Photo by Devin P. Grimes / MTSU Sidelines
When running back Tavares Thomas’ one-yard rushing touchdown put the Blue Raiders within one point of the defending C-USA champion Florida Atlantic Owls with 38 seconds remaining, a game-altering decision loomed. Middle Tennessee head coach Rick Stockstill made that decision well before Thomas’ six-foot, 245-pound frame pushed past the line of scrimmage to score the final touchdown.
“I was worried about us running out of gas. I worried that if this game went to overtime and came down to a field goal, we weren’t real good in this game from that standpoint,” Rick Stockstill said. “When we got the ball with three minutes left, I told our team, I told our defensive guys, I told Crews (Holt), that when we score, we’re going to go for two.”
How could Stockstill be so confident that this decision to forego the easy extra-point attempt was going to work? It simple. According to Stockstill, this was a gut decision, and the team had two plays that they practiced for this specific scenario.
“We had two (two-point conversion plays), and Tony (Franklin) asked me, ‘Do you want to do the sprint out, or do you want to do the other play?’ And, I said the sprint out. It’s just a gut feeling. There’s nothing scientific. It’s just a gut feeling,” Stockstill said. “It’s a gut feeling that you get throughout the game.”
Blue Raider quarterback Brent Stockstill looked back at the bench as soon as Thomas’ touchdown was confirmed by the replay booth and saw his father hold up two fingers, signifying that the Blue Raiders would not be satisfied with overtime. They wanted to slay the conference dragon and shock the team that had yet to lose a C-USA matchup since Lane Kiffin took the head coaching job in late 2016.
“Every team in the country practices the same two-point play every week in practice, so we knew that was our play,” the redshirt senior quarterback said. “Right when Tavares (Thomas) got in there, I looked back, and my dad immediately held up two. That was awesome to see, and we wanted to put the nail in the coffin.”
With everyone in a Blue Raider uniform knowing they were going for two and what play they were about to run, all they needed to do was execute.
The crowd was on their feet, the game was on the line and Brent Stockstill took his spot in the shotgun formation and looked across the line of scrimmage to the Florida Atlantic team that possessed the lead the entire game. Brent Stockstill took the snap and immediately rolled to his left.
“I ran the rollout, and nothing was really there,” Brent Stockstill recalled. “The running back fell down, and we tried to hit him in the back (of the end zone).”
With the number one option on the play on the ground and theoretically out of the play, the play itself was officially broken and Stockstill had to think on the fly.
“They (FAU defense) switched it off good,” Brent Stockstill said. “They acted like they were in man and switched it off into zone. I tried to peek back to the running back, and it wasn’t there. So, as the quarterback, with the two-point play and the game on the line, you got to at least get rid of it.”
Brent Stockstill was faced with a split-decision on where to throw the ball. The protection was starting to break, and Brent Stockstill was feeling the heat from the pass rush. So he planted his feet and let it fly.
What happened next was a magical moment. Enough for the fifth-year senior quarterback to proclaim that it was his best victory at Middle Tennessee State University.
The graduate transfer from tiny Lehigh University, Gatlin Casey, leaped into the air, came down with Stockstill’s heave and landed into the end zone. Just like that, the Blue Raiders have their first lead of the game with a mere 38 seconds left. The crowd went into a frenzy, and the Blue Raiders could taste the upset.
“We had the play that Brent (Stockstill) said we have been practicing, that rollout play, and my job on that play is to get to the backline and basically if they’re playing zone, to get into the void of the zone,” Casey said. “I see Brent scrambling, and he doesn’t see anything. He started looking back. So I just started working with him, and at the last second, he looked at me and threw it up. Right when the ball was in the air, I knew that I was going to get it, and I came down with it. This is what I came here to do.”
Leading by a score of 25-24, the game was sealed when Jovante Moffatt picked off Florida Atlantic quarterback Chris Robison with 10 seconds left on the clock.
Rick Stockstill’s intuition and gall to go for two-points when the overtime period was all but promised proved to be the deciding factor in the shocking upset. It has put the Blue Raiders in the driver seat in the C-USA. However, if you ask the 13-year Blue Raider head coach, he will tell you that his decision to go for two and win the game does not come to fruition if his players don’t make the big plays.
“Those players have practiced that over and over again, and they just executed it.”
To contact Sports Editor David Chamberlain, email firstname.lastname@example.org.