Middle Tennessee, Gophers to open season today amid many questions
By Chris Talbott, Associated Press Writer
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- No one's quite sure what to expect any more when Minnesota and Middle Tennessee kick off the season Thursday night.
The first game is always a time of uncertainty, but recent suspensions have added to the mystery of how these two teams will start what figure to be pivotal seasons in their march toward national relevance.
It was supposed to be a coming out party of sorts for Middle Tennessee after a 10-win season. It's also a chance for Minnesota to show it's going to be better than the critics think after consecutive bowl trips.
The game will be on ESPNU, a rare television appearance for Middle Tennessee. And the Thursday night kickoff to the football season adds to the attention on Murfreesboro.
The Blue Raiders will be without quarterback Dwight Dasher, the dual threat who was suspended in the midst of an NCAA investigation into whether he took an improper loan.
The Gophers won't have two key players, safety Kyle Theret and offensive tackle Dom Alford. They were suspended by coach Tim Brewster for violating unspecified team rules.
Theret is one of just two returning starters on defense, while Alford is a key cog at left tackle for a line that returned all five players.
The loss of Dasher hasn't elicited much hand-wringing from coach Rick Stockstill. He named sophomore junior college transfer Logan Kilgore the starter and he tells everyone who asks of the confidence he has in his other players.
"Dwight is a great player, but this team is much more than Dwight Dasher," Stockstill said. "We talk about having a chip on our shoulder. You want to be the best in America, and prove it every time you play. These players need this chip so they can prove this team is more than just Dwight Dasher."
No one's sure how Kilgore will play and Stockstill has a rule against newcomers talking with reporters until they've played, so no one can ask his opinion. He's more of a dropback passer than Dasher, but will run the ball at times.
Brewster was able to put together a detailed scouting report from Kilgore's time at Bakersfield College, where he threw for 2,512 yards and 22 touchdowns last season, and sees a player who is still a threat.
"I have a lot of contacts in California so we've been able to evaluate his talents, his skill," Brewster said. "He's very athletic. He can do the things that Dasher was going to do. They're not going to change their offense. They probably won't have as many quarterback runs with Kilgore, but he's plenty athletic enough to do the things they want to do running the ball. And we're very, very impressed with his ability to throw the football."
The loss of Dasher hasn't seemed to dim the enthusiasm around the game for Blue Raiders players and fans. The school extended ticket office hours to meet increased demand and something close to a sellout is expected.
"I hope it's sold out," defensive tackle Dwight Smith said. "That's a dream and that's the one thing we said coming in as a freshman class when we came in 2007. We said we're going to sell this stadium out before we leave. That was a goal and hopefully we'll reach it."
Stockstill embraces the enthusiasm around the team. The Blue Raiders have earned it, after all. They became the first Sun Belt Conference team to win 10 games in a season last year and capped 2009 with a win in the New Orleans Bowl -- just their second bowl berth since joining the Football Bowl Subdivision.
He wants everyone to approach the upcoming season and all those expectations that are building around his program with caution. Minnesota is a big, talented team from a major conference, not an opponent to take lightly.
"It would be a big win, but we're not talking about that," Stockstill said. "It's not something, 'Hey, we've got to win this game to validate our program or validate our team or our season."