When most children pick up a football for the first time their imaginations run wild but the scenario always appears. Facing the No. 1 team in the nation, you have to drive the field and pull off the upset. Today as the University of Tennessee at Martin football team embarks on the four-hour drive to Starkville, Mississippi, to face the top-ranked Mississippi State in hopes of that dream becoming a reality.
“Growing up I had the dreams of playing the No. 1 team in the nation and around that time it was Alabama but I always wanting to be the person that helped knock off the top team,” senior linebacker Tony Bell said. “At that time I was pretending to be on offense and I would be catching the winning touchdown and getting all the spotlight, but it was all a dream and this weekend I have the opportunity along with my teammates to make it a reality.”
While the Skyhawks are facing an uphill battle against the No. 1 team in the nation, the environment won’t be too different for many players on this year’s squad. Having made the 230 mile trip south just three years earlier, the Skyhawks are aware of what kind of environment they will be facing Saturday afternoon.
“It was my first big game and it just a great environment given it was the most people I’d ever played in front of and all the cowbells so it was lots of fun,” redshirt senior left tackle Charles Sweeton said. Sweeton is one of two current Skyhawks that started that game against the Bulldogs on November 5, 2011. The other is current starting left guard Matt Axline who had a few moments still on his mind to this day.
“I remember they had just painted the big M in the middle of the field as we came in for our walkthrough so we all had to take pictures with it,” Axline said. “Those first few steps you walk in and your breath is taken away.”
So far this season the newly renovated Wade Davis Stadium has produced a great home field advantage for the Bulldogs. This season, Mississippi State has hosted five home games with the average attendance pushing over 61,000 fans. Their largest crowd in school-history occurred four weeks ago when the Bulldogs defeated then No. 2 Auburn 38-23 in front of a crowd of 62,945.
“We know the sound will affect us some but we won’t be the first team because look what it did to Auburn earlier this year,” head coach Jason Simpson said. “If it’s loud I want it to be because our team is making plays that will force the crowd to get into the game.
The Skyhawks have been in situations against large and loud crowds before. The largest crowd UT Martin has faced during Simpson’s nine year tenure occurred on Sept, 4, 2010 when the Skyhawks faced off against the University of Tennessee in front of a crowd of 99,123.
Earlier this season, the Skyhawks opened the season at Kentucky whose attendance on Aug. 30 pushed just over 50,000 fans.
“I think we on the line are prepared for this since we have played against Memphis, Boise State and Kentucky but what makes this different is that they are the No. 1 team in the nation,” Axline said. “They play just like us and they put their pads on the same way as we do.”
While the Skyhawks lost to Mississippi State 55-17 on a mild 2011 night not all was lost. The UT Martin rushing attack picked up 269 yards on the ground and two scores but also 13 current Skyhawks saw the field. As the years have gone on, now eight are key pieces to the Skyhawks starting lineup.
“I got to make the trip my true freshman year and I definitely remember how loud the fans were so it makes a fun atmosphere and it’s just another great thing that college football can give you,” starting defensive back Taino Fears-Perez said. “Walking on the field for walkthrough was like a kid in a candy shop because I was a freshman straight out of high school and I just soaked it all in.”
Backup quarterback Dylan Favre had a different perspective of the game in 2011 as saw limited action but for Mississippi State.
“That atmosphere is big time,” Favre said. “It’s not so much the noise but the energy that is there especially now in Starkville with what Coach (Dan) Mullen has going so I’m sure it will be the most exciting atmosphere anyone on our team has played in front of,” Favre said. “It’s hard to describe what 60,000 people with cowbells feels and sounds like until you are on the field and feeling it first hand.”
One of those who played for the Skyhawks in that game now has an even larger role for this year’s squad. Three years ago, Julius McNair was a junior linebacker controlling the line of scrimmage. Now he is the defensive backs coach. In that role, McNair has used his own experience to prepare his players.
“I told them to be ready for a full-capacity crowd and that it’ll be much larger than who we are used to playing in front of,” McNair said. “It’s still the game of football and it’s the same game we have played each and every day. They practice just like us and either pass or run the ball like us, the only difference is the conference they play in and that’s the mindset I’ve been telling the guys.”
Just like in 2011, the game tomorrow afternoon serves as Homecoming for the Bulldogs but while McNair is getting ready to return to Davis Wade Stadium like Mississippi State alumni, it will be another type of homecoming for him.
“It was one of the games I remember most and more so because I got to play in front of my family and friends,” McNair said. “Just being in the state of Mississippi and playing a game back in my home state was very exciting. Now I get to do all those things from the coaching side and it’s the same excitement because I’m only two years removed from playing and still have those memories in my head.”
McNair is one of 13 members of the UT Martin football team that call the Magnolia State home including UT Martin head coach Jason Simpson who played for the Bulldogs from 1990-92.
“We have a lot of players from Mississippi and they are happy to be closer to home and I’m happy they are closer to home as well and are going to let me see what they talk about when they say Mississippi football is different,” Bell said.
UT Martin will hope things will be different this second trip to Starkville, but knows it will be difficult journey.
“It’s certainly different because when you think you are going to be playing the No. 1 team in the nation you would think it would be in the FCS but we get to play the No. 1 team in the FBS so it’s a great opportunity,” Simpson said. “These kids will probably never have this opportunity again and for me personally I may never have this chance to face off against the top team as well so we are just looking forward to it. It may sound crazy but it’s 60 minutes of football and that’s what you look forward to each week. We are going to have to try hard and try and make some things happen because we only have to beat them in four quarters. Just try and keep it close and have a shot at the end.”
The Skyhawks will become the first Ohio Valley Conference team to face the No. 1 FBS team in conference history Saturday afternoon. UT Martin’s first look at the newly renovated Davis Wade Stadium will be today during the team’s walkthrough from 4:30-5:15 p.m.