During Sunday's 380-mile bus ride back from Dayton, Ohio, Murray State's fifth-year football coach Mitch Stewart had plenty of time.
Time to ingest and dissect why a 156-game Racers scoring streak -- ninth-longest in FCS history -- was toppled at MAC powerhouse Toledo this past Saturday, despite gaining more than 300 yards of offense against the rambunctious Rockets.
Time to admire (and admonish) his newfound quarterback, redshirt-sophomore Preston Rice, for bulldogging his way to a team-best 97 yards rushing on 17 carries and 224 yards passing on a 72% (26-for-36) completion rate -- but also tossing two reckless interceptions under duress. After all, it was just his third collegiate start, and against one of the MAC favorites of 2019.
Still, no excuses from Stewart.
Time to list off all the ways his program -- and the MSU Athletic Department, in general -- can benefit from $900,000, which is the amount of money earned over these last two games.
He had time to laugh and joke with his staff. Make notes while watching Sunday's NFL slate. Or, just sit and listen to his team sleeping after a second-straight week of lengthy travel and an opponent with 20 more football scholarships.
But for the better part of Stewart's saunter down the west side of the Buckeye State, he found himself harking back to a decade ago. When things were much different for both he and the MSU football program.
Stewart was first coming on to Chris Hatcher's staff at MSU as wide receivers coach. And, unlike this past Saturday's atmosphere in Toledo, things were much gloomier for Racer football than they are now.
At least, that's how Stewart sees it.
"Ten years ago when I was an assistant here, I remember having a staff meeting where we had to talk about (Hatcher) and his assistants were saying: 'If you hear anyone say anything about the program getting killed and there's no need for football and all those kinds of things, don't listen to it,' and all of those kinds of things.
"That was a legit conversation. Real enough for us to have that conversation in a staff meeting about where Murray State football was. And that was just as little as 10 years ago.
"And now, all of a sudden, 10 years later, we show up to an FBS team -- and not just any FBS team, but one that is picked to win their league, and their side of the league -- and the expectation is to win. From players, to coaches, to fans that were there. The expectation was not just to play well, or not to get beat bad. The expectation was to win. From that standpoint, just listening to players talk, listening to the conversations that the coaches had, listening to some of the things from fans and things like that ...(it) is completely different. The rhetoric is completely different than from when I got here. Probably my overwhelming take on a long bus ride back on Sunday was just that: how far we've come in a little span of time in 10 years. Obviously we've got a lot to do, and a lot to correct."
The first phase of MSU's season is complete. A home warm up against NAIA Pikeville, coupled with two stout FBS opponents, means the Racers can now move forward with the FCS part of the schedule -- starting with Pioneer League stalwarts and former OVC football members in Morehead State at 6 p.m. this Saturday in Roy Stewart Stadium.
It's Family Weekend in Murray, sponsored by the Murray Convention and Visitors Bureau, and it's a click back to a more telling and level opponent for the Racers.
"We realize that this is one of our biggest games, as far as the season goes," noted MSU running back Jared McCray. "We're going to have a lot of people come out. Our own family and friends are going to come out. And we always like to put on a show for them, so we're really excited about that."
Though the Eagles do play independent non-scholarship football, this squad shouldn't be taken lightly. Seventh-year skipper Rob Tenyer and his squad are off to a 2-1 start for the first time since 2009, thanks to lopsided wins over Union (Ky.) and Kentucky Christian. And even in their 42-14 loss to No. 16 Illinois State two weeks ago, the Eagles motored to more than 130 team rushing yards and 130 team passing yards on the road, and scored all 14 points after securing turnovers.
In his first three games, sophomore quarterback Mark Pappas is completing 55.4% of his passes for more than 204 yards per game, and totes a 7-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
It also helps that the Eagles have gotten off to a prolific start both in the running game and the turnover battle.
Redshirt-junior running back Issiah Aguero (5-11, 205) is averaging 94.7 yards per game with one touchdown, while former Trinity (Louisville) star Jovan Smith (R-So., 6-0, 210) has spelled him for more than 63 yards per game and a team-high four rushing touchdowns.
Morehead State has also already come down with six interceptions (all from different players), seven sacks and three fumbles recovered.
"Their offense can score," Stewart said. "Their offense can go, now."
"Conceptually, they're a lot like ours. They're going to be an up-tempo offense, which is very hard to simulate for your defense during the work week. We're probably going to go a lot more 'good-on-good' offense versus defense this week, just so offensively we can run our plays versus the best look we're going to see, and defensively we can run their plays and their calls versus the best offensive look they're going to see.
"(Morehead State's) tempo is really good."
Did you know?
• Noted Morehead State football alumni include former Murray State football coach Mike Gottfried (quarterback, 1962-65), former New York Giants great and current broadcaster Phil Simms (quarterback, 1975-78), current Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh (special teams and secondary, 1988) and former New York Jets coach and current NFL analyst Rex Ryan (defensive coordinator, 1990-93).
• 1995: the final season Morehead State competed for OVC football championships.
• Rice's completion percentage thus far (71.7%) is sixth-best in the FCS.
Murray State vs. Morehead State
Time: 6 p.m. Saturday
Location: Murray, Ky.
Venue: Roy Stewart Stadium (16,800)
MSU Head Coach: Mitch Stewart (16-31, 5th year)
MoSU Head Coach: Rob Tenyer (27-44, 7th year)
Last Met: Oct. 14, 1995 (Murray State won 63-13)
All-Time Series: MSU leads 40-16-1
Listen Live: Froggy 103.7 FM (PxP: Neal Bradley, Color: Josh McKeel)
Follow Live: ESPN+, @PgriffithMSU, @RacersFootball, @dreamarlowe85
By The Numbers
PPG 25.3 43.7
PA 42.7 27.7
YPG 381.3 458.3
RYPG 140.0 228.0
PYPG 241.3 230.3
DYPG 448.0 399.7
RYA 168.3 170.7
PYA 279.7 229.0
TO Diff. plus-1 plus-6