MURFREESBORO — As Middle Tennessee State's football team enters the locker room a friendly reminder awaits the Blue Raiders.
Up on the wall is a sign featuring former MTSU standout Phillip Tanner, now a second-year running back for the Dallas Cowboys, and the words “IGNORE THE NOISE.”
Just four games into the 2012 season that message carries a dual meaning.
“Whether it is good or bad out there, it is in one ear and out the other,” quarterback Logan Kilgore said on Tuesday. “Focus on the game plan and don’t really let it affect you positively or negatively.”
A season-opening loss to McNeese State — on the heels of a 2-10 season — could have sent the Blue Raiders in a downward spiral if they listened to the naysayers. Instead, they ignored the criticism and ripped off three straight wins — the latest coming in blowout fashion by stunning Georgia Tech 49-28 on the road last weekend.
Now, the praise is plentiful. The Blue Raiders (3-1, 1-0) are halfway to bowl eligibility heading into Saturday’s huge Sun Belt Conference matchup against visiting Louisiana-Monroe on Homecoming at Floyd Stadium. But the mindset hasn’t changed. MTSU doesn’t want outside influences affecting their goals.
“You can’t swallow the praise. You’ve got to have blinders on,” coach Rick Stockstill said. “You’ve got to have a closed mind, a focused mind of what you’re objective is. You can’t start swallowing all that praise. Once you do, it will kill you.”
The point of reference is small and mixed on how the Blue Raiders respond the week after a win against a BCS opponent.
Before last week, they had pulled off the feat just twice in Stockstill’s seven years as head coach. Both wins came against another ACC foe, Maryland. After upsetting the Terps in 2008, MTSU gave up a fourth-quarter lead and lost 20-14 to Kentucky. But the next year, after a road win against Maryland, MTSU opened Sun Belt play with a resounding 37-21 win at North Texas.
“We’ll build on that confidence,” Stockstill said. “I want them to be confident. I want them to have some juice and jazz about them that they feel good they can go out there and play with anybody. But they have to also understand that we can’t rest on what we did last week. You’ve got to understand how hard you worked to have that success. I tell them all the time, ‘You don’t play good by accident.’”
Perhaps the only team in the Sun Belt drawing more attention at the moment is Louisiana-Monroe (2-2, 0-0). After going 4-8 a year ago and being picked to finish sixth in the Sun Belt coaches preseason poll, the Warhawks appear to be heavy contenders for a league title.
They have yet to play a league game but are flying high on the national radar, receiving eight votes in Monday’s USA Today Coaches poll.
They started the season with a upset of then-No. 8 Arkansas — the league’s first win against a top 10 opponent — and followed it up with an overtime loss at Auburn and a five-point loss to Baylor. Led by an offense that ranks in the top 20 nationally in several categories, they bounced back in the win column by closing out their non-conference schedule with a 63-10 blowout of Tulane last weekend.
The winner of Saturday’s game would have a leg up in the race for the conference title. Western Kentucky (4-1, 1-0) and Louisiana-Lafayette (3-1, 2-0) are the only other two teams undefeated in league play.
“There’s a lot on the line,” Stockstill said. “We know how big this game is. Our players know how big it is.”
Four weeks ago, not many outside that MTSU locker room figured a title chase and bowl eligibility was on the docket. But rather than give into the doubters, the Blue Raiders looked within — and up at the wall — to draw motivation.
“Really it’s not about what anybody says,” Kilgore said. “On any given day, if the game plan is right, you work hard in practice and in the weight room and don’t worry about what anybody else is saying. Just go out there and prove it and their thoughts will change along the way.”