Dec. 17, 2013
By Drew Harris, ArmedForcesBowl.com
FORT WORTH, Texas – From their identical 8-4 records following late-season runs to their profound respect for their opponent and pride in being selected to play in the 2013 Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl, Middle Tennessee and Navy have numerous things in common.
A matchup that figures to make for a hard-fought 11th edition of the bowl game, may be initially toughest on its beat writers tasked with remembering which coach, Middle Tennessee’s Rick Stockstill or Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo, said what when transcribing quotes from Tuesday’s team announcement media conference at Amon G. Carter Stadium.
One doesn’t have to listen long to hear the same words—excitement, respect, special, fortunate, honored, blessed--keep coming up.
The passion that both teams have displayed since the announcement makes it an ideal situation for the bowl, according to Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl Executive Director Brant Ringler. In addition, with Navy appearing in this year’s game, the Armed Forces Bowl becomes the first collegiate football bowl game to host all three United States Service Academies.
Middle Tennessee has one main reason for its excitement. Last year, the team finished 8-4, but was left out of the bowl picture. That snubbing left the squad even hungrier this year, when it competed in Conference USA for the first time.
The squad rides into the game with a five-game winning streak intact, turning a 3-4 ledger into a bowl-bound team. Over that span, the Blue Raiders averaged 42.6 points per game, winning games by an average of three touchdowns.
“People on the outside starting doubting,” Stockstill said. “We never did. We never panicked. We knew what our goal was and what we had to do to get there. That’s why I have so much respect for our team. I’ve seen the sacrifices and adversity they’ve overcome to get to this point. This is a special team to me.”
On the other side, Navy has won four straight games following a 34-7 triumph over arch rival Army on Saturday. The Midshipmen are on a roll offensively as well, posting 44.0 points per contest over that time.
Sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds has been a major player in that success, as he has established an all-time NCAA record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (29).
“Through the ups, the downs, the good, the bad, our kids just kept grinding,” Niumatalolo said. “I don’t know if there’s one game or one play (that changed our season), our kids kept pressing forward.”
Both teams are stout running the football. Middle Tennessee led C-USA and ranked 25th nationally in rushing at better than 200 yards per game. Meanwhile, Navy carried on its tradition on the ground, as its triple-option attack has the team listed second in the country in rushing yards per game (322.0).
The main difference, other than the offensive sets utilized, comes in the school’s tradition of playing in bowl games. This year, Middle Tennessee is playing in just its fourth bowl ever, all since 2006. Meanwhile, Navy is appearing in its 19th, and 10th in the last 11 years.
Motivating their teams to play in a bowl, especially one tied to the military doesn’t take much.
“I talk to them every day about the history of the bowl and the history and tradition of Navy,” Stockstill said. “Just how lucky we are as coaches and players that we are able to do this because something greater than us. This is a special game.”
“What this bowl represents is more than a football game,” Niumatalolo said. “Being from the United States Naval Academy to be part of such an event that celebrates the lives of those Americans, we feel very blessed.”
Drew Harris is the founder of First Pitch Public Relations, a sports-focused media relations company in Fort Worth, Texas. He has 15 years of experience in the sports communications industry with UW-Green Bay, TCU, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Kansas City Royals. His current clients include: ESPN Events, UT Arlington Athletics, The Ben Hogan Award and the Fort Worth Stock Show Syndicate.