Rivalries are supposed to be close games. Games filled with mystique and uncertainty. Games in which spectators can only guess who will come out on top until the final whistle blows. That is what they are supposed to be, however Western Kentucky head coach Jeff Brohm apparently didn’t get the memo.
In the Oct. 10 renewing of the MTSU-WKU rivalry, it didn’t take long for WKU to find their way into the end zone. It took only 1:25 and four plays for the Tops to score their first touchdown. Within six minutes of play, WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty had already led the Hilltopper offense to score their third unanswered touchdown.
By the end of the first quarter, WKU had already produced 240 yards of offense and 28 points. Going into halftime, with WKU leading 52-14 after producing 484 yards offensively, MTSU would have needed to tie Maryland’s 1984 record of largest second half comeback in FBS history. It didn’t happen.
While the Blue Raiders would outgain and outscore the Hilltoppers in the second half, the damage had already been done. For the first time since 2011, WKU beat MT. Brandon Doughty led his offense to nearly 600 yards and 58 points, which would, understandably, trigger concern for the defense from Blue Raiders fans. Coach Stockstill, however, is not concerned.
“(The defense) is not broken, I can promise you that. So, it doesn’t need a lot of fixing, we’ve just got to clean up a few things,” the head coach said.
It’s hard to argue that something in the defense wasn’t broken after allowing 52 first-half points, but there are a few stats to support Stockstill’s claim. MT recovered from the first half to only allow 109 yards and six points in the second half. The Blue Raiders are also the first team to hold Doughty to less than 400 yards passing since Vanderbilt did it in week one.
There is, however, no debate that the punting game is in desperate need of help.
Freshman Trevor Owens seems to be regressing as the season wears on. While Owens performed well enough against Alabama and Illinois (43.3 yards per punt), the rest of the season has been a struggle (30.3 ypp). Owens had his worst game of his young career against WKU when he averaged just 26.8 yards per punt. With fellow freshman punter Matt Bonadies available, one has to wonder what will it take to see a change made.
One change that was made for the WKU game was on the offensive line. Freshman Chandler Brewer, who filled in well for Darius Johnson in his absence, was moved to guard while Daniel Stephens and Josh Chester split time. The move seemed to result in a much improved running game, which saw the underutilized Jeremiah Bryson have his biggest game of the season (14 carries, 76 yards, 1 TD). Though MT finally saw the revival of their rushing attack, their attempts had to be limited due to the margin by which they trailed. After waiting weeks for the running game to breakout, it was unfortunate to not see it more.
“It’s frustrating because we are known for running the ball. I feel our identity is to run. We’ve got really good running backs and a good offensive line, and it is frustrating,” said senior tackle Darius Johnson.
The running game was not the only strong performance marred by the blowout loss. Freshman Richie James continues to prove why he is the best freshman receiver in Conference USA, if not the nation. James went for 141 yards and two touchdowns on just seven receptions.
The Blue Raiders are now on a three-game slide, including two close heartbreaking losses and a blowout. One must wonder if this streak has had an impact on the players, or if it will impact the rest of the schedule.
“Absolutely not. I love the character and attitude of this team, and character wins. Talent doesn’t win, character wins. This team fights and competes and plays hard, so I’m not worried one iota what happened last Saturday, or what happened five Saturdays ago,” Stockstill said. “This team will be ready to play on Saturday.”
MTSU will host Florida International on Saturday. FIU comes to Floyd Stadium on the heels of a 52-12 evisceration of UTEP. The Panthers are 3-3, but they have been competitive in their three losses. The Panthers won their last meeting against the Blue Raiders amid MT’s 2014 late-season collapse. Stockstill will look to return his team to glory to avoid what could become a mid-season collapse.
MT will have to get it done against a much improved offensive line and quarterback. After just six games, FIU sophomore quarterback Alex McGough is just 281 yards from matching his season long total from last year. McGough also offers a threat as a runner, ranking second on the team in rushing yards.
The MT offensive line will also face the challenge of stopping two Conference USA first team selections on the defensive line. Michael Wakefield is a defensive end/linebacker hybrid who has logged 2.5 sacks and six tackles for loss on the season, and defensive end Denzell Perine has 6.5 tackles for loss and four sacks on the year. Perine is just 2.5 sacks from his total from last year. Wakefield has also forced three fumbles, which leads the conference. Despite being tasked with blocking either of these high-caliber opponents, Darius Johnson remains focused.
“I like the challenge, I like to compete, but at the end of the day it’s more about what I’m going to do. How am I going to prepare, not just for one person, but for the whole D-line. That’s what I am focused on, rather than one particular person.”
And we will see if Darius Johnson and the rest of the Blue Raiders are up for this challenge. Once again, it’s an early kickoff for MT, set for 11:05 a.m. It is also Hall of Fame week for MT. The induction ceremony will be held on the lawn of the Kennon Hall of Fame building at 8:30 a.m. Inductees include Brett Alexander for golf, Josh Renick for baseball, Mardy Scales for track and field and Kippy Bayless for football.
Kevin Byard came with in a fingertip away from pulling down his record-breaking 18th interception against WKU. The deflection did result in an interception for Jamarcus Howard, however. Byard will get his shot to break the record in front of the home crowd this Saturday, but that is just secondary to him.
“I really couldn’t care less where it’s (broken). I just want to get interceptions to make plays for our defense and our team to win games. I just want to win games.”