy linebacker Cody Peterson said. “But it’s definitely one of our goals to win a bowl game, not just to be here. That’s definitely an emphasis.”
Ticket prices range from $20 to $150 per seat for the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl. Tickets can be purchased through the bowl website at www.ArmedForcesBowl.com or by calling the bowl office at 817-810-0012.