Middle Tennessee State head coach Rick Stockstill has altered course with regard to the actions of his team, particularly linebacker Roderic Blunt, in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl.
Stockstill seemed miffed by repeated questions during the post-game press conference about accusations of dirty play by members of the MTSU defense. Stockstill was defiant when asked if he thought the Blue Raiders, in their attempt to be physical and aggressive on defense, had crossed the line.
"I'm not going to back down one bit. We came out there and had something to prove. I thought our defense was very, very physical and tough. I loved how they played," Stockstill said.
That comment seemed to suggest that Middle Tennessee State went into the game with the intent to rough up Navy while trying to get the Midshipmen off their game with trash talking and taunting.
Stockstill changed his mind after returning to Murfreesboro and reviewing the game tape. On Tuesday, the eighth-year head coach issued a formal apology for his team's behavior during the Armed Forces Bowl.
"After seeing the replay of the game, I saw things that I was unable to see live from the sideline. I have called Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, quarterback Keenan Reynolds, and Brant Ringler, the executive director of the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl, and apologized for Roderic Blunt's actions," Stockstill said.
ESPN replays showed Blunt committing numerous egregious actions, including delivering a forearm to the head of Darius Staten after the slotback had been driven out of bounds and reaching inside the helmet of Reynolds to poke his eyes after the quarterback was down and the whistle had blown. Reynolds had blurred vision as a result of the infraction and had to leave the game for three plays.
Blunt also tried to to rip the ball out of fullback Noah Copeland's hands long after the play was over and shoved Blaze Ryder in the back for several seconds beyond the whistle. The senior linebacker was ejected for receiving two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.
"I understand the game of football and what goes on out on the field, but there is no place for that type of behavior,'' Stockstill said on Tuesday. "It was a very emotional game for both sides, played with a lot of passion and sometimes players get caught up in that emotion. However, the bottom line is we hold ourselves to high standards and we expect our players to be good representatives of our university. Roderic knows the consequences of his actions. As head coach, I will take steps to ensure our team understands the importance of proper behavior and the conduct we expect as Blue Raiders."
Blunt wasn't the only Middle Tennessee State player responsible for questionable behavior. Safety Xavier Walker, who repeatedly stood over Navy players after tackles to taunt and talk, received one of the four unsportsmanlike conduct penalties issued to the Blue Raiders. Linebacker James Roberson was flagged for the other. Offensive tackle Darius Johnson received a personal foul for a late hit on Navy linebacker D.J. Sargenti after he had been knocked out of bounds following an interception. Several MTSU defenders were also caught making throat-slashing gestures.
"I have strived to run a first-class program and I do not condone this type of play. We have shown a history of good sportsmanship and, this season, we ranked as the ninth-least penalized team in the country. We were called for just one defensive personal foul penalty prior to the bowl game," Stockstill said.
Told after the game that ESPN had shown multiple replays of Blunt's various transgressions and criticized the linebacker, Stockstill had defended his player.
"(Dirty) is not his character. I don't know how they portrayed (Blunt)," Stockstill said. "We have had three (unsportsmanlike) personal fouls on defense the entire year, and two of them were today. So for someone to say (Blunt) is a dirty player doesn't know this program, doesn't know this defense. There were personal fouls out there on both sides.
"They can portray him however they want. But I've known Rod for five years. I know his dad. I coached his dad (running back Rodney Blunt) at Clemson. I know what kind of family he has. I know what kind of character he has, and he's not (dirty)."
Blunt issued his own separate apology that, along with Stockstill's, was posted to the Middle Tennessee State official athletic website on Tuesday.
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"I would like to apologize to my team, coaching staff, Navy, and most importantly, Keenan Reynolds for my actions Monday," Blunt said. "I accept responsibility and the consequences of my actions. It was my last college game and emotions were at an all-time high. But there is still no excuse for my actions and know this is not a reflection of Blue Raider football."